What Is Impostor Syndrome—and Is It Holding You Back at Work? Here's How to Beat It for Good
Conquer those insecurities that are stopping you from crushing your job.
Ever feel like a fraud at work? You're not alone, says Valerie Young, the author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women ($25; amazon.com). You're probably experiencing a very common psychological phenomenon known as impostor syndrome.
You may have heard this phrase tossed around among your friends or colleagues, but what exactly is impostor syndrome? People with impostor syndrome typically live with a sense of anxiety, self-doubt, and insecurity, and are constantly paranoid someone will suddenly expose them as a fraud who should never have been hired—or trusted with X or Y responsibility—in the first place. Impostor syndrome occurs when someone is unable to internalize their skills, expertise, or achievements. (While impostor syndrome is extremely common in professional settings, it can manifest itself in lots of other places as well, for example, among parents, award-winners, even within groups of friends.) These people aren't just humble or shy; they often truly believe they're not deserving of praise, accomplishments, or positive recognition—even though it's completely untrue.
Sound like you? It's time to kick impostor syndrome in the you-know-what—because it's probably keeping you from going after cool new opportunities, taking necessary risks, and advocating for things you deserve (like that raise or promotion). It won't happen overnight, of course, but follow these five tools from Young to upend this detrimental mindset, beat the insecurity that's holding you back, and own your much-deserved achievements. (Impostor syndrome, who?)
1 Recognize Your Impostor Syndrome
Normalize self-doubt by calling out your impostor syndrome. “When you’re vocal about the phenomenon, that makes it less personal and takes the power out of the feelings,” Young says. Telling a trusted coworker something like, “I felt like such an impostor in that room,” in a normal, no-big-deal tone creates a sense of relief. It also opens up a dialogue. When you see that those close to you have aspects of the same insecurity, your perspective begins to change.
2 Accept Your Mistakes and Ask for Feedback
You’re entitled to make a mistake at work—everyone does. Take time to learn from it instead of berating yourself and calling yourself a failure. Young says to think like an athlete: "When a team loses a game, they don’t drop out of the league. Instead, they’ll say, 'We weren’t at our best today.' Then they watch the tape and figure out how to do better."
Ask for specific feedback from your boss or a colleague with whom you’ve collaborated. “What do I need to work on?” is a great way to phrase it, Young says. Then, instead of ruminating, take action: Find a coach, practice, take a class. “Learn what you don’t know,” Young says. "If you flip the negative event into an opportunity, you’ll combat that uncomfortable, nagging feeling of inferiority."
3 Humanize Your Critics
Maybe your boss is just having a bad day and is taking it out on your work. Perhaps your client sees things through a different lens (profits) from the one that you presented (future ideas). "Realize that criticism isn’t always a question of you or your ability—it’s a challenge of how you chose to do something," Young says. "When you begin to look at those around you—your coworkers, your manager—as people, with strengths and weaknesses and various priorities, you'll learn to accept the complexity in yourself, too." And odds are some of them are experiencing a little bit of impostor syndrome too.
4 Don’t Be Afraid to Say, "I Don’t Know"
If you’re in a meeting and you’re stumped by a question, that impostor syndrome might cause you to panic and think you're a hopeless fraud. But instead of giving up, what do you say instead? "There’s a quiet power in confidently stating that you don’t know something," Young says. Don’t apologize; just use the right tone. If you’re at a junior level, you should say, "I don’t know, but I’ll find out!" If you’re in a leadership role, you can say, "That's a great question, I don’t know. What do others think?" Either way, it’s not a defeat.
5 Watch Your Words
“There are certain verbal tics that instantly diminish what comes after them and chip away at your confidence,” says Young. She is referring to phrases like "I feel" and "You’ve probably already thought of this" or "This is probably a dumb question." To combat this habit, Young suggests, "Speak slowly—don’t be afraid of silence. It gives you more time to choose your words." She also suggests jotting down a reminder at the top of your meeting notes: "Don’t use negative disclaimers!" The visual cue will help to retrain your brain. And when you're done speaking—stop speaking. No need to end by trailing off with "So...yeah..." or with another disclaimer either, like, "I don't know, though, what do you guys think?"