If you’ve ever felt like your accomplishments were mere strokes of luck or that you’re constantly on the verge of being exposed as a fraud, you’re not alone. Impostor syndrome is an internal battle that plagues even the most accomplished minds. I decided to tackle this topic today because this is becoming more common for people in their careers and it can really happen to everyone. As an entrepreneur I’ve experienced this often and I still fight with it from to time. Starting Anthropos has been one of those moments where I did ask myself if I was really capable of building another company and if I was the right person to do it.
Imagine this: you’re about to step into a crucial meeting, where your insights and decisions will shape the future of your project. Yet, an unsettling thought creeps in—do I really belong at this table? Do I actually know anything that would help this project? This is just one of the scenarios where impostor syndrome takes its toll, gnawing at our confidence and casting doubt on our abilities. It might be a transition from a role we’ve been used to for years to a higher position, or the honor of being chosen for a big internal project that you (unfortunately) know nothing about.
Years ago I stumbled upon this amazing video of the Atlassian cofounder, Mike Cannon–Brookes, that does an incredible job explaining how he felt scaling and building a company to thousands of people and constantly questioning his experience doing something like that. If you are experiencing this, watch the video, it will really help you understand how to control it.
Now, the bad news is that your fight against your inner critic will be a lifelong battle. The good news is that you can work on a variety of actionable strategies to silence the negatron inside you and excel even with that fear in your head. Whether you are an entrepreneur on the edge of success, a seasoned professional preparing to chart new territories, or a fresh graduate diving face-first into the job market, I made this guide to help you navigate impostor syndrome.
The “solo syndrome” in collaborative environments
Impostor syndrome can strike in any scenario—even when we’re working in a team. When we work with colleagues who we look up to as experts, we might find it difficult to do anything because of our fear of failure. This is a huge burden you’re putting on yourself and most of the time, it’s not visible to your colleagues. It’s a heavy weight that can stifle your creativity, hinder innovation, and cripple the team.
Try to be open about your own experiences with impostor syndrome
As a manager or leader, demonstrate vulnerability by sharing your own challenges and growth experiences. This openness sets a positive tone for the team. In addition, it also helps you cope with the difficulties you experience in a management role, which seems to have its own frequent run-ins with impostor syndrome. When leaders acknowledge their imperfections, it creates an atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable acknowledging their own areas of growth.
Show the team you care about their career development
You never stop learning, regardless of how old you get. Funnily enough, this can be incredibly comforting for your colleagues. If you actively offer opportunities for skill development and training (and there are plenty online to help you get started!) you give your team members the opportunity to pursue other skills they may be interested in. It could be related to the task at hand, or an extension of what they already know. When they see that you care about their growth, the team feels less “stuck” in a routine. They have the chance to feel more equipped and confident. And of course, it is exciting to see the kind of development they would choose to pursue with that kind of freedom.
Take the time to bond with team building activities sometimes
We spend so much time at work, so the least we could do is get to know the people we work with. You could set aside one Friday a month to gather everyone and have the team talk about how their lives are going over some snacks, with a quick game to finish off the week. You could keep track of birthdays and get celebrants a small cake, or treat them to a birthday lunch near the office. When we’re at work, we often feel the pressure to always present our best selves. But when we have the time to bond, we also give ourselves the chance to present our authentic selves—and that is equally important.
The role of mentorship in combating impostor syndrome
Picture yourself on a challenging hike, unsure of the path ahead. Now, imagine having an experienced guide who knows every twist and turn. That’s what a mentor is like in your career journey. A mentor isn’t just a friendly face; they are your career ally. They’ve been through what you’re facing and can offer practical advice, not just empty words. They help you build skills, set goals, and boost your confidence.
Mentors can bring out the champion in you
Mentorship isn’t just a fairy tale concept; it’s a real force that can turn doubts into triumphs. Let’s delve into the inspiring journeys of individuals who found their mentors:
Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou
Imagine being in Oprah’s shoes—struggling with your identity and doubting your worth. Maya Angelou, a literary legend and Oprah’s mentor, helped her understand that her journey, no matter how challenging, was uniquely valuable. Maya’s guidance encouraged Oprah to embrace her individuality and use her struggles as stepping stones to success.
Sheryl Sandberg and Larry Summers
Sheryl Sandberg, known for her leadership at Facebook, faced the challenge of excelling in a male-dominated arena. Larry Summers, a prominent economist and former mentor to Sheryl, empowered her to confront challenges head-on and believe in her capabilities. Larry’s guidance fueled Sheryl’s determination to not only overcome imposter feelings but also to lead with resilience.
Finding a mentor
I’ve heard this suggestion millions of time in my life and then I found myself suggesting the same to other people. I don’t think you can find a mentor in a few weeks and just start calling that person a mentor: my suggestion is to start connecting with people (maybe asking for intros in your network) and spend a few hours with them to see if there is a fit and you can really build a relationship with this person. A mentor is someone that has already experienced what you are living and can help you mostly listening to you and giving you ideas and thoughts on how to approach things differently. There are professional mentors / coaches and there are professionals that simply decide to spend some of their time coaching other professionals: these last ones are usually the best fit. They are rarely doing that for money and they bring real experience to the table.
