I was working at a job I loved when I started to wonder whether I was a bit of a fraud.
Digital strategy and client service was my forte. But when I was offered extra responsibilities that suddenly had me leading meetings with top affiliate global marketers (while I had minimal experience in that field), I began to experience inadequacy. At times, I was certain I was about to be found out.
When performance check-ins rolled around, I’d wonder whether I was finally going to hear, “You’re not going to make the cut.” Yet every piece of feedback I received was positive.
My aha! moment came when I stumbled on an article about imposter syndrome — I swore I was reading about myself. Realizing that other successful people had experienced the same feelings was a great relief.
Since then, I’ve discovered others with imposter syndrome too many times to count. Just the other day, I was mentoring a colleague when she started displaying a lot of the same symptoms: low confidence and self-doubt, despite positive evaluations.
When I told her about imposter syndrome, the same wave of relief washed over her.
So what is imposter syndrome?
Simply put, it’s a psychological phenomenon shared by many high achievers who are convinced they’re inadequate and their achievements are merely luck.
The phenomenon particularly affects Millennials. Studies have found that a third of today’s twenty-somethings suffer from a severe lack of confidence in the workplace.
People are also more likely to feel fraudulent when they’re already different from their colleagues. Women, people of color, and LGBTQ workers can be more at risk, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
Knowing how common this experience is should give us comfort, but we also need strategies for dealing with it and turning our desire to succeed into an advantage.
Here are some tips I’ve learned about dealing with imposter syndrome:
1. Recognize what’s happening. Being able to identify what I was experiencing was huge — it put my feelings into perspective.
Ask yourself, “Why am I doubting myself?” Try to identify why you have feelings of insufficiency. Even just recognizing your behaviors can help minimize them so you can reset and refocus with confidence.
Are you a perfectionist? Do you rarely ask for help? According to the APA, those are both signs of the syndrome. Comparing yourself to others — their work, personality, or circumstances — is also often a telltale sign. Unfortunate as these traits may be, they can help you better identify whether you do have the fraudster phenomenon (and later, seek to change it).
2. Remember: You’re not alone. When I’m feeling doubtful, I look to powerful women like Sheryl Sandberg and Jodie Foster who have also admitted to feeling like frauds.
“I thought it was a big fluke,” said Foster about receiving her Academy Award for “The Accused” in 1988. “I thought everybody would find out, and then they’d take the Oscar back.”
Remembering that undeniably successful people share the same struggles can provide great perspective.
3. Look at the data. Another great way to get perspective is data. Looking at the facts of our own achievements can ground our feelings, reassuring us about the objective impact we’ve made at work.
Keep an eye on the key performance indicators tracked by your team. Collect the opinions of those you admire and trust. Use the facts as a reminder that you wouldn’t be here if you were underperforming.
4. Fake it till you make it. Projecting confidence leads others to have confidence in you. So while your ego is feeling weak, just fake it for now. Communicate with confidence, practice eye contact, and smile at those around you. Gradually, you realize you’re actually much more capable in a situation than you believed.
5. Understand there’s a journey ahead. Just recognizing you’re struggling with imposter syndrome doesn’t mean it’ll go away overnight. It takes time to actually overcome those feelings. That’s OK. What’s important is to establish coping and to continue tackling challenges with the mindset of, “I’ve overcome this before, and I’ll do it again.”
6. Give others perspective about their achievements. It’s important not just to use these strategies for ourselves, but for helping others who are suffering.
When someone shows signs of self-doubt, ask, “Why do you think you’re struggling with confidence here? Does the evidence suggest you’re not performing well?” Help that person gain the same perspective you’ve discovered.
Let’s reframe imposter syndrome — not as a debilitating condition, but as a strength. It’s correlated with great things, like being hungry for growth and high achievement. Experiencing feelings of fraudulence actually puts you in a pretty cool club. If you learn to recognize it for what it is, it can keep your ego in check and your eyes firmly set on the goals ahead.
Sarah Johnson is Acceleration Partners’ vice president of client services. Sarah has served on AP’s leadership team for more than five years and is responsible for the success of its 60-member client services team and the happiness of our clients.