It’s hard to imagine that someone like America Ferrera — who has won accolades in her acting career, who has gained international fame, and who competed in one of the most extreme athletic events —could ever feel inadequate. But that’s exactly what she described in a recent New York Times article about training for a triathlon. Yes, you read that right — a triathlon.  

Initially this doesn’t make any sense, but haven’t we all had moments of self-doubt, wondering if we belonged in that calculus course, that 5k race, or that new job?

Self-doubt is really the seed of impostor syndrome, where you fail to recognize your capabilities even in light of clear evidence to the contrary.1 You worry whether someone will find out that you are there by mistake. You focus on the qualifications others hold that you lack.

Impostor syndrome doesn’t include reasonable doubts about your abilities. It’s rational for me to question my abilities to excel in nuclear physics (let’s just say that’s not a strength of mine). But if I think getting accepted to graduate school is a fluke after working hard in school for top grades, building good relationships with advisors and professors, and expressing a deep passion for that area of study — that’s when impostor syndrome is hitting.

Beyond making you feel terrible, impostor syndrome can limit your career and personal growth. It can lead to burnout, emotional exhaustion, loss of intrinsic motivation, and poor achievement.2,3

Although unwarranted feelings of being an impostor affect both men and women equally,4, 5 women may have more reasons to overcome these feelings. While 45% of women are interested in pursuing senior leadership positions and are able to meet the demands of those jobs, they hold less than a quarter of these top positions.6 Also, even though impostor syndrome is a condition that affects up to 70% of people at different points in their lives, women tend to seek help more than men.7

So, how can you shift from feeling inadequate to feeling powerful?

Recognize that We Develop Through Relationships

Many who experience impostor syndrome attribute successes to others, thinking, “I couldn’t have done it without Emily by my side. She was really the one that brought all the creative ideas.”

A focus on individual achievement can lead us to believe that if we collaborated on something or received any help, we don’t deserve credit for it. Of course other people help us get to where we are, but we are also essential parts of the process.

Maybe Emily was the creative idea person in your group, but you were probably the executor, making sure every detail was covered and that the deadline was met. At the end of the day, the project would never be as successful without you. In fact, impostor syndrome tends to occur only in high achieving people.8 These highly competent people do excellent work, but can hinder themselves through self-doubt.

It can be hard to recognize our own strengths because they come easily to us and are inherently enjoyable.9 Sometimes we confuse what we are good at with what we value or we assume that everyone has the same gifts.10 But not everyone can do what you do, whether it’s bringing people together, seeing patterns in information, or following through with every detail.

In fact, expert career coaches have found that strengths can develop and deepen through collaboration and relationship with others.11 Recognizing both your strengths and others’ can be a stepping-stone for personal growth and can help colleagues develop in turn! Working with people with different talents can support your own development and betterment, making you all the more likely to succeed later. And what you offer, while it may be hard to see sometimes, is supporting their growth, too.

Be a Model for Other Women

If you are experiencing impostor syndrome, it can feel like everyone sees how you are lacking.

Your inner dialogue might sound similar to our contributing author Annelise Austill’s experience:

When I was a teaching assistant for graduate-level courses, I started feeling as if everyone would think I was a joke. Sure, I did well in the courses when I took them, but that doesn’t make me an expert! How on earth would these students take me seriously?

The only thing that helped me face the first day of class was thinking about what advice I would give to a friend in my position. This seems odd, but when I pretended that I was talking to a good friend, I could more easily acknowledge what strengths I brought to the table and I could be forgiving of gaps in my knowledge, knowing that good work can still come without perfection.

This approach actually makes sense when looking at research on women in the workplace. In negotiations in particular, men tend to be better negotiators than women. That is unless a woman is negotiating for others, in which case women are generally better negotiators.12 Women are often more motivated by a concern for others rather than themselves, valuing long-term relationships over short-term gains.13 In this way, women have a tendency to be their best selves when thinking about how they are serving others rather than focusing on themselves.

So how can you leverage this to help you conquer impostor syndrome? Think about what you would tell a mentee who was feeling self-doubt. Pretend that women in your workplace are looking to you to act as a leader, even in the face of uncertainty. In fact, many of them may already be doing so. Take responsibility for your success so that other women know that they can, and should.

 


Contributing author Annelise Austill is passionate about empowering leaders and organizations to thrive by finding purpose, recognizing their strengths, and using evidence-based approaches to development. She recently graduated with a Master’s in Positive Organizational Psychology and Evaluation from Claremont Graduate University after completing her Bachelor’s at Seattle University.  She has been actively involved as a founder and content editor of IPPA Work and Organizations Newsletter, as a manager and content creator for Talent Science Research Lab, and as a graduate teaching assistant. After years of learning about CCL’s expertise, she is excited for the opportunity to collaborate with Shannon Bendixen on delivering insights that change the way we understand and approach work.

 

References

  1. Clance, P. R. (1985). The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the fear that haunts your success. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree.
  2. Chrisman, S. M., Pieper, W. A., Clance, P. R., Holland, C. L., & GlickaufHughes,C. (1995). Validation of the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 65(3), 456-467.
  3. Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, 15(3), 241–247.
  4. Bussotti, C. (1990). The impostor phenomenon: Family roles and environment. (Doctoral dissertation, Georgia State University). Dissertation Abstracts International, 51, 4041B-4042B.
  5. Langford, J. (1990). The need to look smart: The impostor phenomenon and motivations for learning. (Doctoral dissertation, Georgia State University). Dissertation Abstracts International, 51, 3604B.
  6. Miller, J. & Adkins, A. (2016). Do women want the c-suite? Gallup Business Journal.
  7. Gravois, J. (2007). You‟re not fooling anyone. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(11), A1. Retrieved November 5, 2008, from http:// chronicle. com
  8. Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, 15(3), 241–247.
  9. Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T.B., & Minhas, G. (2011). A dynamic approach to psychological strength development and intervention. Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(2), 106-118. 
  10. Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T.B., & Minhas, G. (2011). A dynamic approach to psychological strength development and intervention. Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(2), 106-118. 
  11. Welch, D., Grossaint, K., Reid, K., & Walker, C. (2014). Strengths-based leadership development: Insights from expert coaches. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research66(1), 20. 
  12. Babcock, L., & Laschever, S. (2003). Women don’t ask: Negotiation and the gender divide. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  13. Barron, L. (2003). Ask and you shall receive? Gender differences in negotiators’ beliefs about requests for a higher salary. Human Relations, 56(6), 635-662. p. 636

 

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