Where to find a mentor? There are tons of websites, platforms and ways to get connected. Reaching out to professionals in your network and asking for intros might be the easiest way to start.
Embracing vulnerability as strength
In the face of challenges, many individuals shy away from vulnerability due to fear of judgment or failure. However, it can actually be powerful for personal and professional development.
Just as a toddler stumbles before taking their first steps, embracing discomfort allows you to stumble, learn, and ultimately grow. In this way, vulnerability becomes a stepping stone to resilience and expertise.
Embracing vulnerability isn’t about seeking discomfort for its own sake, but about recognizing that growth often arises from stepping outside your comfort zone. It’s about acknowledging that setbacks are part of the journey and that every challenge presents an opportunity to learn. By sharing your experiences and listening to others, you create a network of support that propels everyone forward.
At work, vulnerability might mean admitting when you don’t have all the answers or seeking help when needed. In personal endeavors, vulnerability could involve pursuing new interests without the fear of initial failure. As you begin to embrace vulnerability, remember that each step towards discomfort is a step towards growth, resilience, and an expanded sense of possibility.
Here are some outstanding individuals who embraced their vulnerability and used it to build their careers:
Renowned professor, author, and podcast host Brené Brown delved into vulnerability and discovered its transformative power. She has researched extensively on pivotal emotions such as courage, shame, and empathy. Her work showed that those who embraced vulnerability experienced deeper connections, greater authenticity, and improved overall well-being.
The CEO of Google rose from modest beginnings in India to lead one of the world’s tech giants. However, he has been transparent about his struggles with impostor syndrome even after his incredible journey in the tech industry. His openness to embracing challenges, taking risks, and adapting to change exemplifies the strength of vulnerability.
Even people who aren’t into tennis have heard of Serena Williams. That’s how powerful her influence is. But even she struggled with her insecurity and her critics on her path to success. She channeled her vulnerability into self-belief and perseverance. Serena’s journey highlights that acknowledging one’s vulnerabilities is not a sign of weakness, but a means to overcome obstacles and achieve greatness.
Impostor syndrome beyond the workplace
Impostor syndrome isn’t confined to the walls of your workplace; its effects can ripple into your personal life and relationships too. It often starts at home, where early experiences and expectations can shape how you perceive yourself. This “life imposter syndrome” infiltrates your thoughts, affecting your self-esteem in various aspects of life. But while you may be predisposed to experience impostor syndrome, you can still take control of how it affects you. Here are some simple steps you can take to stay bigger than your doubts:
Practice self-reflection and self-compassion
Take time to reflect on your accomplishments and setbacks. Treat yourself with kindness and understanding, just as you would a friend facing similar challenges. Recognize when negative thoughts emerge and challenge their validity. Once you find them replace with affirmations that emphasize your strengths and progress.
Seek feedback from supportive people
Surround yourself with individuals who uplift you and provide constructive feedback. Their insights can counteract your self-critical thoughts.
Visualize success and celebrate every step forward
Create a mental image of your desired outcomes. Celebrate even the smallest victories along the way to build confidence and momentum.
The ripple effect: Addressing impostor syndrome in organizations
Supporting your team members when they feel impostor syndrome
If you are a manager or team leader and sense that impostor syndrome might be affecting your team members, there are several ways you can proactively support them:
Encourage open conversations
Initiate open discussions about impostor syndrome during team meetings or one-on-one check-ins. Create a safe space where team members can share their feelings and experiences. During these conversations, emphasize that feelings of self-doubt are normal and experienced by many, even those in leadership positions. Sharing your own experiences can help destigmatize the phenomenon.
Try conducting mid-year and end of year reviews
Regular feedback is a powerful tool in addressing impostor syndrome among your team members. Midyear and end of year reviews provide structured opportunities to provide constructive feedback and highlight achievements:
Draft 90-day plans
90-day plans can help the team gain a clear sense of direction and accomplishment. I find it helpful because empowers your team members to focus on actionable steps, fostering a sense of accomplishment and progress. This structured approach can help combat the doubts associated with impostor syndrome by providing a roadmap for success and a tangible way to track achievements.
Finally, make it a point to acknowledge your team’s accomplishments and contributions. Celebrate successes, both big and small, to reinforce a sense of achievement and recognition.
Impostor syndrome and mental health
Impostor syndrome often fuels anxiety, stress, and feelings of inadequacy. It can lead to an unhealthy cycle of striving for perfection and fearing exposure. In many cases, it can become a self-fulfilling and destructive prophecy. If it is left unchecked, impostor syndrome can contribute to burnout and imposter burnout – a state where the constant struggle to prove oneself takes a toll on mental and physical health. I acknowledge that there are limits to the power of the internet and personal research. If you feel that your impostor syndrome starts affecting your mental wellbeing even when you are practicing self-care measures and compassion, I strongly recommend support from a mental health professional.
It’s difficult to speak about impostor syndrome in a positive light without sounding like a psychologist. The reality is that it can take over your life and it is something that we will have to always check ourselves on from time to time. However, we can make sure that we don’t let it overwhelm us. By adopting the strategies shared here, seeking support, and fostering a supportive environment, you can transform self-doubt into a catalyst for personal and professional growth. Stand tall in your authenticity, knowing that you have the power to navigate impostor syndrome with confidence and resilience