Letting Go of Self Doubt and Your Inner CriticFeatured
We’ve all heard the career advice to just “fake it ‘til you make it” and that “practice makes perfect” will give you the confidence you need. But what happens when despite all of that effort, you still feel like you’re just faking it and you never quite get to making it?That’s imposter syndrome. It is a pattern that makes you doubt your knowledge, experience, and accomplishments, despite having piles of evidence that indicates you are skilled, qualified, and successful in what you do. Imposter syndrome can impair psychological safety and creates a loss in confidence. Since imposter syndrome affects confidence, and lack of confidence can trigger imposter syndrome, it can keep you stuck in a loop and focused on perceived flaws rather than all of the strengths to bring to your work.For women, BIPOC, trans people, disabled people, queer people, those living with a chronic illness, and anyone else in a marginalized group, it likely hits harder, especially if you’re in more than one of these groups. You’re disproportionately more likely to have to navigate the effects of imposter syndrome because the measures of competence and expertise are unfairly set much higher because of bias, both conscious and unconscious.To put imposter syndrome into context, here are some examples of how it may show up at work:You’re a new manager working with a team of deeply technical engineers. Even though your experience makes you uniquely qualified to lead this team, you may doubt it and feel like you don’t measure up because you “aren’t technical enough.” You joined your company 10 months ago and have been crushing it. A huge project comes up and your manager asks you to lead a team of people to deliver it. You say yes, but feel a little panicked. “Do they really think I’m ready for this?!”Someone invites you to speak at a conference. Your first thought is, “Me? Why? There are so many other people who know more than I do. I won’t be good at this.”You over prepare for a big presentation, letting other tasks and responsibilities slip in the meantime, because you’re so afraid of making a mistake. You assume one small misstep means they’ll figure out you have no idea what you’re doing and you’ll get fired immediately.Here is what some women in tech have to say about their imposter syndrome and how they manage it.Amy Smidutz, Director, Delivery Engineering at Netflix “After I was promoted to Director, I immediately experienced nearly debilitating imposter syndrome. It affected my confidence to the point that it was really impacting my day-to-day. Reaching out to my manager and peers for help was really difficult because I was worried that if they knew, they would lose confidence in me. I’m so glad I did though; they were incredibly supportive and almost all of them told me about their own struggles with imposter syndrome and how it shook their confidence too. Hearing that imposter syndrome is almost a rite of passage helped me get past it. My advice to manage your imposter syndrome is to solicit feedback and trust the feedback you are receiving. If you regularly receive positive feedback, the chances are high that what you are experiencing is imposter syndrome. It is important to solicit constructive feedback too, we can only combat imposter syndrome by building a realistic mental model of our strengths and weaknesses.”Sara Kimelman, Leadership & Development at Facebook “I've experienced it when I'm in any new situation that's unknown, when I'm about to have a crucial conversation, or when I start comparing my journey to someone else's. When I feel it starting to creep on in I remind myself of all the accomplishments I've made so far and celebrate them, I personify my inner critic thoughts to be a person and nurture the heck out of the inner critic with loving words and kindness, and I get out of my head and move my body to switch the focus.”Bronwyn Lewis, Senior Product Manager at Netflix“When I'm feeling uncertain, I try to lean into vulnerability. I have a couple of colleagues that I feel comfortable reaching out to when I'm struggling with feeling like "not enough", who I know will give me honest feedback. This helps me know whether the thing I'm worried about is in my head or something that actually warrants my attention (spoiler alert: It's usually in my head). These same colleagues sometimes share their own insecurities with me, which also helps—I know exactly how awesome they are. Realizing that they also struggle helps me feel like I'm not alone and reminds me that the insecurity will pass. And when I need a lot of help, I watch this video of a child giving herself a pep talk in the mirror, do some power posing or martial arts moves to get my chi up, and remind myself that I can do anything good.”Sarah Magruder, Marketing Program Manager “For me at work, it would come up a lot when I wasn't getting external validation! In many roles I would get a lot of praise and then if I stopped getting it, I would all of the sudden think they no longer viewed me as a top performer or that I must have done something wrong. This caused me to spiral into comparison and jealousy, and a lot of nervous energy. I also started to think more about all of the things I don't do very well, and became certain they had "found me out." I also had a really hard time admitting mistakes because I wanted to keep up my perfectionist persona! So through understanding all of this, I realized that in order to work through this, I needed to give myself the validation I craved rather than trying to seek it from other people and I needed to allow myself to make mistakes and learn from them. It's been hard but so worth it!”Even Michelle Obama feels this. She says, “I still have a little impostor syndrome. It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously. What do I know? I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is.”I have some bad news and some good news for you.The bad news: Imposter syndrome often comes and goes throughout your career. It can resurface when you start a new job, get a promotion, are asked to speak at a conference, or are tasked with managing a new project. When you’re in a transition or doing something brand new, your inner critic likes to speak up.The good news: You can learn imposter syndrome resilience skills! You can develop a toolkit of personal resources to rely on when your confidence decreases and your self doubt takes over. Imposter syndrome is manageable!Here is your imposter syndrome management cheat sheet!For people struggling with imposter syndrome:Talk to people about how you are feeling. You are likely to hear similar stories that will remind you how common and normal imposter syndrome is at work.Seek out a mentor or a coach to help you get clarity on your real strengths and weaknesses rather than focusing on your perceived weakness.Check out resources, books, or articles that can help you better understand what you are feeling and how to manage it. Listen to what your inner critic is saying but don’t believe everything she says. What is your inner critic trying to protect you from? How can you change the narrative and let her know you’re actually quite capable and you’ve got this?For managers:Remind new hires that they are the right person for the job and you hired them for a reason. Talk about the strengths they bring to the team.Give feedback early and often to build trust and be transparent about critical feedback.Share your own growth areas and experiences. By sharing openly, a manager can make it clear everyone has room to improve and that it’s safe to talk about and get support for their imposter syndrome.So Elphas, let’s work together to let go of self doubt and stop letting our inner critics make so many decisions for us. The world needs our strong, uninhibited, resilient leadership now more than ever.
