Photo Credit: Shutterstock
How often do you look around at work and feel like everyone deserves to be at the meeting except you? Or assume that everyone else is more knowledgeable about the topic at hand? Do you ever think to yourself, "One day, my colleagues are going to figure out that I have no idea what I am talking about, and I will be exposed as a fraud"?
That's how Brooklyn-based Rachel Ford felt despite being the co-founder and managing director of Ford Media Lab, a photography studio for global beverage conglomerates including Rémy Cointreau and Pernod Ricard.
It didn't matter that Ford had such impressive experience as an award-winning mixologist that global beverage brands sought out her expertise on how cocktails should be made, marketed, and consumed. It also didn't matter that her company was named one of AdWeek's 100 Fastest Growing Agencies in 2020.
"I still felt very self-conscious and insecure even several years into running my business," Ford says. "Because unlike other C-Suite executives who had climbed a corporate ladder, I had assigned myself my title and still found myself wondering to myself 'do I deserve to be here?'"
Join the club
Imposter syndrome, or the belief that your achievements aren't on par with those of your colleagues despite your expertise and credentials, affects an estimated 70% of people at one time or another. Men experience it, too, but women suffer from it more acutely, according to Lois Frankel, Ph.D., author of "Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers." She theorizes that women second-guess their knowledge and expertise largely because of social conditioning.
"From early childhood, girls are taught their well-being and ultimate success are contingent upon acting in certain stereotypical ways, such as being polite, soft-spoken, compliant and relationship-oriented," rather than business-minded, Frankel writes. She adds that throughout a woman's lifetime, this belief that they are not the smartest or most capable person in the room is reinforced through media, family and social messages.
There are also culturally imposed expectations of women that have become so ingrained that women often feel less than, even when they are working very hard.
"Women expect themselves to excel in multiple roles, such as at work, as a parent, as a partner. The house has to look great, they have to look great," explains Valerie Young, Ed.D., author of "The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It." The result? "We have more opportunity to feel like we're falling short as women because we have so many additional roles."
At its core, "Imposter syndrome is really about fear," Frankel tells LiveCareer. It's a sense of uncertainty a person might feel when she takes on projects she'd never done before and the worry that she might fall flat on her face in the process. But worrying about failure is not at all uncommon. "That's just being a normal human being," says Frankel.
Sadly, status and success can't always ward off imposter syndrome. If they did, high achievers and trailblazers like Michelle Obama, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor and Academy Award-winning actress (and Harvard University graduate) Natalie Portman wouldn't be on the record about experiencing this same crippling insecurity.
In truth, sometimes amassing impressive accolades as our careers advance can intensify the fear of not measuring up. "We think the more credentials we have, the more competent we'll feel," explains Young. "But they can make us feel like we're fooling more people on a higher level."
Social media is making it even worse, according to Frankel. She believes that as the most active users of social networks, women are more frequently exposing themselves to the highlight reels of others, which can contribute to women feeling like they don't measure up.
According to Young, women often deal with imposter syndrome either by overworking and over-preparing, or by trying to fly under the radar, both of which have drawbacks. "Working hard can lead to success, but there's a cost," Young says because it could mean longer hours and more travel for work. As for keeping your head down because of self-doubt? It can prompt you to say no to the opportunities that would help you reach your goals.
So what's the best way to proceed? Here are four suggestions:
1. Normalize self-doubt
It helps to remind yourself that you're not alone in your insecurities. "The honest answer is that I deal with imposter syndrome every single day," says Ashleigh Rennie, founder of The Story Team, a UK-based copywriting agency that creates copy for websites. "Every time I get a new client, and I take on a job, I think to myself, 'This can only end badly. They're going to hate your work, and they're going to fire you and ask for their deposit back.'"
Spoiler alert: None of her clients have done so. And the chances are that your success isn't going to crumble around you either, despite what the little voice in your head might be telling you.
If you're experiencing uncertainty, acknowledge it then forge ahead, especially if you're in a leadership role. Even if your colleagues don't thank you directly for being able to articulate your misgivings, your actions will help create a ripple effect.
If you're experiencing uncertainty, know that almost everyone does, even if they don't show it. After acknowledging that, remind yourself of the successes and accomplishments that have gotten you to where you are.
Another tip: The tried and true technique of "fake it 'til you make it" also works. Focus on tackling one task at a time until you build some momentum and gain confidence in your abilities.
2. Stop listening to negative self-talk
Frankel posits men are conditioned to believe they can learn what they need to know on the fly. Women, meanwhile, are often socially conditioned to think we're not smart enough or that our contributions have to be extraordinary otherwise they're not good enough.
Frankel wants women to stop it. "Women need to believe that we're smart enough and that we'll figure it all out. Period," she implores.
3. Test the waters
"Confidence builds with small actions," counsels Val Nelson, a career and business coach for introverts in Northampton, Massachusetts. So, avoid big leaps, and focus instead on small steps toward your goal until you're able to appreciate how far you've come.
4. Connect with women in leadership roles
Being around confident women can rub off you, so join a women's networking group and pay close attention to how other women behave when dealing with self-doubt. Ford credits this approach with helping her reframe her thinking about her existing expertise, goals and behavior.
Similarly, Rennie's part of a WhatsApp chat group with other women who run their own businesses. There, participants share their worries, celebrations, fears, and anxieties. "They tell me how good I am at what I do and that I am totally capable. And I do the same for them," says Rennie.
Another idea: Ask a senior colleague if she might have a few hours per month to mentor you. Talking through your self-doubt with another woman who may have walked the same path can provide you with both strategies and comfort when you are feeling less than your best self.
Ultimately, self-doubt requires taking stock of what it means to be successful and competent — plus examining how we experience failure, mistakes, constructive criticism, and fear. "Adjusting our thinking in these areas is bar none the fastest way to unlearning imposter syndrome," says Young.