Acknowledging and Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

The feeling that everyone around us knows more than we do: commonly experienced but rarely spoken about. Imposter syndrome brings on an unwarranted sense of insecurity and limits our ability to step in and step up to new challenges.

On November 27th 2020, the Women Who Lead Network virtually welcomed hundreds of attendees from around the world to unpack the phenomenon of imposter syndrome. The discussion was moderated by Jennifer Catton, with panelists, Dr. Emma BellDr. Laura Rosella and Lilly Whitham.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

A key first step to identifying a solution is defining the problem.

According to Drs. Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes who first identified Imposter Syndrome in 1978, it’s a phenomenon that describes the experience of ‘intellectual phonies’, who believe they are not bright enough and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. They found that this experience is particularly pervasive in high achieving women. (Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978))

Panelists and attendees shared their own poignant experience of imposter phenomena with each other—a powerful exercise that showed just how common it is.

I’m a doctor, and on maternity leave. After being off for a few months with a very experienced doctor covering my practice. I had to go back over patient charts (the notes we write about patient visits) after about 4 months for an administrative purpose. As I was reading notes, I was shocked and panicked- the doctor covering my practice was amazing, and had thought to ask very very thorough questions, ensuring she hit all possible things that could be wrong with the patient. I started to feel so inadequate, as I never would have thought to ask those questions. I was a failure as a doctor. My patients were way better off with my locum..and then I realized I was re-reading my own notes for patients. I had thought of asking all those thorough questions. I had been impressed with my own work.

Anonymous physician

The voice in my head that asks “who do you think you are?” is sometimes so loud and now, at 43, it is so easily traced back to experiences when I was little of being shamed or led to believe that confidence and shining bright was boastful or not polite because I was taking up too much space

Jill Shakespeare

One of the most insidious impacts of imposter syndrome is how the belief can be so strong and anxiety inducing that it operates to self-sabotage (i.e. ruling oneself out for the “THING” and then therefore not getting/doing the “THING” and taking that as proof)

Marlena Dang Nguyen

How to recognize what’s happening in the moment

Acknowledging the negative thoughts is the first steps to overcoming imposterism. Once you acknowledge, you can start to remove yourself from your brain and re-enter the moment. As panelist Dr. Bell so aptly put, “I am not my thoughts… I have developed that pathway in order to protect myself and it no longer serves me. I try to build a new pathway.”

If you’re uncertain if your thoughts are justified, pull aside a trusted colleague to explain how you felt in the moment, and ask if that’s how you came across. This is an objective strategy to help you assess the situation and, most (if not all) of the time, others did not experience you the way you perceived.

How to be confident while still managing imposter syndrome

Experiencing doubt is normal, but imposterism runs far deeper than a lack of confidence. Confidence and imposter syndrome can and do exist at the same time: the balance, says Dr. Rosella, is about authenticity—being able to show your vulnerability and your confidence when you feel it.

Once feelings of imposterism arise, strategies to encourage recovery are important – and they don’t need to be elaborate. The panelists described employing ‘rainy day self talk’, writing down compliments for later reference, and taking time to recharge authentically. How we recharge varies – some turn to exercise, others watch Hallmark movies, and many enjoy getting outside.

The panelists acknowledged the presence of structural factors too—individual tools won’t be a complete solution. The panelists called the Women Who Lead community to action by committing to being transparent and lifting each other up, which may contribute a shift in the structural foundations of imposterism.

Becoming a better ally for others experiencing imposter syndrome

One of the easiest ways to internalize some of these tools for ourselves is to first do it for others. Becoming an ally for your colleagues experiencing imposter syndrome can help you and the people around you understand their triggers and push through feelings of doubt.

First, model the transparency you need. “People become experts in camouflage,” says Dr. Bell. “You can’t always be sure what might be happening beneath the surface.” By showing our authentic selves at work, vulnerabilities and all, we give our team members permission to show up authentically too.

Be specific when giving feedback. As our moderator Jennifer Catton put, general feedback can become harder and harder to believe, because there is nothing tangible to attach to it. Specific feedback helps your colleagues recognize and acknowledge their strengths, bolstering confidence in times of doubt.

Give your colleagues or reports a chance to do the things they want. Put them in front of projects and people so they can develop the skills they need to drive forward.

Watch the recording here for more actionable tips and insight from our panelists.

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