Defeat the imposter

Image by Patrick Gage Kelley showing two people. One more confident and the other not so much. Licensed for non commercial sharing (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Today, I had a session with one of my coachees. He asked me to talk a little bit about the famous: Impostor Syndrome. He’s facing new challenges dealing with a lot of impostor feelings lately. By the way, he’s amazing and will rock on to new challenges. To prepare myself for his session, I took notes of stuff that helped me to overcome my own Impostor Syndrome in the past. At the end, we had an amazing discussion! So I decided to remove all personal examples and anecdotal stories and share what was left here. (Bullet point mainly)

I did not invent most of these items so expect some copy and paste from other sites and also some repetition. Some of this I read in books, some I saw on other folks’ presentations, and a few of them were personal insights. But everything is stuff I tried personally.

With no further ado,

9 steps to reduce the impact of the Impostor Syndrome:

1. Break the silence

  • Talk about it with someone you trust from time to time.
  • Understand that everyone feels it.
  • Give names to your feelings (If you ever did therapy you recognize the power of it).

2. Separate feelings from facts

  • There are times you’ll feel stupid. It happens to everyone from time to time. Realize that just because you may feel stupid, doesn’t mean you are.
  • Measure your results and the results of the teams you lead. Focus on that, not on your negative feelings. Recognizing the feelings is great, let them take control, but not so much.

[EDIT] 2.1 Ask for feedback

  • As per the contribution of Javier Caraballo Mogedano on the comments session, I included this one: a great way to have data is to ask for specific feedback on areas you may feel an impostor. Say you think you are not doing well on communication, you can go to someone you trust and ask: “Hey, how did I do on the last presentation to the client? Anything I should do differently?” Sometimes you’ll be surprised with the results.

3. Focus on the positive

  • We need to get the job done. And you want to be better today than yesterday. But be careful with perfectionism.
  • Perfection does not exist in reality, the real world is about balancing trade offs.
  • Celebrate your wins, really.
  • Accept positive feedback, do not always diverge from them by bringing the team or others. Just say thank you.
  • By the way, focusing on the positive and on the solutions instead of focusing on the problems will get you and your team to an amazing place. In general, not only when talking about Impostor Syndrome.

4. Develop a healthy response to failure and mistake making

  • Making mistakes, learning with them and pivoting is how we grow. The day you stop making mistakes you’ll be stuck!
  • Build – Learn/Improve – Build againis way better than falling into the “Build – Build – Buildtrap.

5. You do not need to know everything in advance, you can ask for help

  • If you’ve been operating under misguided rules like: “I should always know the answer,” or “Never ask for help”, rethink. A good leader will acknowledge when they do not have the answer, and that is fine.
  • Recognize that you have just as much right as the next person to be wrong, have an off-day, or ask for assistance when needed.
  • Showing vulnerability is not a bad thing.
  • As a leader you should lead by example.

6. Understand your triggers/symptoms

  •  “Oh my God everyone here is brilliant” thoughts like these, are very likely to be a trigger for Impostor Syndrome. Or even subtle variations such as “I’m really going to learn a lot!”, “Ohhh… I was lucky” are also a good example. Try to understand what are the triggers or symptoms of your impostor feelings and get more and more aware of that.
  • Being a minority in a group (age, gender, tenure – “new kid on the block”, ethnicity, etc.) can also be a trigger.
  • New roles, new teams, new clients… are usually triggers.
  • Recognize your triggers and what emotions they triggered (if possible give them names, as said before). Only by doing that, eventually they lose power over you.

7. Accept that you do bring something to the table

  • Everyone is unique, and can contribute. You are not here by mistake. Your leaders are not stupid 😛

8. Fake it ‘till you make it

  • Feeling an impostor and having fear is a common pattern. 
  • And it isn’t a problem in itself. Fear has a biological reason to exist. In Thoughtworks Brazil we say “Courage is not lack of fear, but doing it anyways even when afraid”.
  • When I invite someone to a new and more complex position, as a leader, I kind of expect a combination of a bit of fear with excitement to try it. If I see no fear at all in the person, I usually think there’s a yellow flag somewhere.
  • The problem is if it becomes pathological, if that’s the case, try these steps here and/or ask for help.
  • Sometimes, in the beginning of a new adventure, you need to fake it until you make it a little bit. 

9. Find ways to be spontaneous

  • Put some limits on the last one, fake it ‘till you make it.
  • Using “masks” all the time, or making a conscious effort to “behave” or “prove yourself” all the time requires a lot of mental energy that could be used for creativity instead.
  • At times we all need to act out of our comfort zone, and that’s life.
  • On the other hand, I suggest you find out what kind of environment makes you more spontaneous. Try to leverage on that.
  • Being spontaneous will bring the best out of us.

And to wrap up, Imposter Syndrome still happens from time to time. So I still go back to these techniques quite often.