Managing your impostor feelings

If you are reading this, you probably know you have impostor syndrome at least some of the time. But what do we do next? Just knowing that impostor syndrome is a thing can help, but that doesn't necessarily make it all go away. It's like people telling you now to worry: that's great and all, but kind of unhelpful. Well once you know more about your impostor inner-critic, here are some top tips on how to control how it makes you feel.

If you haven’t already diagnosed the sources of your impostor syndrome, go back and read the previous post. This is key, because although most of us recognise that we have impostor syndrome in us at various points, learning the types we experience helps with three things:

  1. Realising all the situations in which our impostor syndrome flares up. It probably comes up more than you think!
  2. Knowing the type of ‘impostor’ that any particular situation creates can help you tackle the symptoms in the most effective way.
  3. Being open to the idea that different types of impostor syndrome will crop up as you grow in your career. Like many emotions in our bodies, unfortunately, we can’t tackle this once and be done for life! Impostor syndrome and feelings of being a fraud of not enough will likely come back time and time again, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be as difficult to address every time. And remember: you aren’t one type of impostor! You may find that right now you align more with ‘perfectionist’, but that doesn’t mean you won’t become the ‘genius’ impostor in 6 months! And you might have multiple types right now as well. These labels help us understand what’s going on, but should never be used to put you or anyone else in a box.

At the end of the day, impostor syndrome is just another way that our lack of confidence manifests. Yes, it can be explained by psychology, and the roots of it give some context to why and how to tackle it. But it comes down to a confidence issue. And, with every confidence issue, we tackle it with mindset.

Here are some top tips to stop your impostor from taking control.

 Impostor syndrome never serves us, it only holds us back from thriving and doing more.

Stopping the impostor from taking away your confidence

If you haven’t already read the previous post and understood the type(s) of impostor you are, go back and read it now! We don’t repeat it here, as it makes this post too long. But it is essential to tackle the issues with as much knowledge as possible.

With all of the following tasks, it is important to accept and appreciate that your mindset is malleable and that when we develop a growth mindset in ourselves, where we believe that our only limitation is our capacity to be open to learning, we can change anything about ourselves. So please approach this post with the desire to change, and the belief that you can change the way your thoughts work. That doesn’t mean it will necessarily be easy, but if you go into this thinking that there is no hope, you will become a self-fulfilling prophecy!

Remember, as with all mindset and confidence work, repetition is key. So however ridiculous or time-wasting it seems, keep trying, and it will get easier, even if you don’t see results on day one.

Once you know your impostor, try these simple steps:

