Have you ever felt like a fraud? If so, you’re not alone. Imposter syndrome is when we feel like a fraud, despite strong evidence to the contrary. Many professionals, especially women, are tortured by the idea that they’re not good enough, they don’t belong, and/or they’re not ready to take on the next big challenge.
And in most cases, these ideas are simply not true. Today, I want to talk about why it’s easy to feel like a fraud, how to overcome this potentially debilitating noise in your head, and share a few stories about my own experiences in this area.
Five common paths to feeling like a fraud
In my coaching practice, I hear wildly successful professionals doubt themselves and their abilities on a weekly basis. You’d think success would quiet this doubt, but in many cases, it amplifies it. Becoming a leader of any kind whether that is a director, vice president, or CEO, doesn’t make people immune to these feelings.
Here are five ways that imposter syndrome can show up:
- Comparison — Wisely described as the thief of joy, comparing ourselves to others generally isn’t helpful, unless we’re using other people’s success to help us plan our own development path.
- Perfectionism — Perfectionists are terrified of making mistakes and easily find fault with their successes.
- Expectations — Related to perfectionism, setting high expectations or unrealistic standards for ourselves often leads to feelings of inadequacy.
- New opportunities — Facing unfamiliar situations can often trigger feelings of doubt or incompetence, even if it’s a challenge we’re excited about.
- External validation — Relying on external praise for building our own self-worth can actually create doubt and a lack of confidence. But, as you’ll see in the story below, it can give us the boost we need to move forward.
Feeling like a fraud at the Bombay Furniture Company
When I was the VP of Sales and Operations at Marks and Spencer’s, our real estate broker, John, came to me and said, “They’re looking for a president in Canada for the Bombay Furniture Company. You should apply.”
I quickly said, “Oh, I’m not ready to be the president!” That was the story I told myself, but John, as my cheerleader and advocate, set me straight immediately. He reminded me of everything I had accomplished in the previous years and finished with, “Of course you’re ready.”
John’s nudge convinced me to apply. I got the job, and it was nine years of some of the best experiences I’d ever had in my retail career. I’m so grateful that he encouraged me, which gave me the pause and confidence that I needed to reframe my thinking. Because in that moment, I could’ve easily talked myself out of that amazing opportunity!
The lesson I learned from that situation is one of the solutions to overcoming feeling like a fraud. Fortunately, there’s a lot we can do to mitigate the negative impact when we feel like a fraud.
How to get over feeling like a fraud
Constantly doubting ourselves is exhausting! Though it’s also challenging to overcome the unhelpful stories we ruminate about, it’s well worth it.
Recognize your feelings
Bringing awareness to the nefarious work of our inner critic is the first step to getting over feeling like a fraud. When we can acknowledge what’s happening, we become better equipped to address the issue. (For more information on transforming your inner critic into your biggest cheerleader, read my article, Managing Your Gremlin.)
Once we realize we’re thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’m not ready for that and I don’t have enough experience,” we can reframe and/or challenge those thoughts. We can start by simply asking, “What evidence supports these thoughts? What evidence doesn’t support these ideas?” Recognizing nagging thoughts is a gateway to replacing those ruminations with more validating, positive, and affirming messages.
Know your “why”
If your “why” is firm, it’s difficult for self-doubt to take hold.
Last summer, I applied to do my PhD. I interviewed in June, found out I was accepted in July, and spent the rest of the summer excited about it. But a week before classes started in September, I totally panicked. My unhelpful thoughts were, “What am I doing? I haven’t been in school in over 30 years, and I’ll have to learn to read and write all over again. Everything is online and I’m not a techie. I’m investing all this money, just to be called Dr. Vicki?”
Fortunately, I recognized my gremlin coming to the surface, so I did some soul-searching and reconnected to my why, which calmed the panic. I realized I wanted to pursue this goal to push myself out of my comfort zone, learn new things, and be better equipped to help more people reach their goals. I won’t lie, that first semester was tough! But I got into the groove and am feeling the joy of being a student, business owner, and mom—without neglecting self-care.
For me, the moral of the story is this: If you’re connected to your why, you gotta keep going, even when you feel like a fraud. You’re doing it for you, nobody else, and you’re worth it!
Speak up for what you want
Are you guilty of expecting others to read your mind? Stop! Instead, start communicating effectively—the right messages to the right people—about what you want.
One of my clients recently went through a reorganization and mentioned she saw it as an opportunity to increase her leadership skills. I said, “That’s great. How will you communicate that to the powers that be?” She replied, “Oh, well, I’ll just wait and see if they include me.”
If you know anything about me, you’ll know that client and I spent some time exploring her comment. We talked about why she thought it was up to them to come to her, how she’d feel if they didn’t approach her, and what information she’d like the right people to know. It wasn’t an easy conversation, but we uncovered some assumptions, and she made a plan to move forward.
It’s normal to need a bit of external pushing—like I did for my client and John did for me, many years ago. But nobody can help you if you don’t help people understand what you want.
Don’t sweat “the how”
When people start new challenges, it’s common for doubt to creep in because they don’t know how to do something related to the new role or project. This is normal because we can’t know how to do things before we know how to do them!
If you know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and you have a smart team, trust yourself. You’re capable and competent and you’ll figure it out.
When I started WIL Empowered, my gremlin got noisy, asking questions like, “Vicki, you’ve worked in corporate your entire life, what do you know about being an entrepreneur?”
But I reminded myself that I’m capable and competent, that I spent 30 years in corporate building teams, solving problems, and being agile—the same skills I’ve needed to become a successful entrepreneur.
This leads me to the next solution to overcome feeling like a fraud…
We all make mistakes. And though some mistakes have serious consequences, most of the ones we worry about don’t. When we fail fast and avoid making the same mistakes over and over, mistakes help us grow and reflect on how we could approach things differently, broaden our perspective, and become better able to handle new challenges.
I made a lot of mistakes as a new entrepreneur, including spending too much money on unhelpful things. But each time, I pivoted and moved on because those mistakes were part of my learning journey. This year, I’m making new mistakes and I’m sure I’ll make new—but different—mistakes next year too.
Acknowledge and celebrate successes
Many professional women fall into the habit of moving on before acknowledging and celebrating successes. We underplay our success—even me, and I’m a very confident person. And we don’t celebrate the milestones on the way to achieving the full goal or project.
But it’s time to stop doing that! Instead, create a list of your accomplishments to remind you that you’re capable of becoming the person and professional you want to be. Share your wins with other people—including the right people. When we acknowledge and document our successes, we’re less likely to fall into the rut of feeling like a fraud.
Are you tired of feeling like a fraud?
Feeling like a fraud is exhausting and a waste of energy—because you’re probably the opposite of a fraud! If you’ve tried overcoming symptoms of imposter syndrome, but are still struggling, keep going. And, if you’re ready to get some support, connect with me. I can help you understand your worth, connect to your why, and transform your inner critic into your biggest cheerleader.
Hi, I’m Vicki Bradley, an executive coach in Toronto and the Founder and CEO of Women in Leadership Empowered.
I work with women pursuing success in executive leadership roles and the presidents and CEOs who understand that strong businesses are built with strong, diverse leadership.
WIL Empowered is a group coaching program where we focus on all four aspects of leadership development through coaching, networking, peer-to-peer mentoring, and developing power skills. Our mission is to help women develop the skills, motivation, and accountability required to succeed in their business and personal lives.
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