Effective Strategies and Tips to Conquer Imposter Syndrome

As a leader, no matter at what level, you will likely at some point find yourself wondering whether you’re making the right decision.

The degree of self-questioning will likely vary depending on your knowledge, skills, experience as well as how you feel about your role as a leader.

For most, the doubts will pass quickly-ish and you’ll move on with your day.

But for some, making decisions with high-levels of impact creates constant anxiety. To the point of it being incapable of actually making a decision. In extreme cases, it can devolve into an actual case of imposter syndrome.

So what can leaders do should they find themselves potentially dealing with imposter syndrome?

Understand what it is that you’re dealing with

The very, very first thing is, let's understand what it is that you are dealing with. The Oxford Languages defines imposter syndrome as: “The persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills. People suffering from imposter syndrome may be at risk of anxiety.”

Now, if we look at how the National Institutes of Health describes it, it says “a behavioral health phenomenon described as self-doubt of intellect, skills, or accomplishments among high-achieving individuals.”

Now, when I was looking at those definitions, trying to understand more about what it is exactly when we're talking about imposter syndrome, well, my very first question was, is this an actual medical condition? Does it necessarily require professional help and perhaps even medication in extreme cases?

Well, the American Psychological Association (APA) states that it isn't an official diagnosis listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Okay, fine. But that doesn't mean it's not real, just because it's not in that official book. It's not an official diagnosis listed as a mental disorder. It is still very much real. It doesn't mean that it's a made up thing. The APA also states that “Psychologists acknowledge that it is a very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt. Impostor feelings are generally accompanied by anxiety and, often, depression.”

So when we consider all of that and we think of the impact that it may have on an individual, although it doesn't require medical professional attention, it may still not be a bad idea to have that considered. It might not be a bad idea to speak to licensed therapists, speak to a doctor, especially when it gets to be so bad that it reaches high levels of anxiety, levels of depression. So when you reach that point, it should definitely be looked at.

Acknowledge and reframe it

Once we kind of understand what it is, what else can we do? Another thing is to acknowledge and reframe it. So acknowledge that imposter syndrome is a thing. Don't label it. Don't start judging yourself. Don't start saying, “Oh, I'm so weak.” or “I'm so dumb.” or “I'm so” this or that, or the other thing.

It's just a feeling that occurs. It's something that is happening. Observe it, recognize that, yes, this has a name. It's called imposter syndrome. This is what I'm feeling right now, and just let it be. Just kind of sit with that information. Because what can happen is if you start adding those labels, if you start saying, “Oh, why do I feel like this? I am a terrible leader. I shouldn't be feeling like this. Who am I? And what am I doing? And maybe I should just move on and do something completely different.” Well, it's just going to make it worse.

If you start judging it, if you start labeling it, if you start shaming yourself, you are just going to make it worse.

And if you paid close attention to the definitions I gave you, one thing that stood out is that it is common. If many people are talking about it, if the American Psychological Association is taking the time to talk about it, it's because it's prevalent. It's a common occurrence.

You are not alone. You're not this odd individual with these silly thoughts. No! A lot of people feel this way. So recognize that. And several people – I'm going to say suffer because it is suffering when you get to the point where it's anxiety and depression – suffer from this, and it's about how do we deal with it? And one of the ways to deal with it is acknowledging what it is without the label.

Start removing that shame for yourself. Start removing that idea that you're less than other leaders. You don't know what's going on in their minds. Remove that and recognize that it's common and acknowledge that this happens. And I would say that it might creep in, especially when you are trying to solve a problem and it takes longer than you expected or things aren't going well, it might creep in and you might start having those thoughts.

If you are, then just remind yourself that a lot of people are struggling with this. “Oh, I see what's happening with myself.” And just acknowledge that.

And as part of this, I know that personally, I have spoken with many experts in their field who have had days where they've questioned their abilities. Full disclosure, I have days where I question my abilities and it's normal. If we walked around never questioning ourselves, I would say we'd be pretty arrogant, right? Am I saying, I'm always right, everything always goes as planned, everything is perfect when I'm the leader. Of course not. And so it's just acknowledging that this is happening and also the degree to which it’s happening.

Because if you don't address it, if you start adding that shaming, that blaming, it can become much, much worse. And so what we're trying to do is make it easier to deal with. And I'm not saying that means go ahead, shout it from the rooftops, make lengthy social media posts about it.

No need to make the big videos where you're crying, admitting to the world that you suffer from imposter syndrome. No need to do that. By the way, no judgment for the people who do that. It's just not my personality, and I don't think it helps. Just personally, and again, just my little opinion. So no judgment on anybody else who does that. In my opinion. I think there's no need to do that. I think that there are other ways that would be much more helpful for you to deal with it.

