Imposter Syndrome & its shenanigans
And how to embrace it for posterity
Not so long ago, I had the fortune to go through a strenuous period in my career, under the erstwhile leadership of a not-so-great manager. I was pushed hard to accomplish some great tasks through less-than-spectacular leadership philosophy. I definitely learned a lot in retrospect, especially a new problem space in a relatively short period of time, however the entire experience left a bad after-taste (which even exorcisms couldn’t fully cure!).
The other thing which it made me do (and I felt odd experiencing this), is doubt myself, which is strange considering the fact that I worked my a** off, learned a great deal, took up opportunities that came my way, helped make a positive dent in the business, and grew as a leader in my own right. Then why did I feel exhausted, bitter, and not so sure of my abilities? I sometimes found myself looking outside-in, going about my job functions as an automaton, losing the zest for my role, and not “capable” enough to be here. Maybe hiring me for this job was not the best decision of my manager; was I even worth being here in this role?
Later, after much introspection (& lots of “therapy”-like conversations with friends and allies) did I figure out that what I had experienced /was experiencing was nothing more than an “imposter syndrome”, and it doesn’t reflect on my abilities to do my job well, but on external factors which (try as I may) were not within my control. I left that role, and now under the leadership of an empathetic manager, my imposter syndrome is definitely under regression. Being part of an accepting team that genuinely cares has definitely helped in this regard, as well as my own thought-process that has slowly but surely put myself in good standing in front of my own eyes.
So how can you make Imposter Syndrome work for you, rather than you desperately trying to overcome it? It can be a source of strength in your chest of armor, more like an ally that always brings out the best in you.
Tackling Imposter Syndrome as a Woman -
These 5 strategies are a guide to tackle this syndrome the way you think fit for your situations —
#1 Embrace it| Accept it | Learn
For the longest time, I thought of this syndrome as something that I need to overcome, to crush or to eliminate from my life. How wrong was I! When I started hiking these last few months in Washington (the evergreen state), I realized that this humongous, scary thing is nothing to be afraid of. Well, the thing is, I got crushed on my very first hike — I chose Mt. Ellinor, a 6.2 mile roundtrip day hike with 3344 ft of elevation gain — which was surprising since I run and am in good shape overall. That crippling feeling came about — am I good enough to hike? I couldn’t even do this one, what’re the chances I’ll be able to the next ones? But I also realized that the reason this snafu happened was because I wasn’t well prepared. I did not have the proper hiking gear (which is usually half the battle won), and I did not read up about the trail, the conditions, packing list, must-dos etc.
So then after a few weeks of recuperating my shattered ego, I mustered the courage to sign myself up for another hike — Snow Lake (7.2 miles, roundtrip Elevation Gain 1800 feet). It was moderate, definitely not quad busting, and something I’d accomplish with all the timely gear that I ordered off of Amazon. It paid off — t’was a beautiful hike with some challenging terrain, but nothing that someone with my fitness levels couldn’t cope with. And from thereon, I completed many more hikes — some easy, some moderate and others strenuous.
But I got my confidence back. It wasn’t a black box that I couldn’t fathom. I knew the reasons that led to the mishap — my preparation level wasn’t up to the mark, unfavorable external conditions (started with a sunny day, deteriorating into rain & snow), and of course my fitness levels needed some fine-tuning. By slowly optimizing each factor, I could happily progress on my hiking goals for this summer.
Hence instead of treating this syndrome as something you need to overcome, you can embrace it for what it is — a bit of fear, low self-confidence, confusion — and convert it into a learning experience. Learn from it, strive to improve yourself, and progress towards your goals.
#2 Introspect | deep-seated fears
This feeling of doubt mostly creeps in for women — why is that so? What is it about our identities that we feel so insecure about that we’re constantly worrying if we’re good or not at our professional and personal lives? Whilst striving to improve yourself consistently is a phenomenal thing, it should not come at the cost of you constantly doubting your past and current achievements and “goodness” that you’ve accumulated over the years.
Introspection works in a way that allows us to question our very being, why are we feeling the way we do, which deep-seated fears are we truly grappling with?
