Five Tips for Taming the Imposter

We’ve all asked ourselves this question at one time or another. Or maybe someone has asked it of us. The truth is, most of us, way down in the pit of our stomachs, have a deep-seated fear that we really don’t know as much as people think we do or as much as we feel we should. You’ve likely heard about “imposter syndrome” or the fear of being found out that we are not as competent as we may seem, that our accomplishments happened by chance or by luck. When we are living with imposter syndrome, we tend to put on a mask of sorts, afraid to show weakness and vulnerability, afraid people will find out who we really, truly are.

Studies dating back to the late 1970s show that as many of 70% of us experience imposter syndrome at one time or another, with the largest number of those being high achieving women. As an executive coach, I can tell you that a significant number of my clients, no matter how successful or how well educated they may be, struggle with this very issue. So, you have a graduate degree from Harvard? Doesn’t matter. You run a major division within a multi-national corporation? Yep, you might have it, too. Are you the chief development officer of a national nonprofit rubbing elbows with the rich and powerful? Oh, I bet you know what I’m talking about.

But here’s the deal. So long as you live with the fear of being “found out,” no matter how irrational, you will experience a self-imposed limitation on your advancement as a professional and a leader. If you truly want to go to the next level of competency, it’s time to own up to your fear and address it straight on. The freedom that comes from (intelligently) putting all your cards on the table and showing your vulnerabilities when appropriate, can give you a new sense of confidence, build your reputation as a trustworthy and authentic leader, and even empower your team to live up to their potential as they watch you lead by example.

Here are five of my favorite tips for quieting the imposter and his close friend, the inner-critic:

  1. Don’t compare your insides to other peoples’ outsides. Too often, we look at the accomplishments of those we admire and only see the polished exterior. We rarely see what lies underneath, or know the story of how they got to be where they are in life. Chances are, they didn’t just wake up perfect one day.
  2. It’s none of your business what other people think of you. So long as you act with good intent, maintain your professional integrity, and stay true to your values, you can rest easy knowing that you’ve done your very best. If others don’t like it, oh well. We can’t control the perceptions and reactions of others. While we do have some influence over our image by how we conduct ourselves, that’s about as far as it goes. The trick is to use discernment to grow from constructive feedback without letting unproductive criticism ruin our day and our self-esteem.
  3. Own your mistakes. Once in a while, we all fall of the rails. Does that mean you’re a blundering idiot? Of course not. We all make mistakes. What matters is what you do after the mistake. Admitting an error (particularly before someone else calls you out on it) can strengthen your professional integrity and relieve you of the fear of being “found out.” My mistake motto is: own it, learn from it, manage the consequences, and move on.
  4. Practice saying “I don’t know, yet.” I love the word “yet.” It’s full of possibility and comes in super handy in many situations. The next time you are asked a question that is beyond your area of expertise, or you are having a particular experience for the first time, don’t try to bluff your way through. Try the word “yet.” For example, “I don’t know how to write a government proposal, yet.” This allows you to be honest about your skill level and speaks to your willingness and ability to learn and try new things.
  5. And finally, ask for help when you need it. I once worked for an organization that went through a very rapid and difficult expansion. There was a lot at stake. The CEO, who had built the organization over a period of 30+ years from a small, grassroots nonprofit to a multimillion dollar, nationally-respected powerhouse, called in all the experts she could find, need, and afford. She gave these skilled professionals carte blanche to look at every aspect of the organization and identify what was working well and where improvements needed to be made. She shared findings, both good and bad, with the Board of Trustees, senior staff, and others as appropriate. This CEO’s willingness to “bare all” with such confidence, transparency and grace helped me to understand that to be a good leader means that sometimes you have to be humble, even vulnerable, to do your job right. I was in awe of her courage and her level of self-awareness. Because she led by example, she gave me and others the freedom to experience ambiguity, to sit with the “not knowing” until the right solution or path became apparent. How she handled that situation may well be the most valuable gift a supervisor has ever given me. She was secure enough in herself and in her role as a leader that she had nothing to hide. She was eager, even excited, to partner with others to strengthen her weak areas and learn more. That, my friend, is leading with authenticity.

The less we try to hide our weaknesses and the more we reveal our true self, the more authentic and genuine we become. This works in all areas of life—work, home and play. If we are willing to accept and be honest about our shortcomings while simultaneously holding the concept that we are always learning and growing, the less likely we are to hide behind the mask of the imposter.

So go ahead. Take off that mask. You are perfectly imperfect exactly as you are. And, I’m willing to wager, you’re getting better every day.

*Photo by Joe Gardner on Unsplash

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