Many successful women suffer from impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome is the feeling that you’re a fraud—that you’re somehow less qualified than your peers, less deserving of success, and that you’ll be “found out” if you don’t work longer and harder than everyone else.
Despite the fact that I’ve been a corporate vice president, a president, a CEO, and have served on the boards of four Fortune 500 companies, I struggled for many years during my career before I no longer needed external validation to believe I was doing a great job. Just about every new accomplishment came with the stultifying doubt that I did not deserve the success and that sooner or later I would be discovered as an impostor.
For example, in early 1973 I got an entry-level job in Avon’s merchandising department. Secretly, I was terrified that I would be found lacking in preparation, intellect, and ability. The impostor fears started creeping up on me even as I interviewed for the job. I can still remember trying to look calm and confident even though I was churning inside. You see, I had no marketing experience and only knew what I had learned in my marketing classes at Columbia, but I also knew that the job required analytical skills. So I talked about my undergraduate degree in math, hoping that that would suggest I was comfortable with numbers. (I prayed that the interviewer would not ask me any marketing questions!) When I left the interview, I was thankful I had been able to sidestep questions about marketing, and felt that I had put up a good front.
But here’s the hitch—and what’s so insidious about impostor syndrome. I immediately started to worry about what would happen if I did get the job. I remember thinking: “Will I be able to meet their expectations? Will they realize I lack the right skills to be successful?”
To complicate matters, with the exception of one woman I met in human resources, every other person I met with that day was a white man. There were few women in executive positions at that time. I was even more keenly aware of how few other African Americans there were at Avon.
But I got the job and within a year I was promoted from assistant planner to associate planner. However, the impostor syndrome doesn’t allow success to go unpunished. Right away, I began worrying about being able to perform at this higher level of responsibility. And I felt that I needed to work even harder to prove that I could do the job. I would have laughed if someone had told me then that I would eventually become the first African American female vice president of Avon, and the company’s first vice president of global marketing. I sure didn’t feel that I could fill those shoes back then.
After almost 19 years with Avon, I realized that I had hit a real glass ceiling and that if I wanted to move to the next level of senior management I would probably have to leave the company. At that point, I suddenly felt a level of comfort in who I was and what I had achieved. All the success and recognition I had received over the years seemed to have sunk in without my noticing. I now believed in my abilities and management skill enough to step out to find the next challenging opportunity.
A feeling of inadequacy is a common experience among successful women—but with enough determination and self-reflection, we can learn to manage it. Based on my own experiences and those of other women with impostor syndrome whom I interviewed for my book, The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success, here are 10 ways to conquer it.
1. Take a hard look at your work habits.
Does working harder than anyone else around you really make you feel less like a fake? Or are you merely trying to compensate for feeling unworthy? After you answer these questions you may begin to see what makes you feel truly worthy in your own eyes.
2. Learn to internalize external validation.
When someone compliments you on a task you did really well, resist your habitual negative response and just let the information sink in. Another way to practice this is to ask a trusted ally what your special gifts are; listen carefully and “metabolize” your friend’s words.
3. Turn like-minded people into allies.
Clarify your own values, and build connections with people who share those values. If you feel like the “odd man out”—perhaps because you’re the youngest, you’re a woman, or you have a different race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background than your peers—don’t give power to the assumptions others may make about you. Work on owning who you are and what you believe in. Find people who see the real you.
4. Don’t suffer in silence.
Rather than harboring secret fears, speak about your feelings with a trusted friend, a coach, a mentor, your partner, or a therapist. Or express your real feelings in a journal or a recorder. One of the symptoms of impostor syndrome is isolating from one’s peers and suffering in silence.
5. Look in an accurate mirror.
How realistic is your way of seeing yourself and your abilities and accomplishments? Do a reality check by making a list of your special skills and the qualities you have that attract people to you and have gotten you this far.
6. See others objectively.
In a similar vein, practice seeing other people as they really are, with their own needs and foibles, strengths and weaknesses. Learning to see and accept flaws in others will allow you to see yourself in the same way—with compassion and understanding.
7. Look at your fear.
Take a hard look at what you’re really afraid of. You may realize that what you’re feeling is a perfectly natural reaction to what you’re experiencing. Feeling unfit for your position is, in part, a conditioned emotional response to stress. Learn to distinguish the stress of moving up into new levels of responsibility and influence from the conditioned response of impostor fears.
8. Take stock of your success.
Keep a written inventory of your skills, accomplishments, and experiences to understand your success. Use logic and facts to assuage your fears. This will help you strengthen the skill of internal validation. Successful people get validation from others, but they most need it from themselves.
9. Have a sense of humor.
One of the best ways to maintain perspective is to laugh as often as possible—especially at yourself. People with impostor syndrome are often unable to joke and relax in the workplace, because they fear that they’ll be perceived as slackers. Enjoying your work and your life needn’t be a luxury that’s reserved for others, but not you.
10. Find the life you really want.
Ask yourself whether you’re satisfied with your life and your job. If you aren’t, make a change. Sometimes the need to prove ourselves to others keeps us stuck in a position that’s not conducive to real growth and fulfillment. Living an authentic life will help you minimize worries about not fitting in, no matter how high you move up the social ladder.
Want to know if you have impostor syndrome? Take a free quiz here.
- Oprah: 6 Daring Women Reveal Where They Find Their Confidence
- Forbes: 9 Ways to Boost Your Confidence at Work
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