The quest to overcome my impostor syndrome
Lately, I have made a new friend at work and through our multiple conversations, they have mentioned their struggle with their impostor syndrome. This reminded me of the article I wrote back in late March 2021 to talk about my own impostor syndrome and how it had been my closest professional companion for years. These discussions with my friend made me realize that my relationship towards my impostor syndrome has drastically changed since I wrote this article in March 2021. Therefore, I decided to write my friend a letter about it in case my journey towards conquering my impostor syndrome could be helpful for them. I have also decided to share this letter here in case it can help others conquer their impostor and change the way they see themselves.
– – – – – –
Over the course of the last couple of weeks, I have heard you mentioned, in passing, your impostor syndrome multiple times. Although you were talking about yourself, it triggered me as feeling like an impostor has been an important battle throughout my professional life. As you mentioned how you felt, I realized I had not felt like an impostor in quite a while and this left me puzzled as I had not realized that my impostor syndrome had diminished to this extent. What happened? How and when did this change? For the last couple of weeks, I have been reflecting on the journey I have been on and how I managed to get over my impostor syndrome and wanted to share this with you in case it would be helpful.
In march 2021, I wrote an article about my impostor syndrome:
I am 39, I am a Director and I feel like an impostor.
I remember writing this article on a Sunday morning at the family dining room table while the kids were playing around and my wife slept in. Although I had been a director for almost 4 years at the time, I felt like a complete impostor and needed to let it out in hope that this would help me conquer this feeling that had been hunting me for over a decade.
It’s been a little over a year since I wrote this article and since then, I have changed roles and I have been promoted twice. For someone who feels like an impostor, such rapid changes have been challenging. Today, I find myself in a Vice President role and against all odds, my impostor syndrome has almost completely vanished. And don’t misunderstand me! I don’t find myself today not feeling like an impostor because I have all the answers or because I know exactly what I am doing… I still don’t. I have a new role, I have responsibilities I have never had before and I am facing some of my biggest professional challenges to date and yet, my mindset towards my abilities to face uncertainty, my confidence in myself and my confidence in deciding what to do and deliver has completely changed. What happened?
I wish I could say there was one moment, one action or one thing I said that changed everything. Wouldn’t it be nice if feeling like an impostor could be fixed in one moment? This was not the case and there is no magic way out. When that is said, looking back at the last 14 months, I can see clearly what happened and how I grew out of feeling like an impostor and I wanted to share this with you in case any parts of my journey could help you conquer your impostor syndrome.
I can summarize my conquest of my impostor syndrome into 4 steps that took place over the course of a year.
Being vulnerable publicly: admitting my vulnerabilities is something I didn’t dare do for a very very long time. I firmly believed that if people saw my vulnerabilities, they would see me as weak and this would negatively impact my career. When I decided a year ago to talk publicly about being an impostor, it was one of the hardest things I had ever done (beside coming out). I hesitated before posting my article and I remember closing my eyes as I forced myself to click on the publish button. I had no idea what to expect and feared I might have just made a fool of myself…To my great surprise, admitting my vulnerabilities was greeted with empathy, compassion and most importantly, a sea of private messages saying thank you for talking about this. Over the course of the last year, many people have reached out to talk to me about feeling like impostors. People I knew but also strangers who had stumbled upon my article and just wanted to echo how my writing had spoken to them. Some of these people I admired and I couldn’t believe that, like me, they felt like impostors. This made me realize that I was not the odd one out, but part of the norm. And this also made me realize that although all of us felt like impostors, none of us actually were. So my first advice is to speak up and don’t fear your vulnerabilities. Something magical happens when you speak up, people can relate to you and through that, they give you the support and confidence boost you need to realize that you might not be an impostor after all.
I don’t know: for a long time, I felt like saying “I don’t know” would show people at work that I don’t have the experience, skills, knowledge or capabilities to do my job. I never dared saying “I don’t know” and even when I didn’t know, I tried my hardest to say something clever that would help me hide my ignorance. But then I met a colleague who often said “I don’t know what I don’t know” and I realized that every time those words were said, people took the time to explain and respected this colleague’s inability to answer at that very moment. Although very uncomfortable, I decided to experiment and I started to say “I don’t know” when I didn’t know and discovered that when said with confidence, most people appreciate the honesty of the answer and no negative judgment is followed. I strongly recommend saying “I don’t know” as although it’s not an obvious linear relationship, admitting one’s ignorance helps build self-confidence.
Feedback: Over the last 14 months, I have asked for more feedback from friends, peers, managers and direct reports than I have ever asked for in my professional life. It’s not always easy to hear and process feedback, but the more feedback I have gotten, the more I have understood how I am being perceived. This has drastically helped me conquer my impostor syndrome as I have realized that I am often my biggest critic. This has also helped me realize that other people assess my competences in a different way than I do. I urge you (and everyone) to ask for feedback. Although it can be hard at times, receiving feedback is the only way we have to understand how we are being perceived. By knowing how others see us, we can finally see if we are impostors or not.
Love and kindness: We don’t often talk about love and kindness in a professional setting and I think that is a shame. Why is it that we believe so strongly in love and kindness in our personal lives, but rarely refer to these in corporate settings? Over the last 14 months, my coach has reminded me multiple times to be kind to myself, advice I struggled to follow in my professional life. But persistence is key and over time, I have learned to be kind to myself at work and as I did, I became kinder to others too. Allowing myself to be kind to both myself and others really changed how I felt about being an impostor. It is extremely hard to feel like an impostor and to be kind to myself at the same time as the two contradict each other. Although feeling like an impostor doesn’t feel like harsh self-criticism, it is. As I have learned to be kind to myself, I have had to stop feeling like an impostor because I couldn’t do both at once. I still find myself in a multitude of situations where I feel incompetent or underqualified for the task at hand, but instead of letting the impostor creep in, I remember to be kind to myself and with that hint of love, I find the strength to do what I need to do knowing I will do my best.
I would be lying if I said I never feel like an impostor anymore, I do sometimes. But unlike before, the feeling never lasts because I remember to be kind to myself and I remember all the feedback I got, that’s it’s ok not to know and that being vulnerable is human.
I am not sure if any of the above will be helpful for you in your journey to conquer your impostor syndrome, but if you are to just give it a try, start by being kind to yourself.