  1. The Perfectionist.
    As a perfectionist, you are probably finding that success isn’t satisfying, or that you don’t even manage to get as far as success because you are stalled and never get anything finished/delivered. Here are some tips to building a better rapport with your own success:
    • Start celebrating achievements, big and small. This is essential to build contentment in your life. As anyone who ever works with me knows, the first thing I ask anyone who tells me about an outcome, achievement or good day is ‘how are you celebrating?’. This doesn’t just come from a place of enjoying a good party (who doesn’t?!) but because pausing to celebrate can help re-train our brains to see more success when otherwise our brains would be seeing imperfection.
    • Redefine perfection. Part of understanding how to celebrate is realising when ‘good’ is ‘good enough’. Another way of viewing this is redefining perfection. If the definition of perfect ‘was perfect for the job and within the timeframe allowed to the budget available’, perfection would be different! So try reframing your brain to a different type of perfection.
    • See mistakes as ways to grow. For a long time, I used to look back and focus in on the bad things, the ‘regrets’. I recently realised I have no regrets! Seriously, none! How is this possible? Because I see every mistake, every wrong turn, and everything I’ve done along my personal journey as something I’ve learnt from. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t made all those wrong turns! Coming from a research/academic background (which, by definition, is full of failure as you test hypothesise, many of which will fail), this was extremely difficult. But this is also a great way to approach life. Embrace life being one big research journey: test, try your best, but if it doesn’t work, that’s good – you still learnt from it.
    • Push through the procrastination. This is the most difficult tool in the book, but if you notice your brain procrastinating because you need it to be perfect, and redefining perfection isn’t working, it’s time to acknowledge you are procrastinating and push through to make progress. Rationalise on why the procrastination is just that and that it comes from fear rather than serving you.
    • Get a coach/mentor/accountability partner to hold you to account. If in doubt, the idea of having to report progress to someone else who knows you have this perfectionism streak is powerful. In general, I don’t advise using a boss or colleague for this because that relationship is important for your professional success and can make your perfectionism more extreme: those are the people your perfectionism is centred around. So get someone external who can call you out on your perfectionist tendencies.
  2. The Superwoman (or Superman!)
    It is worth remembering that being a workaholic because of impostor syndrome, is actually a reflection of needing validation. That need for reassurance and that emotional boost of ‘well done’ from an external source is what is driving the superwoman impostor. If you live for the next ‘well done’, you will always overwork, probably burn out, or always feel under-fulfilled. And when you reach leadership positions, there is often a dearth of ‘well done’! As you nurture the following skills to work on how your inner-critic responds in superwoman-situations, remember that the goal is to ease-off and feel the need to work at a more reasonable rate. Here’s what you can do:
    • Before you start anything, write down some milestones along the way to look out for. Make sure these are recorded and that you go back to them so you aren’t tempted to shift the milestones/ignore them.
    • Look out for times when you are seeking external validation. Are you fishing for compliments in a conversation? Are you disappointed when you don’t get a thank-you email or a special mention in a meeting?
    • When you realise you want external validation, attempt to veer away from this.  What can you do to give yourself internal validation? Did you meet a milestone or deliver on something? Don’t let scope creep of your own milestones mean you don’t provide yourself with validation.
    • Celebrate meeting your own milestones. Build internal validation into your daily routine.
    • Congratulate yourself on the simple things in life and recognise them for what they are. Much of the time the external validation comes from not believing in ourselves or belittling the things we see as simple. All too often we focus on being busy, and not wanting to become self-centred, but this means we dismiss our own achievements.  No one wants to become egotistical, but this isn’t the same as recognising your own achievements. So start recognising the good things you do every day, however small they may seem.
    • Learn how to take criticism constructively. One major symptom of being a superwoman impostor is the inability to not take criticism so personally that it is destructive. Start reframing criticisms into how it can help you grow instead, and look for steps to help you do that.
    • Finally, remember to ease off the work. Figuring out how much to ease off takes confidence, and will come as you build your ability to self-validate, but don’t forget about it!
  3. The Natural Genius.
    If you have found for much of your life that you can complete tasks and push through challenges easier than your peers, the day you hit a challenge can knock the confidence from you and make you feel that if you can’t complete something with ease and simplicity, that you are somehow broken.  To counter this you need to retrain your brain to realise that difficult tasks are actually the most fun!
    • Remember you don’t need to get things right first time round.
    • Every day reflect on the idea that you are a work in progress (the day you stop growing and learning is really not a good day!). Build some time into your schedule to think about all the things you figured out today for the first time and how good that felt. And for the things you didn’t figure out, reflect on what you learnt and how you can use this in the future.
    • Identify things you are avoiding because you find it difficult. Pick one at a time and tackle them head-on. Get some training in presentation skills or go on a course to skill-up. As before, a mentor, coach or accountability partner can be a useful tool to shortcutting the identification of things you are avoiding and the action needed.
  4. The Soloist.
    If you find yourself believing that you can do things faster by yourself than in a team, its time to retrain the brain to team thinking! Here are some prompts to put in front of yourself whenever you find yourself reluctant to delegate:
    • Are you struggling? It’s time to get some help!
    • Are you doing work that some part of you knows isn’t your job? Remind yourself that investing the time in training someone else up is an investment in your future time. TEAM IQ outperforms soloist IQ every time, but this only works when you trust your team so the team is fully functional.
    • There are multiple valid approaches everything.  Just because you wouldn’t leave something like that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a successful outcome if it is not your way. Define success as a concept and train your colleagues in the definition of success, not your specific approach to it.
    • Are you the bottleneck in your team/business? Do you insist on everything going through you? If yes, write a list of what really matters to the reputation of the business. Then figure out why you don’t trust others with this. Do you have real evidence that a specific person’s approach would be bad?
    • Become a better mentor: aim to mentor someone to do work like you would do it And expect the day when you realise that is what you would have produced. It is often very easy to keep critiquing well beyond when we would critique our own work, so pay attention and look for this occurring.
  5. The Expert.
    The tendency to always seek more information before making decisions, starting, or finishing a task can be a source of procrastination and hold us all back. Start by focusing on learning ONLY when you need to:
    • Are you considering taking a course/qualification just because you think its the only way you’ll get that job/opportunity? This is extremely common and holds so many of us back. And sometimes our friends are our worst enemies: they mean well but will validate your misconceptions based on their experiences. For example, if you ask a friend with an MBA if you need an MBA to do what they do, they will almost certainly say yes – because that is their experience. Instead, look for people who don’t have what you think you need but are doing what you want and ask them for advice. Don’t rely on what one person has told you/has done, but instead try and get multiple people validating the need for the training. At various points in my life, I’ve been told I must have an MBA, I must have a particular qualification, or that having a Ph.D. would stop me achieving something. I was even told that women in tech don’t pay for coaching! And all of these comments were given to me with the best of intentions. Every single one has been proven not to be true. So get additional validation of any assumptions you have before you hold yourself back.
    • Learn as you need to. Dive into a problem and figure out what you are missing along the way.
    • Look for every opportunity that you could ask for help. This is particularly true if you’ve just finished anything where the success was entirely dependent on you, such as being a student or running your own business. Asking for help isn’t shameful, but sometimes it can feel like it is.
    • Start mentoring. Mentoring others can be a great way to notice when you are not asking for help yourself.

Many of these techniques work for more than one of the types of impostor listed above. And of course, you may be exhibiting one or more types of impostor. I have at times been subject to superwoman, perfectionist and natural genius all for the same task! Completing my graduate studies definitely emphasised the soloist and expert in me. But at any one time, I focus on which is the most critical symptom I’m currently experiencing, what is holding me back the most, and tackling that one head-on. Impostor syndrome will keep coming up for the majority of us. But each time we tackle it we are better equipped to identify and tackle it head-on and more swiftly next time around.

These days impostor syndrome doesn’t hold me back from my work. Today, it just occasionally means I have some self-doubt I work through, but I notice it swiftly and have it dealt with quickly. If this doesn’t yet feel true for you, remember it can be, but it takes a commitment to not letting feeling like an impostor control your emotions.

So go ahead, take control of the impostor inside you.

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