Impostor syndrome. Doesn’t matter what field you’re in — everyone seems to have some experience with it, especially if you’re young or new to an industry.
What is impostor syndrome? It’s basically a deeply ingrained self-doubt and belief that every one has more experience than you. That for some reason, even though you’re qualified and have experience of your own, you don’t belong and it’s a mistake for you to be in the position you are in.
And that sucks! It’s really easy to see from the outside how this sort of thinking is flawed, but when you’re in the middle of it, gaining perspective to see your own worth is difficult.
I’ve seen this most commonly in academia. Graduate students have a difficult time making the leap from student to professional, and don’t often grasp the realities of how their accomplishments are valuable. The ironic thing is that even after getting a PhD, early career academics are struck with the same affliction: there’s always someone to further along the path to compare yourself with.
It really comes down to confidence. If you’re able to clearly understand the skills that you have and the benefits that you bring to a job for another situation, then you can feel more confident in the fact that you belong there. It’s good to stay constructively critical of yourself, but it’s not productive to let criticism become self doubt.
So how can you shake yourself out of this and start to feel more confident in yourself?
Here are a couple of exercises you can try to help change your thinking.
Introduce yourself to yourself.
Think about your best friend, or someone else that you really admire and respect. How would you describe that person to someone else, if they had never met them? What sort of language would you use, and what qualities, traits, or accomplishments would you highlight in order to give a clear and accurate picture of them?
In these cases, we’re most likely to try and paint a positive picture of our friend. Sure, maybe they have some weaknesses that you know about since you’re so close. But those aren’t the things that you tell someone about them, are they?
Now, put yourself in your friend’s shoes. How would they go about describing you to someone else?
Sit down and write out this introduction — literally write it, as if you were composing a character sketch. What kind of job do you have or what work do you to? What kind of personality traits stand out — optimism, determination, rationality? What sort of skills do you have that are significant, that might be used to advertise your abilities to others? What are your priorities?
Chances are, as you work through this little character sketch, you’re going to get stuck on something. This can give you some idea about where your insecurities really lie. Maybe your job involves research, but you hesitate in promoting your skills at fact-finding and report writing. Or maybe you have to do a lot of public speaking, but don’t want to say that you’re great at engaging the audience.
Oftentimes, you can build some confidence to overcome these insecurities by doing a little extra training or research. On the one hand, you might have an “I know this already!” moment, and realize that you’re better equipped than you think. On the other hand, you might build up a skill. Win-win!
Make a professional CV and a personal CV.
If you’ve been in one job for a while, odds are you haven’t touched your CV or resume since you applied for it. If you’re not actively on a job hunt, then why would you?
Well, there’s two great reasons to keep your professional CV up to date.
1. It creates a concrete database of your skills, experience, and accomplishments, that you can refer to and use to remind yourself of all the hard work you’ve done.
2. It makes it infinitely easier in case you do decide to look for a new job someday. Avoid trying to recall years of training courses and employment dates by keeping a current CV!
Keeping your LinkedIn profile up to date, or just keeping a word document with all this information logged, can be just as good.
This sort of exercise is not just practical, but it can be a great reminder of all the reasons that you are qualified for the position you’re in. Even if your experience isn’t as linear as others, all accomplishments can be learning experiences. Your unique history provides you with a unique skillset that can make you an asset, as long as you know how to identify and leverage those skills!
What about a personal CV?
Besides your professional CV, making a personal CV is an excellent way to paint a more well-rounded picture of yourself for personal evaluation. This is something just for yourself — though it might help you to translate your other experiences into professional skills.
A personal CV can include all sorts of other life experiences that an employer might not be interested in. You’re more than the sum of your employment, after all. This might include:
• being a caregiver for a sibling, a parent, or another person
• a long solo holiday that you planned and executed
• a home organization system that you created to control domestic chaos
• a study abroad term, where you faced new social challenges or language barriers
• overcoming an addiction or habit, like quitting smoking
It doesn’t matter if the accomplishment is big or little. What matters is the size of the impact that it had on you.
All of these examples are things that demonstrate a huge range of skills, both innate and learned. Patience, listening skills, bravery, organization, ability to think on your feet. These skills are hard to quantify sometimes, so creating a personal CV that records concrete examples of them can be an amazing tool for understanding your own abilities.
