"I have gotten pretty good at talking myself through it,” says Laurie Charrington, a shrewd tech lawyer I interviewed for my book on remarkable women. When she was in high school, she was on a plane that almost crashed. They were returning from the Bahamas when the plane began to plummet. The plane dropped from 30,000 to 15,000 feet in seconds. Food flew everywhere. The carts went sailing up and down through the aisles. The stewardesses were crying. Thankfully, they landed safely. But it took her a very long time to get back on a plane.
For years after that experience, Laurie sometimes boarded flights only to turn around and get off. And that feeling of fear crept into other parts of her life, like at times when she’s feeling like an imposter in the workplace. In those moments, she thinks of the flight experience and uses logic to walk herself “through the stupidity of what I was thinking,” she says. “That's how I get through when my impostor syndrome rears its ugly head. I talk myself down from the ledge.”
Impostor syndrome, also known as fraud syndrome, is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts his or her accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. It involves a pervasive feeling of self-doubt or insecurity despite overwhelming evidence that the person has no reason to feel insecure. It’s also an equal opportunity intruder that befalls both women and men — but especially women — including many who are smart and quite accomplished.
You might wonder why self-doubt strikes and where it stems from — especially if you’re a professional with plenty of experience, a long list of accomplishments, and many people whose respect you have earned. Some of the women I interviewed for my book certainly had this question, and many had a hard time finding the answer for themselves. The School of Life, an organization dedicated to developing emotional intelligence, suggests in this video message that the imposter syndrome starts from childhood: “We leave the possibility of success to others because we don’t seem to ourselves to be anything like the sort of people we see lauded around us.”
As Sue McLean puts it, “We compare our insides to other people's outsides.” Sue is a London tech barrister who struggles with this feeling from time to time. She looks at others and thinks, "They're confident and accomplished. That's not me.” In our interview, she spoke of how worries and insecurities still sometimes plague her, despite her many strengths and mounting external evidence of her success.
Laurie Charrington is also quite accomplished in her field, and she is armed with plenty of coping strategies. Yet, like many other women and men, she is still susceptible to questions like, “Is this paper or brief good enough? Do I sound like an idiot? Do they think that I'm an idiot? Am I going to get this promotion?” As anyone who suffers the imposter syndrome knows, this kind of self-doubt can quickly lead to some pretty negative, or even irrational, thinking. Laurie reports saying to herself, “Of course, I'm not going to get this promotion because my colleagues who I'm being judged against are so much better than I am. Their accomplishments are much bigger than mine are.” She says she can spin off like this even though none of the conclusions her mind comes up with are based on actual evidence. “In fact, that's the whole crazy thing about the impostor syndrome,” she says. “It's not reality.”
Many of the women with whom I spoke noted how energy-zapping this experience can be. But they also shared some simple coping strategies that can really help.
- Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. They all spoke of overpreparing because it gives them security.
- Return to the evidence repeatedly and focus on what went right. Remember that someone invested in your business or your career for a reason. You did the hard work, and you deserve whatever opportunities or rewards are bestowed upon you.
- Have the gumption to say, “This will be fine,” and ask yourself these critical questions: “What is the worst thing that could happen? Has that ever happened?” Even when it isn't fine, you'll learn from it. Learning comes through experience, and some of the greatest success stories come from people who welcomed failure as a means of learning and improvement.
- Listen to the feedback you receive from people in your network. When you're feeling doubt, they will provide encouragement and support.
- Be visible by practicing self-promotion. “This is crucial in business,” says Sue McLean. It could come in the form of allowing someone to nominate you for an award or to profile you in an article. You need to have a brand; developing that professional identity will improve your confidence.
We live in world that focuses on the external and superficial, using what is visible to quickly decide whether someone should be lauded or judged. The impostor syndrome grabs hold not because we are deeply flawed, but because our culture encourages us to ignore what’s on the inside, failing to see that everyone is flawed and that no one is 100% confident all the time. We don't know their stories, and we don’t hear what's inside their heads.
Anna Haghgooie, a venture capitalist, believes that people who don’t suffer the impostor syndrome are perhaps not pushing themselves to keep learning. Building the resiliency to continually question ourselves without harsh judgment is important for ongoing self-improvement. Anna’s strategy is to be herself, opening up and reminding herself that any experience is good if she can learn from it. This attitude keeps her humble. And if someone thinks she doesn’t belong, that she’s an imposter, that’s their problem, not hers. In fact, Anna sees great advantages to being different in an industry that all looks the same. “I am who I am, that voice in my head is part of who I am, and I'm going to use it to help propel me to stay sharp.”