Ep 26: Overcoming imposter syndrome: strategies for success

November 29, 2023

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I'm Sarah — leadership and communication mentor.  I'm here to help you grow your leadership, resilience, and influence. 

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Have you ever felt like you don’t belong? Or had the feeling that everyone is so much smarter than you, or you’ll never be good enough to deserve something? Maybe you’re worried your colleagues are going to discover you’re a fraud?

If you answered yes to some or all of these, then you might be experiencing imposter syndrome, or, at the very least, an unhealthy dose of self-doubt. 

If so, you’re in good company because an estimated 70% of people experience these sorts of feelings at some point in their lives!

In today’s episode we’re taking a deep dive into imposter syndrome and how to overcome it. 

You’ll discover: 

  • What imposter syndrome is, what can trigger it, and the damaging impact it can have 
  • 3 powerful strategies to overcome it.

Keep on positively leading!

Want to listen? Just click play below!

Prefer to read? Check out the article below.

Overcoming imposter syndrome: strategies for success

Do you ever find yourself saying or thinking: 

  • I don’t want to ask questions in this meeting because it will show how little I know. 
  • Everyone here is so much smarter than me. 
  • I’ll never be good enough to deserve this. 
  • Maybe I can’t apply for this job because I don’t have all the qualifications or tick all of the things on the person specification

If you answered yes to some or all of these, then you might be experiencing imposter syndrome or an unhealthy dose of self-doubt. This is something that’s really close to my heart; I’ve experienced it myself as a leader, a business owner, and even as a mum. And so have many brilliant leaders!

Imposter syndrome and the impact it can have

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines imposter syndrome as “the frequent feeling of not deserving one’s success and of being a failure despite a sustained record of achievements”. Sheryl Sandberg, the billionaire and former COO of Meta, sums up imposter syndrome as:

“I was sure I was about to embarrass myself. Every time I took a test, I was sure it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself or even excelled, I believed that I’d fooled everyone yet again. That one day one day soon, the jig would be up. A missed phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt has a name, the imposter syndrome. Both men and women are susceptible to imposter syndrome, but women tend to experience it more intensely and be more limited by it.”

Does any of that resonate with you? Let’s consider what imposter syndrome is. There are 4 core categories. Firstly, there’s a belief that we got to where we are by fooling other people. You might ask the question ‘what if they realise they’ve made a mistake in hiring me?’. The second is the fear of being exposed as a fraud; questions might look like ‘what if they find me out?’, ‘what if they realise I don’t belong here?’. 

The third is our inability to link achievements to ourselves, our qualities and our abilities. That voice in our heads might be going, ‘oh, it was just luck’ or ‘it was a fluke’ or ‘it was down to timing’ or ‘anyone could do it.’ Finally, in time, we turn these thoughts into a block at the deepest level and think ‘who am I to?’’.

Many people who have imposter syndrome are actually experts in their field. Some research shows that the more expert you become, the higher you climb in your field and the more you accomplish, the more impostor syndrome can increase rather than reduce. It doesn’t go away by achieving more, which is why it’s so important for us to understand it, and learn ways to limit it. 

You might not experience imposter syndrome in all situations or all of the time because there are so many different triggers for it, but there are 3 common triggers: 

1. When we stretch our comfort zone

When we have an opportunity to grow it can sometimes feel like being pushed into a swimming pool at the deep end when you don’t know how to swim. It might be a presentation, interview or when you are challenged in a meeting. For me, I put off starting my podcast for ages. I would procrastinate and come up with excuses, but at the heart of it were the questions, ‘who am I to?’ and ‘who will listen to me?’

2. A life-changing event

This might be events such as becoming a parent or a new job. For me, after years of living overseas and working my way up in leadership roles in some incredible schools, I returned to the UK, and I set up my own company – this was a massive trigger for impostor syndrome for me.

3. Criticism

Whether this criticism is public, or a throwaway comment it can hit a nerve. If we have even the slightest bit of imposter syndrome we rely on external validation and then we can take feedback badly. This is the key reason why feedback training in a workplace is important as it develops the ability to not only give feedback, but also receive feedback (take a look at my 4 part series on feedback to find out more). 

When these 3 common triggers happen the impact can be huge and it leads to the 4 P’s of imposter syndrome which can hold us back: 

Procrastination – When we know we’re working towards a goal, but our actions might keep us treading water instead of making progress. We keep busy, but we’re not taking action. We convince ourselves that all the small things need to be done. What we’re actually doing is subconsciously using ‘busyness’ to hide the fact that we’re not taking real action, as that real action could lead to us being found out. 

Perfectionism – Some people are perfectionists in every area of their lives (such as not going to the shop unless they look amazing) and others are perfectionists in some areas but not all (their clothes might not be perfect, but they won’t give the go-ahead to finish a project until it’s triple checked because they are terrified of making a mistake). Both can be harmful with the latter meaning we’re raising our internal standards to impossibly high levels in an effort not to be found out. Over time, this leads to stress, fear, and inadequacy. I used to have unhealthy levels of perfectionism – I’m a recovering perfectionist – I now tell myself that done is better than perfect and aiming for excellence is better than perfect, but it’s something I constantly need to work on. 

People pleasing – This can be a major trigger for overwhelm in a school environment as it includes or involves taking on tasks that you don’t need to in an attempt to show that you belong, to be helpful, to be liked, and to be seen as capable. The downside is that you take on too much; you overgive, and then often underperform as a result. 