Talk to your peers, coworkers, and mentors.
Talking to other people can be an instant balm for a lot of problems. As social creatures, we rely on connections with other people for reassurance, advice, and commiseration.
If you’re feeling like an impostor in your field, then you probably have peers who you are comparing yourself against. Maybe there are several people in your company doing the same job, and you feel that the others are outperforming you. Or maybe you’re aspiring to be a writer, and feel that if you can’t be the next J.K. Rowling, you’re not doing a good enough job.
Discussing your work with peers can instantly shatter some of those insecurities. Initiating a conversation about it doesn’t have to be as direct as saying, “I feel like an impostor and I don’t belong here”. You can lead the conversation by asking questions, and initiating a back-and-forth of sharing and listening that can benefit both parties.
Some questions you might use to open up this conversation could be…
…You’re always juggling a lot of projects, how do you manage your time?
…I heard about this new software that could make this task easier, is this something you have trouble with too?
…I didn’t know this job would involve so many phone calls. How do you deal with that?
Starting with an observation or a statement about yourself, and then providing them with a question, can be an effective way of kicking off a discussion
Yes, it can make you a little vulnerable to admit that you’re having difficulty with something or feel that you’re underperforming. But most people respond quite well to admissions like this, and are much more willing to admit to their own experiences as a result. If you take the first step, you’ll often find that the peers you’re comparing yourself with are facing challenges of their own. Forming a dialogue about this can support you both.
Find an outlet for your authority.
Everyone was an expertise in something. This could be an interesting talent, a skill you’ve developed, a topic you know a lot about, or an experience you lived through.
A great way to boost your confidence, shake off the impostor syndrome feeling, and to do something with this expertise is to find a way to use that knowledge to create something you can be proud of. Sure, it can be something that goes on your CV, but it can also be something that you can personally enjoy and feel invested in!
Finding an outlet does require some creativity. Identifying your expertise is the first step. Second is coming up with the appropriate forum for that knowledge. That could be:
• a blog or writing project, either published or online
• a social media outreach campaign, promoting an idea, a habit, or a cause
• a lecture series, where you find a group or organization related to your expertise to volunteer with
• a mentorship program, where you can offer support and perspective to people following a similar path
Finding an outlet is a fantastic use of your time. Being able to give back to a community, whether in person or digitally, will make you feel really invested in a cause and will do wonders for your confidence.
And more than this, you have the opportunity to really help someone! Much like the benefits of discussing your experiences with your peers, supporting other people in a wider community is a two-way street.
Change your language.
An ongoing change that you can make to help overcome your impostor syndrome is to change the language you use, both internally and externally.
Take a look at the ways that you communicate with the outside world. Is it apologetic? Or is it direct, and straight to the point?
The way that you communicate with others is part of your “personal brand”, and says a lot about your confidence. The attitude that you demonstrate in your written communication (emails, texts, reports) and in your verbal communication (meetings, presentations, even casual conversations) will tell others a lot about you; it will also affect the way that you feel about yourself.
If your emails always start with, “Sorry to bother you, but…” or “I know you’re busy, but…”, then you’re diminishing your own importance. These apologetic starts to a message tell the receiver that your input isn’t very important (and if you’re sending a message, it must be something that needs to be said), and it tells yourself that your concerns are secondary to someone else’s.
Making strong statements doesn’t mean being rude. It’s just a matter of being direct, and not padding your message with unnecessary apologies or excuses. Politeness goes a long way, too.
The best kind of emails are:
If you can review missives before sending to ensure that they meet these three criteria, you’ll find that you’re more confident in your interactions with others on a professional level.
Also, take a look at your internal communication. Are you doing a lot of negative self-talk? Do you put yourself down for small mistakes or even imagined mistakes?
There are lots of different hacks out there to trick your brain into thinking more positively, but nothing works quite as well as changing the language that you use. Some people find daily affirmations really helpful.
Building up self confidence and overcoming impostor syndrome is an ongoing battle. Everyone has days where they doubt their abilities. The important thing it to have a reliable way of reminding yourself of your accomplishments and skills, and to be mindful of the small things we can do each day to stop undermining ourselves.