zone? Of course you do--everyone feels that way sometimes. But for people with
imposter syndrome, there's no such thing as a comfort zone. Staying put would
simply confirm the world's suspicions that they're incompetents who don't
deserve any of the successes they've had.
Could you be one of them? Are you over-prepared for every meeting? Do you
suspect your success so far is due partly or entirely to luck? When people
praise your efforts or achievements, do you fear you won't live up to their
future expectations? If this sounds disturbingly familiar, you may well have
imposter syndrome. (There's a fuller self-assessment here.)
Imposter syndrome was first identified by psychologists who interviewed
female executives in 1978 when women in positions of power were rare. And that's
no accident: imposter feelings are frequently triggered by the feeling of being
different or an outsider, according to Joyce Roché, author of The Empress Has No
Clothes. She should know: As an African-American woman
getting her MBA at Columbia, and then one of the top executives at Avon, she was
never able to blend into the crowd.
"There were three things that triggered imposter syndrome for me," she says
now. "As a person of color, the tape started running in my head, questioning
whether I was as prepared as my white counterparts to be successful." Being one
of the only women in top management was a trigger as well, as was the fact that
she grew up with limited means. As she interviewed other corporate leaders for
her book, she learned that there are many things that can trigger the feeling of
being an imposter in people of all races and genders, including coming from a
different part of the country, or being gay.
For those with imposter syndrome, success does not bring happiness. "I was
moving up the ladder rapidly, yet each time I got a new promotion, the
celebration of that success would immediately dissipate," Roché says. "I would
start thinking, 'Am I going to stumble this time?' So I worked harder,
over-prepared for everything, and could never relax."
Eventually though, Roché learned to overcome her imposter syndrome. Here's
how you can too:
1. Open up.
"Don't be silent," Roché advises. Find a trusted friend, counselor, or
business coach with whom you can openly discuss your imposter feelings. If
that's really impossible, take paper and pen and begin writing to yourself about
them. Exploring imposter feelings is the first step toward defusing them.
2. Know your triggers.
Learn to recognize which situations can really set off your sense of
unworthiness. For Roché, a marketing expert, detailed budgeting discussions
could do it. So she made a point of re-reading her accounting book from graduate
school to refresh her understanding of the concepts involved.
3. Be objective.
"If you got a promotion or a new opportunity, what evidence did they use to
decide you should have this role?" Roché asks. Chances are, if you simply review
the facts you'll see that it's well earned.
4. When somebody praises you, listen!
"Rather than saying, 'I got lucky,' or 'Anyone could have done it,' just let
the compliments sink in," Roché advises. "That's hard to do, but it's important.
With imposter syndrome, you're constantly looking for external validation, but
then when it comes, we tend to discount it. So just listen, and the praise will
become part of your psyche."
5. Help others.
"Be observant of those around you who may be struggling with imposter
syndrome as well," she says. Letting other people know you think they might have
imposter syndrome and can share similar experiences makes a huge difference, she
says. "Comfort does come--if you recognize it."