Befriending Imposter Syndrome Breaks the Cycle

August 27, 2021

If you’re a first-time manager and you feel inadequate to lead a team of people, you’re not alone.

At least 8 out of 10 people—and as much as 75% of women executives—feel they have imposter syndrome, feelings of self-doubt and incompetence that can impact your work and contribute to burnout.

Instead of fighting these negative feelings, trying to befriend them—by reframing the problem or working it out through coaching—allows us to take advantage of a hidden upside of having imposter syndrome.

Catching yourself in the imposter cycle

The term imposter syndrome was derived from the work of an American psychologist, Pauline Clance, during the 1970s. She and her team discovered that some women, despite being high achievers in their careers, felt extremely doubtful of their talents and abilities. So much so that they sometimes feel like a phony.

Today, we use the term imposter syndrome to talk about a sense of inadequacy at work or with our professional roles. Some telltale signs of imposter syndrome include:

  • Feeling the pressure to achieve and that failure isn’t an option
  • Discrediting your own achievements, or attribute it to ‘luck’ or help from others
  • Overusing minimising language like “I kind of think” or “just”

The silver lining is that people with imposter syndrome tend to be just as competent as their non-imposter colleagues, as suggested in a recent study. What these new findings tell us is that imposter syndrome is a double-edged sword—we can either let self-doubt get the better of us, or see this as our mind’s way of telling us that here’s our chance to learn and grow. 

How to break the cycle

While people with imposter syndrome feel unworthy of their accomplishments, these feelings can be transformed into a source of motivation to achieve greater outcomes. Here are two ways to break out of the imposter cycle.

The first is to reframe the problem of why we have imposter syndrome. One reason we feel inadequate is because we’re leaving our comfort zone and therefore stretching ourselves beyond our limits. That’s when imposter syndrome kicks in. Yes, we might have felt the pressure to achieve before, but now we know we’re doing it for our growth.

When we leave the comfort zone, we may be prone to feeling inadequate but it's part of the growth process. (Image source)

The second is to seek coaching from a trusted confidant, such as from a close manager or mentor. With their help and guidance, we’re able to challenge our limiting beliefs and shift perspectives from one of doubting ourselves to that of ‘daring to grow’. Coaching can help us gradually build our self-confidence and sense of ownership towards our accomplishments.

Embrace vulnerability

Imposter syndrome can happen to anyone. Even the most successful of people—Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz, and actress Awkwafina—each have moments where they felt they didn’t deserve what they’ve achieved.

Despite these setbacks, they’ve managed to embrace their imposter syndrome-induced vulnerability and reframed how their self-scepticism can help them achieve.

As for the rest of us, if there’s ever another moment where we feel like an imposter, hear this from Michelle Obama: “I still have imposter syndrome… It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me seriously. What do I know? I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is.”