Playing small – This can stop us from speaking our minds or sharing our opinions but it also means we might turn down opportunities to shine because we don’t see ourselves as being the kind of person who is ‘good enough’ to do that. 

Some questions you might like to ask yourself having considered the common triggers and the 4 P’s of imposter syndrome are: 

  • What are the triggers for imposter syndrome feelings for you? Remember, it’s not in every situation all the time.
  • Which of those 4 P’s are resonating? Which might be key for you?
  • How might they be holding you back? 

The components of imposter syndrome

People who don’t experience imposter syndrome, self-doubts, or limiting beliefs are not more intelligent, more experienced, or more capable than those who do. The only difference is that they think different thoughts. We are gloriously human – no matter how brilliant we are, we can’t be brilliant all of the time and no one likes to get things wrong, fail, not know an answer, or struggle. It’s the conversation we have with ourselves that makes all the difference. We all have a voice in our heads turned on almost all of the time (and it’s usually a critical one!); it’s like a radio in the background, you might not even notice it. That voice comes from our subconscious and it’s a running commentary on what we see and feel in the world around us. Our brains are bombarded with billions of pieces of data every day and our subconscious mind filters this data looking for patterns and helping us to run most things automatically. If we’re saying things to ourselves like ‘you’re not good enough’, ‘you can’t do this’, ‘they’ll find me out’ this is your inner critic speaking, or, as I like to call it, the ‘inner meanie’. 

When the inner meanie strikes we think thoughts that come from a place of fear which triggers our flight, fight, or freeze response and our body prepares to defend ourselves from the external threat. As our body and brain can’t tell the difference between genuine and imaginary threats (whether there’s a sabre-toothed tiger outside, or what’s happening in our heads) the stories that we tell ourselves about failure (such as messing up a presentation) mean that we worry about these things as we’re already firing off adrenaline and cortisol. 

Ultimately, we worry about the awful things that might happen if we are found out to be a fraud. Our imposter syndrome feelings trigger the part of the brain that wants to protect us from shame, embarrassment, and rejection. The inner meanie puts doubt in our mind, stops us in action, and over time leads to self-doubt. This self-doubt can then mess even more with our thoughts about what we can and can’t do, which again, over time, leads to longer-term limiting beliefs that are much more deeply held. This is where we start to think ‘people like me don’t do that’ or ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘I shouldn’t’ or ‘I’m not good enough’. After even more time, and sometimes due to the strength or intensity of an experience, we get imposter syndrome. 

Three powerful strategies to help with imposter syndrome

Since the only difference between those who have imposter syndrome feelings and those who don’t is their thoughts it means they have less of a meanie and more of a mentor. Here are three great strategies to help transform your inner meanie into an inner mentor. 

1. A smile file

Keep a folder of all your wins, the times when you did really well. I have both a folder full of cards that people have sent me and an online on my Google Drive folder. The key to making this work is to be specific about the role that you played in the success. This is not about team wins, it’s about what you did to help create that particular outcome. You could include thank yous and praise emails that you’ve been sent but keep adding to it. Don’t just do it once and never go back to it as your inner meanie can’t then dismiss it for being out of date. Remember, a symptom of imposter syndrome is that our internal reference system (responsible for assessing and evaluating our performance) becomes unbalanced and more critical. Updating the smile file helps to redress the balance and boost your confidence when you need it most. If you’re thinking ‘who am I to?’ or, ‘what if they find out I’m not good enough’ you can have a read and turn the volume down on the inner meanie and up on the inner mentor. 

2. Shifting from judging to evaluating

This is something you can do over time. Judging is when we mix up evaluating our behaviour with our sense of identity. For example, you might think that you were rubbish giving a presentation as you were too nervous or couldn’t make eye contact properly. Whereas when you evaluate you show discernment; in the presentation, you may have spoken clearly, put your ideas across, and answered the questions well. You know that next time you can improve by making more eye contact. Try to think ‘I do’ versus ‘I am’. Try to notice when you judge (we all do it) and not get stuck in it. A useful question to use is ‘what can I learn from this?’. Practise by judging others less first. Notice when you judge something about someone else and swap it for 3 things that you appreciate about another person (or yourself).

3. Go from inner meanie to inner mentor

Capture or notice your thoughts and change the dialogue. The first step to this is to notice your thoughts. Tune into that inner meanie monologue. If we hear ourselves say things like ‘I’m over my head’ or ‘I’m not good enough’ it brings us into imposter syndrome and we can get anxious and even panicked meaning we get embarrassed or withdraw and not say what we wanted to say. 

Next, challenge those thoughts. Take some deep belly breaths first to calm the nervous system and then thank your inner meanie for looking out for you (remember, it wants to keep you safe), then ask yourself ‘is this really true?’ and find out what elements of the story you are telling yourself are actually true. Complete the sentences to help: 

  • This is not true because…
  • Another way of seeing this is…

A final step is to reframe and respond. Once you have challenged the story by looking out for other explanations, and you’ve found an alternative story that gives you more confidence and empowerment, it’s time to take action! What’s the best next step for you?

These steps take some practice, but the more you practise, the better and faster you will become at challenging your inner meanie! Your very first next step is to think, what’s the one strategy that I can implement straight away? Learn to tame your inner meanie!