I have a critic that lives in my head. She whispers that I don’t know what I’m doing and that I’m a fraud. She assures me that at any moment people are going to find out that all of my success is just “luck.” And she is sneaky — no matter where I am or how many accolades I have, my critic uncovers new ways to put me down and hold me back by making me feel unworthy of praise.
But the thing is, I’m not a fraud. I have a good education, lots of work experience and run a successful coaching practice. I’m also a dedicated and loyal mom, wife, coach, friend and family member.
Even though I know all these things rationally, my critic sometimes feels unbeatable. And if you’re like 70% of professionals, you also know “imposter syndrome” intimately — the feeling that you aren’t as great as people perceive.
For me, my imposter syndrome peaked when I was in graduate school. I was insanely busy, working full-time on top of being in a full-time graduate program, and I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to achieve more. I thought that getting my degree would finally mean that I was enough.
But once I graduated and focused on my full-time job, I felt exactly the same. My performance was great — my manager was really happy with me and praised me regularly — but I still felt like I wasn’t qualified to do my job. I panicked and put myself down every time I made a mistake. And I wasn’t able to roll with the ups and downs that come with any job. I felt decent when things were going well, but when things went badly I immediately went to a dark place of low self-worth and taking everything personally.
My inner critic hounded me for years until I realized how unhappy listening to this voice was truly making me. I finally hit a wall when I felt so physically and emotionally drained and I realized I needed actual medical help. It turned out I had high blood pressure. And my low morale at work and choosing to decompress in the evening with chardonnay rather than meditating or spending quality time with my friends wasn’t helping. When I was finally able to look around me, I noticed that not everyone felt this way.
I knew I needed help, so I immediately hired my own life coach to help me go deep and sort through what I wanted my next steps to be. I was super intentional about this inner work as a way to help me choose my own next chapter, instead of continuously following what I believed everyone else wanted me to do. I found myself starting a new career coaching business that supported my love of learning and allowed me to help others succeed.
In my work with other women, I find that, like me, one of the biggest barriers to achieving their goals is their inner critic. Here are some of the suggestions I give to help them overcome feelings of being an imposter and build confidence.
Do the inner work
At the core of imposter syndrome is a feeling that you’re not good enough. So building up your relationship with yourself and how you view who you are is crucial.
When working with clients on this, I ask them to think about the last time they were triggered to feel like an imposter. I ask them to write about the event and what they were feeling. Then I ask them to think about the event again but imagine that they had felt good about themselves in that situation. Before they even deal with the trigger itself, I want them to see what is possible when they remove these negative feelings about themselves.
Figure out your triggers
There are situations where your inner critic will be harsher than others. And you may notice that what they say changes over the years — it certainly has for me. Whereas before, I mostly felt triggered by thinking I was bad at my job, now I feel the pressure of being a great mom and the feeling of inadequacy that can bring.
Just like any uncomfortable feeling, knowing what triggers your feelings of being an imposter can help you avoid, or at least expect discomfort. This allows you to plan ahead and start any healthy combative behaviors you’ve learned.
Find things in common with others instead of comparing yourself to them
When I was starting my career coaching business I thought everyone in the industry already knew what they were doing. I was constantly comparing myself to others and I thought the only way I could compete was by basically copying them.
It took me a while to gain my confidence and figure out my style and rhythm. I had to work through a lot of acceptance that I didn’t need to be someone else because being me was enough.
Creating a broader network with more authentic relationships also really helped. The more I connected with people at work and in my business, the better I felt. When I was at my lowest I judged everyone around me because I felt so inadequate, and ended up making a lot of foes as a result. Now, I’ve formed deep relationships with people who lift me up and accept me.
Ever sat in a meeting and held back from asking a question for fear that it made you look stupid? Imposter syndrome wants you to feel like everyone knows more than you, so it’s better to sort it out and work solo so that you aren’t found out.
For years, rather than appearing like I didn’t know what I was doing, I kept quiet, didn’t ask questions and tried to figure things out on my own so I wouldn’t appear vulnerable.
Once I started asking more questions, I realized that other people were usually wondering the same thing. I saved myself weeks of worry at work and even at home just by getting an answer or perspective from someone else. This has come in handy as a mom and as a people manager.
If I hadn’t faced my imposter syndrome, I’m convinced it would have continued to negatively impact my life and health. For me, it came down to wanting more for myself — I wanted to feel fulfilled and I couldn’t get that feeling while beating myself up mentally.
Where I used to feel exhausted all the time, dealing with my negative relationship with myself has given me marathon-like strength to face problems and deal with stress. And I’ve tackled more challenging goals like buying a home and starting a family, which felt intimidating and downright scary.
I become braver every day because I’m no longer giving the smaller version of me, who’s afraid of not being good enough, all of my attention. I’m better able to look at problems for what they are, not what I imagine them to be, and grow and help others.
What are your tricks for dealing with imposter syndrome? Leave them in the comments below!
1 thought on “Imposter syndrome: overcoming the invisible spirit crusher”
The part about asking questions really resonated with me. I’m pretty lucky to not struggle too much with imposter syndrome at work and I think it’s partly because I ask A MILLION questions. I don’t feel stupid because 9 times out of 10, other people don’t know the answer either and it starts an interesting conversation. As a result I learn a lot fast, which helps me feel even more empowered and smart.
I definitely support Lea’s advice to try asking more questions if you’ve been feeling afraid to.