- Am I feeling inadequate because others around me are better than me at this thing?
- is someone belittling me making me feel “less-than”?
- am I overwhelmed with the amount of work in front of me?
- is it that I’m not putting in the effort to get the job done?
- am I not suited for this problem-space/role?
- are my efforts mis-directed? am I working on my priorities or getting distracted with peripherals?
- have I put sufficient boundaries in place, and if I’ve, am I measuring success outside the periphery of my limits?
- am I not at par with my peers? what are my areas of development?
I love these questions since they not only help me with this syndrome, but also help me become aware of my strengths and areas of opportunity in my career. By consciously trying to understand the factors underlying this syndrome, I can work to banish the ones which are mere speculations and hone on in the ones that will truly make me stronger.
#3 Build a network of allies
As mentioned in the beginning, at one of my more recent jobs, I gave it my best, but still felt short of the endeavor. But then I got myself out of that situation asap (or as fast as I could!), and in the process started building allies around me — friends, new team members, new manager and others outside the team — who’d inspire trust and confidence in me. Yes, ideally, we should not require outside validation, but humans are social animals, and it’s okay to be vulnerable and derive a source of strength from the confidence that others have in you — your parents, your well-wishers, your genuine friends.
Allies can provide different perspectives which act as a forcing function for you to re-look at your strategy, your way of doing things, your path, your narrative. And in cases when you don’t have a solution or are feeling lost, allies can potentially point you in the right direction, help you to ask those difficult questions required for introspection.
#4 Earning Entitlement by putting in the hard work
Psychology of a Rich White American Man
I love seeing myself as an underdog, or a dark horse — there’s a different kind of pleasure to see everyone not take notice of you initially, and then you drop a sudden unexpected success or accomplishment of yours, which then acts as a forcing function for your team to take notice of you *mike drop*. I love those moments; in a way everyone does, because who doesn’t love under-dogs? We root for them in real-life, and in movies too!
However, when I read Mindy Kaling’s book ‘Why Not Me?’, I loved the way she talked about entitlement & privilege. Sometimes it can be exhilarating to throw out all the punches, and act like someone entitled to take over the world. Albeit with the right kind of hard work and humbleness backing you. Someone whom the world conspires for, to make things happen; and that attitude, that persona can many a times just work in your favor — maybe get you invited to the ‘powerful’ luncheon or beget you an interested audience for your opinions.
That kind of humbleness, drive, grit, hard work, fearlessness and confidence is a hard mix to drive, but sometimes you need to fake it till you be it. Having reflective moments every day or at-least every once in a while, lets you check which qualities are overtaking the others, and how can you regain balance between them.
Another method to add some oomph in your thinking is to think of yourself as not yourself, but a warrior — especially in challenging situations where you need that extra boost of self-confidence to vanquish your rivals. I jest! but you get the picture! You can even rename it to whatever you want. Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Show calls her alter-person ‘Beyoncé Pad Thai’.
#5 Put yourself out there
I recently heard this great sentence in one of the better movies of our day — TopGun: Maverick. Don’t Think, Just Do.
“Don’t think, just Do”
In my public speaking engagements, I don’t really have the confidence to go in front of a large audience and give a roaring talk. Mostly, I’m engulfed with a cycle of limiting thoughts, pre-talk scaries and self-doubting notions before any major talk or other such event. However, I make it a point to prepare as best as I can and go for it — knowing fully well that I might make a fool of myself, but that’d be okay! Me accepting that my (supposed) failure might be okay in the grand scheme of things is the most liberating thought for my mind. Then I go ahead and do the job. By putting myself in these uncomfortable situations, I force myself to grow in my career and build resilience in the face of new and challenging circumstances. And lo & behold, I come out of these engagements feeling super-charged and looking forward to my next piece of adventure.
Sometimes the best gift that you can give yourself is just by doing, by launching yourself into the deep unknown. It might mean extreme dis-comfort, but then, it might also convert into an alpine flight.
How does Imposter Syndrome affect you? Is it common for women more than men? What do you do when this syndrome raises its ugly head?
Comment below so that I can learn from you!