“How can I tackle imposter syndrome?”

This may be the mother of all work-related questions since so many of the professionals I work with – from senior executives leading organizations to recent grads just starting out – experience it. Whether in Austin or around Texas, imposter syndrome comes in many flavors. I hear it described as:

  • A fear of being exposed for being in over your head, for knowing less than you claim or that others think, for being a fraud
  • Feeling hijacked by imposter syndrome – and being frozen, unable to think or speak and sometimes unable to access what you actually know
  • Finding yourself in meetings with peers, clients, stakeholders, staff, and feeling you have nothing worthwhile to contribute
  • A nagging sense of dread that’s like a constant companion and can sometimes feel more intense (like on Sundays)

Nasty stuff. The consequences of imposter syndrome can show up in everything from procrastination to preoccupation with work to panic attacks to insomnia to cynicism about the accomplishments of others to negative performance reviews to feeling (or being) stalled in your career to generalized discontent and a wish to do something different with your life.

Seek out advice for how to deal with imposter syndrome and you may come across ideas like change your mindset – for example, reframe your thinking to consider yourself a learner (great, but the emotional part of our brains where imposter syndrome resides generally can’t be persuaded by rational appeals like this), talk about it with colleagues (no surprise that I believe talking helps – it can normalize an experience and help you feel less alone – but when it comes to revealing vulnerabilities at work it’s best to proceed with caution) and, of course fake it ‘til you make it (isn’t feeling that we’re faking it what got us into trouble in the first place? Won’t that feed the beast?)

Besides, many folks tell me they are already faking it at work – faking interest, faking enthusiasm, faking belonging. You better believe that adds fuel to the imposter syndrome fire.

In my work with clients, I talk with them about putting imposter syndrome in its place. That means moving beyond conventional wisdom so that we can understand their experience of it. And understanding is fundamental to making change that sticks (read more about that here.) My process of situating can include stages like:

Separating reality from distortion: Could there be ways in which you may legitimately be in over your head? There’s no shame in growth edges or learning gaps – acknowledging them and getting clear on what is distorted can go a long way to putting imposter syndrome in its place.

Understanding what your environment may be contributing: Work cultures that value conformity versus diversity. Dog-eat-dog practices that are encouraged and rewarded. Managers more interested in intimidation than leadership or who prefer you ask for forgiveness not permission. Biases – conscious and unconscious – that are thought, spoken, acted out, baked into systems and processes and give you the clear message that you are less than or don’t belong. You better believe these dynamics create breeding grounds for imposter syndrome. Where you work, what are the expectations (explicit and implicit), who you work with, how the work gets done – these are the elements of your environment that can contribute to imposter syndrome.

Understanding what’s unique to you: What are your formative experiences, at work and at home, that may be showing up in your imposter syndrome? What frustrations have you experienced that may be at its root? History has a way of repeating itself until we take time to understand how and why.

While we’re doing this vital work, clients sometimes need help preparing for a big meeting, a tough conversation or a major decision. When these occur, I collaborate with them to apply best practices and principles to come up with meaningful and effective alternatives to faking it.

Consider this:

“Fake it ‘til you make it” feeds the beast of imposter syndrome (isn’t feeling like we’re faking it what got us into trouble in the first place?)

I like to help clients put imposter syndrome in its place and go beyond “fake it ‘til you make it.” If you’d like to explore how we may work together, please contact me. I’m here to help.

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