The Imposter’s Playbook

A game plan to stop imposter syndrome from holding you back

Glancing at the faces around the meeting table, I saw an entrepreneur, a Harvard grad, a senior scientist with a long list of patents under their belt. What on earth could I possibly bring to the table?

It’s not the first time I was overwhelmed by feeling like a fraud. When I did well in an exam, I figured that I just got lucky. I got clammy palms during the Q&A sessions at conference presentations. It’s only a matter of time before I’m exposed.

These are classic signs of what psychologists term the imposter phenomenon. Clinical psychologist Dr. Pauline Clance first described in 1978 from her observations that high-achieving women experienced a sort of intellectual phoniness. Despite their outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, these women held an unshakable belief that it was all an illusion, living in perpetual fear of the bubble one day bursting. The result? Crippling anxiety, an extreme fear of failure, and chronic dissatisfaction.

Does this sound familiar? Take Dr. Clance’s Ph.D. Imposter Scale to find out more!

Whatever your score, you’re not alone. The imposter phenomenon afflicts an estimated 70% of people at some point in their lives. What starts as fleeting moments of self-doubt can ultimately derail you, keeping you from applying for that dream job or that well-deserved promotion.

But it’s not all bad news; psychologists say you can get that monkey off your back. Here are some strategies that I’ve been experimenting with to free you from or mitigate imposter syndrome’s adverse effects.

Look that monkey in the eye

The first step in fixing a problem is acknowledging it. You need to develop a keen sense of awareness to catch subconscious imposter syndrome thought patterns.

Going back to my moment in the meeting room, I had an epiphany. Mentally listing my teammates’ credentials was just dragging me down. We had gathered to discuss the next steps in a project — a project that I had been leading for six months, for which I had created a solid action plan and kept progress on track. At that moment, everyone did need to hear what I had to say.

Admittedly, rewriting your mental programming isn’t easy. Imposter syndrome often creates the illusion that your knowledge never stacks up to the wisdom of others. In reality, it’s not just how well-versed on a topic you are but also your unique experiences, personality, and perspectives that bring value. Two heads are better than one, but only if those heads aren’t muted by self-doubt and a lack of confidence.

Be kind to yourself and recognize that others around you have those moments too. Catch yourself leaning out and take the courage to lean in instead.

Yes! Yes! Yes!

One of the self-limiting beliefs I used to hold is that I could only perform tasks for which I was qualified and trained. I soon discovered that the key to liberating myself from those shackles was to say yes to opportunities far outside my comfort zone. I took the safety guards off and said yes to a team lead position, yes to taking on the responsibility of sealing an important client deal, yes to speaking on behalf of the company at an international conference alongside industry experts. These experiences terrified me but also revealed capabilities and talents that I never even knew I had.

Here are my two cents — the more it scares you, the more you should absolutely go for it. You might not always ace it, and that’s ok. Stumbling proves how difficult it is to get to that expert level. And that shows how far you’ve come to excel in the things that you are good at.

Forget perfect; settle for complete.

Building expertise is such a gradual process, each improvement so incremental, that it’s easy to forget how far you’ve come instead of succumbing to feeling like you’re not a master of your craft yet.

Imposter syndrome and perfectionism are tightly intertwined. According to Dr. Clance, this dreadful duo can manifest in several ways:

  • Imposters mentally exaggerate the standards of perfection required of every task.
  • Tasks have to be executed swiftly, efficiently, with spectacular results, and alone — imposters rarely seek guidance or assistance from others.
  • The task then begins to morphs into a beast. The imposter either procrastinates and avoids the work or overprepares for battle, devoting much more time and effort into it than is necessary.

Take a look at your average workday and see if any of these red flags pop up. Tracking hours spent on a project with an app can help you visualize how much time you’re spending on specific tasks. How much of this time is spent doing vs. overthinking?

Harvest feedback

We are our own worst critics. For those battling imposter syndrome, this is especially true. Driven by the fear of being unmasked as incompetent, imposters tend to work ten times harder than everybody else and set the bar ridiculously high for themselves. Unfortunately, this is neither sustainable nor enjoyable.

Instead of living in fear of being exposed, why not actively seek out constructive criticism? Ask peers and mentors for feedback about your performance. Request suggestions for how you could improve or courses you could take. Gather specific, actionable advice that you can leverage for self-growth.

Don’t just request feedback, but give it to others freely. It’s more than likely that your colleagues are battling their own imposter syndrome demons. That handwritten note on a presentation well-done or calling out a junior team member’s contributions at a meeting with the high-ups could help change your colleagues’ mindsets for the better.

Create a safe space for imposters

Every workplace and industry is under crushing pressure to achieve. You’re not living your best life unless you’re waking up at 4 a.m., featured in a ’30 Under 30’ list, a staggeringly high IQ, and a net-worth to match. These high standards can wreak havoc for those struggling with imposter syndrome. It’s almost natural to feel like a fraud when you’re not one of these high-flyers.

We all share the responsibility for creating a healthy environment for others to practice overcoming their imposter syndrome. For instance, this could mean creating a safe space in discussions. Notice that someone at the meeting table hasn’t piped up? Instead of putting them on the spot, send an email after the meeting to request their opinions. Encourage a colleague to apply for an internal position. Get into the habit of giving (and receiving) compliments.

Imposters Anonymous

The imposter phenomenon is so prevalent, and managing it is so much better with community support. Speaking openly and honestly about your experiences can have tremendous ripple effects. The best managers I’ve had talk candidly about the aspects of their work that they struggle with; they acknowledge their shortcomings and welcome suggestions.

Another strategy I’ve discovered is the resume swap. Get a colleague or friend from a similar industry to share their resume with you for feedback. From my experience with this, I’ve seen a consistent pattern emerge with the resumes from imposters:

  • Imposters downplay their achievements. They diminish their role in team achievements and hide the breadth and depth of their skillsets. They will leave out volunteer experiences or their side hustle as a small business owner, believing that these assets are irrelevant.
  • Imposters don’t communicate their goals and aspirations. They might have ten years of relevant experience but fail to convey that they are seeking an upper management position in the industry, for example.
  • Imposters are afraid to “break the mold” — they don’t infuse creativity or personality in their resumes for fear that these may be perceived as signs of weaknesses.

I’ve gotten fantastic feedback about how badly I had been underselling myself in my job applications. It was an eye-opening realization to how close I came to letting imposter syndrome get the upper hand.

Ultimately, it might be impossible to stamp out imposter syndrome completely. But putting in the work to become more aware of its influence on your thoughts and actions can make a huge difference. The more we confront it, deconstruct it and talk frankly about it, imposter syndrome loosens its grip, allowing you to step boldly in directions you never dreamed were possible.

Cat person, PhD-qualified Cell Biologist & Science Writer. Interested in trends and emerging technologies in the biopharma industry.

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