And a way of doing that is reframing it because it comes in various degrees. So you might have it where it's just a question of, “Okay, what am I doing? Am I making the right decision?” The other extreme is being paralyzed, maybe some form of paralysis by analysis. To get to the point where you can't even do anything because you're so afraid of making the wrong decision. So afraid that you are not capable of analyzing and coming up with something that makes sense that you just don't do anything. And so, of course, there are two extremes, but as you start reframing it, then it will help you view it differently and intellectualize it.

I know that for myself, when I start intellectualizing it, it certainly helps create a detachment. And that emotional detachment actually helps create a bit more of an objective view, because then I'm trying to solve a problem or challenge as opposed to living an emotional difficulty. I'm not saying that you're not going to feel the pressure, you're not going to feel the stressors, but at the same time, if you try to make it more of an intellectual exercise by creating detachment, by recognizing what it is, maybe even going back and reading those definitions, being like, “Okay, this is the definition. Yep, it looks like I'm suffering from this. Okay, so how am I going to go about addressing this?”

Make a plan to address the root cause

Okay, now that you've recognized that this is what you have. Reframe it. Knowing that this is what it is, tell yourself that you will not shame yourself, and then go to step three, which is make a plan to address the root cause.

What does that look like once you've done all your observation?

You could find professionals to talk to, depending on how bad it is. You may want to talk to a therapist – and/or nothing is much mutually exclusive, you could have all of these things, whatever works for you. So it could be a therapist, you could speak to other entrepreneurs and just speak to someone who knows what it feels like, who knows what that pressure feels like, and talk to them about it. So other entrepreneurs, talk to other leaders, talk to a mentor, talk to a coach, a business coach.

Whoever can “get” what you are saying, who has been there, done it, understands it, and someone who knows that pressure, knows that feeling and the anxiety that accompanies it. I'm not saying that necessarily they may have it to the degree that you may have, but at least it's within the realm of. It's an understanding that can help you feel seen and heard.

I think that's why it's really good to talk to someone about these things no matter who you decide that person is.

Something that also helps when you're trying to come up with this plan to address it is to think back to see what may be causing this. Did something happen where someone made comments about your abilities, then something spectacularly failed and it shook you up and you haven't quite recovered from it? Try to dig and see if you can't come up with something. Put on your detective hat. As part of that detachment, try to come up with that almost professional intellectual overview and curiosity so that you can potentially identify how it came to be, especially if it's that bad. And if it's really that bad, maybe a therapist can help guide you in that reflection. But if not, maybe in just talking with somebody else, like another entrepreneur, another leader or coach, whatever, that could help you figure things out.

Once you start figuring out what is at that root cause, let's say it's an incident that happened, then you can start evaluating the incident again. Try to do it as detached as possible without labels, without judgment, and start seeing whether there are lessons learned from whatever it is that led you to feeling this way. And are there any lessons learned that could help prepare you to properly deal with similar situations in the future? Because that's what we're trying to do, right? We are trying to build up your skills further.

Once you do that, you're going to feel more confident that you will be able to handle those things. And that could be reading a book, it could be taking a course, it could be just developing your skills with someone. So those are all things that could help address those feelings and make you feel more confident and secure in your ability to make appropriate decisions and evaluate information.

Something else that is really helpful is keeping a journal of successes. If you look back at those moments when you're feeling particularly vulnerable, let's say you're about to give a big presentation, you're concerned about the solutions you're going to be presenting, break out that success – I'm going to say spreadsheet and look back at your successes. And that should help remind you that, “Hey, I've made some really great decisions as well. It wasn't all bad.” That little reel that's playing in your head, the highlights of all the disasters, try to create a reel of all the successes. That might help. Just looking back on those good moments during moments of doubt.

Another thing that is really helpful, and that's part of all the people that you can talk to, is to know who your cheerleaders are. And maybe that means when you've got something really, really big to present or really difficult to present, maybe you tap your cheerleader in and say, “Hey, can I just talk to you for like five, 10 minutes? I just really need a cheerleader right now.” And just get them shaking those virtual pompoms and go, rah, rah, you got this.

It’s not about faking it

From my perspective, dealing with imposter syndrome isn’t about faking it until you feel like you made it. To me, it represents the negative voices inside our heads that create self-doubt, from simple self-questioning to debilitating anxiety.

Depending on the degree of severity, make sure to seek out the appropriate level of help. Once the debilitating part has been brought back to a more manageable level, start addressing it like you would any other problem.

Recognize it, try to locate the source of the problem and come up with a plan to address it at its core. It may not completely get rid of it, but at least it will help give you back that sense of being a bit more in control. And by implementing an actual plan, it will highly likely, over time, diminish its power over you.

And provide you with the skills and tools to address it as any other challenge that comes your way.


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