5 steps to conquer impostor syndrome

Everyone has a seat in the room for a reason.
Everyone has a seat in the room for a reason.
Image: AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani
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“Fake it ‘til you make it.”

It is a phrase we have all told ourselves at some point in our careers. What we seem less capable of telling ourselves is, “I’m in the room for a reason.”

We all want attention and validation from those around us, and the feelings of worthiness that come with it. As children, we may have stomped our feet or thrown things on the ground to satisfy this urge. But as an adult, things are quite different—not just because we have grown up (plenty of adults still throw tantrums to get what they want) but because our impulse for belonging and our openness in sharing it is no longer socially acceptable.

We live in a world where it is not ok to feel unworthy, and we are taught never to express feeling not good enough for the attention of others. And so, we bury these feelings deep.

Yet, these feelings—which for many of us manifest as impostor syndrome—exist in almost everyone.

In the workplace, impostor syndrome can be particularly prevalent among women and people of color, no doubt the legacy of long-standing barriers signaling an actual lack of belonging. But there are ways to combat the sometimes paralyzing feelings of self-doubt that can undermine your day, if not your career.

At Justwomen, the Justworks event series I lead, accomplished women entrepreneurs are brought together and encouraged to vocalize challenges like this and work through them. At a recent Justwomen gathering in Los Angeles, we dove into how to overcome feelings of not belonging, in a discussion led by Angélica S. Gutiérrez, a business professor at Loyola Marymount University.

We came up with five actionable steps to transform “I’m not good enough” into “I know what I’m doing” and realize your full potential.

1. Get your validation from within

Especially when you’re a leader, there often aren’t many people providing you with feedback. It is important to be able to celebrate your wins—and reflect on the challenges—so you can do better next time. Remember, this is a journey. Be kind to yourself. If you are having trouble with personal validation, there are a few resources you can tap into: work coaches, EAP programs, meditation, therapists, or even therapy apps.

2. Give yourself permission to say no

It can be hard to turn people down, especially when you are ambitious and want to grow your career. Gutiérrez notes, “Imposter syndrome also manifests in what is referred to as the superwoman/man complex, in which people feel that they don’t deserve our current role and take on more to prove their worthiness.”

But you can’t be everything to everyone. And chances are, if you take on too much, you won’t be able to do everything well. Understanding your limits and giving yourself permission to pass on certain opportunities will allow you to focus on what you truly love or have deemed a priority. That goes a long way for overall happiness, satisfaction, and confidence.

3. Remember, others are not thinking about you as much as you think they are

One of the defining characteristics of impostor syndrome is the fear that others will discover we are frauds and don’t belong where we are. There’s a belief that others are watching us closely. But while you might be the center of your own universe, you are not the center of anyone else’s. Other people are not paying as close attention to you as you think, and when they are, they are more likely to recognize the moments when you succeed than the times you struggle. So don’t be so hard on yourself. Be your own best friend and practice self-compassion.

4. Have empathy toward others who also may not feel good enough

You aren’t alone with your imposter syndrome. One study found that 70% of people will experience these feelings at least once in their lives. So pay it forward—give someone in your life some unsolicited positive feedback; take notice if someone is being especially hard on themselves, and share your own story about how you’ve struggled with that, too. Giving advice to others and seeing how that helps them will also help you.

5. Let yourself be vulnerable

Part of being vulnerable means letting go of perfection. It means accepting who you are and bringing your authentic self to work every day. This is especially important when you are leading a team. It allows you to build genuine connections and establish trust on both sides of a relationship. It also shows team members that it’s ok for them to fail sometimes, and to not be perfect.

Too often our adult selves tell us to silence our own vulnerabilities. But to truly increase levels of diversity and provide equal opportunity to all for success, it’s important that we stop burying these thoughts and instead tackle them out in the open, together.

The roots of feeling like you don’t belong run deep—from troubled sibling relationships we may have had growing up to bullying, sexual assault, parental dynamics, and a range of other factors that can lead us to suppress a part of ourselves. The triggers will be different for everyone and that’s ok. There is no one source for the feeling of impostor syndrome that makes it any less real.

Ultimately, embracing the authenticity of who you are is what allows you to realize your full potential. Following these five steps might put you a lot closer to accomplishing that than you ever thought possible.