Do you ever feel unsure of yourself, afraid to step outside your comfort zone? Of course you do--everyone feels that way sometimes. But for people with imposter syndrome, there's no such thing as a comfort zone. Staying put would simply confirm the world's suspicions that they're incompetents who don't deserve any of the successes they've had.
Could you be one of them? Are you over-prepared for every meeting? Do you suspect your success so far is due partly or entirely to luck? When people praise your efforts or achievements, do you fear you won't live up to their future expectations? If this sounds disturbingly familiar, you may well have imposter syndrome. (There's a fuller self-assessment here.)
Imposter syndrome was first identified by psychologists who interviewed female executives in 1978 when women in positions of power were rare. And that's no accident: imposter feelings are frequently triggered by the feeling of being different or an outsider, according to Joyce Roché, author of The Empress Has No Clothes. She should know: As an African-American woman getting her MBA at Columbia, and then one of the top executives at Avon, she was never able to blend into the crowd.
"There were three things that triggered imposter syndrome for me," she says now. "As a person of color, the tape started running in my head, questioning whether I was as prepared as my white counterparts to be successful." Being one of the only women in top management was a trigger as well, as was the fact that she grew up with limited means. As she interviewed other corporate leaders for her book, she learned that there are many things that can trigger the feeling of being an imposter in people of all races and genders, including coming from a different part of the country, or being gay.
For those with imposter syndrome, success does not bring happiness. "I was moving up the ladder rapidly, yet each time I got a new promotion, the celebration of that success would immediately dissipate," Roché says. "I would start thinking, 'Am I going to stumble this time?' So I worked harder, over-prepared for everything, and could never relax."
Eventually though, Roché learned to overcome her imposter syndrome. Here's how you can too:
1. Open up.
"Don't be silent," Roché advises. Find a trusted friend, counselor, or business coach with whom you can openly discuss your imposter feelings. If that's really impossible, take paper and pen and begin writing to yourself about them. Exploring imposter feelings is the first step toward defusing them.
2. Know your triggers.
Learn to recognize which situations can really set off your sense of unworthiness. For Roché, a marketing expert, detailed budgeting discussions could do it. So she made a point of re-reading her accounting book from graduate school to refresh her understanding of the concepts involved.
3. Be objective.
"If you got a promotion or a new opportunity, what evidence did they use to decide you should have this role?" Roché asks. Chances are, if you simply review the facts you'll see that it's well earned.
4. When somebody praises you, listen!
"Rather than saying, 'I got lucky,' or 'Anyone could have done it,' just let the compliments sink in," Roché advises. "That's hard to do, but it's important. With imposter syndrome, you're constantly looking for external validation, but then when it comes, we tend to discount it. So just listen, and the praise will become part of your psyche."
5. Help others.
"Be observant of those around you who may be struggling with imposter syndrome as well," she says. Letting other people know you think they might have imposter syndrome and can share similar experiences makes a huge difference, she says. "Comfort does come--if you recognize it."