A few weeks ago I was having a highly engaging conversation with a successful woman who holds an influential, leadership position in her organisation. As she outlined her accomplishments, career journey and education I was in awe of her numerous research scholarships, exciting work with new technology, and roles she has had in her career so far. I was so interested in her experiences I almost forgot I was meant to be mentoring her! I started to think there wasn’t much I could really mentor or coach her on, she seemed to be doing great just by herself. However, what struck me at one point in the conversation was the language this truly accomplished person was using when referring to her achievements. She talked about her ‘little’ degree. She outlined how she ‘just’ got given her current role because she ‘blagged her way into it’, and how she had lots of different experiences but was an expert at nothing. Classic signals of our age old friend, imposter syndrome. It’s so pervasive, many of us feel it at some if it not all points of our career, and it just keeps coming up with so many people, typically women, who I mentor, coach and work with.
It was a scene from a movie that I watched when I was 22 that first made me realise that I wasn’t the only person in the world who heard a frequent voice telling me that one day I would be found out for not really knowing anything and not belonging in my role at work. In the movie scene, Bridget, the main character in Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, and wonderfully played by Renee Zellweger, was on her way to meet her lawyer boyfriend at a law society dinner. In a taxi on the way to the dinner, putting finishing touches to her make-up, Bridget wrestles with her nerves as we hear her a voice in her head asking "What if someone says ‘Bridget Jones, get out of here, you are ridiculous!'” The way that scene made me feel must have been the most profound impact I have ever felt from a romcom. Hearing these words, knowing that other people must have heard this sort of inner voice piping up at the most unhelpful moments, and that this must be something that is relatable for most movie-goers (or at least those that enjoyed bubbly romantic comedies), made me feel an enormous sense of relief. I honestly hadn’t realised before that other people also had this sort of thing going on in their heads!
What is wonderful to reflect on now is that it has really been years since I have been struck badly by imposter syndrome. There is so much information out there to dig into for great techniques to help with imposter syndrome, but rather than write an essay, here is a snapshot of what has helped me, what I’ve read about and practiced over the years, and which I’ve discussed with friends and colleagues and found to be most useful. This is essentially a quick fix in the moment:
Step 1) Notice and label it. As soon as you detect the ‘imposter feelings’ starting, just pay attention to what it is you're feeling and telling yourself. Being conscious of what is happening, rather than letting the self-talk run on autopilot allows you to move on to deal with it. Once you have noticed the self-talk around being an imposter, label what is happening. Take a pause to mentally note ‘Ah, I know what’s happening – there’s a bit of imposter syndrome coming up here.’
Step 2) Create distance. Allow yourself to create distance between who you really are, the essence of yourself and your being, and the voice you are hearing or feelings you’re having. Remember that your feelings are not you. They are just signals. Noticing and labeling what’s happening from Step 1 can be very powerful to allow you the space to recognise that you are not an imposter, rather, that you have feelings of being an imposter. There is a really important distinction to recognise between the two. Rather than defining yourself as the imposter, you are simply noticing that a bit of imposter syndrome is coming up for you. The mental conversation might change from “Argh, I really don’t belong here, all these people in this meeting are so much more experienced than me and I'm going to get found out…” to “I’ve got some feelings coming up now that I’m a bit of an imposter in this meeting. I know this is natural, it happens to lots of people, and I know my brain is trying to help me here, but thinking of myself as an imposter is not useful to me right now.” Showing yourself some loving kindness in this situation can help you take back a sense of control, and feel more grounded in yourself.
Step 3) Counter. Once you’ve noticed and labelled the imposter syndrome coming up, and been able to create some distance between yourself and the idea of being an imposter, it can allow you to then counter with some quick fixes in the moment. In the example of being in a meeting, consider the reasons you have been invited. You likely bring a different perspective, have a unique experience or insight to share, or perhaps you’re there to learn. Reminding yourself of what you do bring to the situation, rather than what you don’t. And remind yourself that ultimately, no-one else can validate you or confirm your belonging – you belong to yourself.
While I’ve shared a ‘quick fix’ approach, I know from personal experience it can take years for imposter syndrome to stop coming up. For me, it really has been a lot of inside-out work (working on myself, meditating, and building my own self-love) that has meant imposter syndrome has mainly been a thing of the past. It still comes up from time to time though, but like anything, with all the practice I’d put in in the past, running through the steps I shared is old hand, and I can quickly get myself to a place where I feel more grounded and can contribute effectively. I hope these steps are useful for you.
I’d love to hear what practices you use to overcome imposer syndrome, so please drop me a line or share in the comments.