I so needed to hear this today. I have been the only designer within a company for a couple of years and just got a new job with a highly skilled design team. I'm starting to freak out and already putting everyone else on pedestals. Thank you for this!
You've got this! You're a part of this highly skilled design team because * you * are highly skilled and because you bring something the team needed. I'm rooting for you!
Such a great post! It’s been a year of imposter syndrome for me and I’m really trying to be more open about how I’m feeling with those I trust and trusting of positive feedback.
Thanks for sharing, @MadisonMcCall. Finding your people, building trust, and letting yourself really listen to feedback doesn't always come naturally. It's a skill we often have to practice. I know I sure did! I love having my imposter syndrome support squad now -- people I can go to, be transparent with, and ask them to help me see what I'm not seeing.
I loved that you included the last section for managers. Too often, I've worked for opaque organizations where leadership is focused on being infallible rather than a beacon of growth. I try to embody the transparency I want to see, even if that honesty feels out of place.
Thank you, @ElleDM. So relatable. Too many organizations put managers on the untouchable pedestal and it's such a missed opportunity to lead by example (as a real live human with real human experiences) rather than perceived (and often harmful) perfectionism. So many high fives to you for modeling the behavior and leadership you want to see. We're all rooting for you. Thank you for being vulnerable and standing in integrity!!
Such an awesome post! I think that everyone suffers from imposter syndrome at one point or another no matter how far along they are in their career. It's great to see people talking about this further and opening up the conversation.
Thanks @KateLGrant! It's so common. I remember one of my mentors telling me a story about someone on the board of directors feeling nervous about giving a presentation because of her own imposter syndrome. I thought, "her? really? how?!" and it was such a normalizing moment. A lot of us experience it and it comes and goes throughout our careers -- and we can learn how to manage it!
Hi @hannahlake, thank you so much for sharing this! I can relate to a lot of what you write, I have been struggling with this myself. I've been googling imposter syndrome a lot these past weeks because I wanted to find some advice on how to battle it, and came across this article: https://hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndromeTo sum it up, it says that imposter syndrome is the result of workplaces where women are confronted with microagressions, and that by giving it the name imposter syndrome it is individualizing the phenomenon to the woman itself (especially because it sounds psychological), instead of addressing the wider context.Reading your post, you're addressing this also, in your advice to the managers.Do you all have any positions on this? The article definitely shifted my thinking a bit, though the question remains, what do we do with this information? Even though it might not be an individual problem, I need an individual solution, so to say, because I can't change the wider structure. Then all the advice given under the label "imposter syndrome" does help me.
Hey @TinaReis! Thanks for sharing here. 100% yes. Our workplace environment absolutely shapes, creates, and highlights our self doubt. The systems and structures in place prioritize certain people, skills, attributes, and experiences while marginalizing, othering, underprioritizing, and even harming others. And you're right, these systems are wide and deep and we must change them AND we still need tools to manage ourselves through the bullshit, because we're still impacted by them daily and have to detox from our imposter messaging that we learn from all of it. So like many things, it's an inside job and a change-the-status-quo job. Calling it out, discussing it with our teams, supporting others, and deeply examining our team culture is where we start.
Thanks so much! I feel like a bit of an imposter on Elpha because I am in information science - aka, librarian! I often feel like I’m just faking the more technical aspects of my job, especially since I come from an arts background. Yesterday I was told about a position with a company doing library software project management and I immediately heard that voice of self doubt. I know that I am competent enough to learn new skills given the time, but worry that I won’t understand all the jargon and will seem ignorant. Anyone have tips on how to see my soft skills as a benefit I can bring to a more technical team?
Hey @KateT! I can relate. For most of my technical career, I've been the program manager, senior planner, process manager, etc. leading a team of deeply technical people who are the best at what they do. I felt a lot of imposter syndrome and anxiety-producing comparison feeling like I had to know what they know to be taken seriously. But remembering that diverse skill sets are what make teams successful really helped me. I couldn't write the code or technical specs, but they couldn't connect all stakeholders and bring competing priority decision points to leadership the way I could. They had intricate product expertise, but I could see five steps ahead and identify implementation problems. So yes, you absolutely have important and valuable skills that a technical team needs! I wish soft skills were renamed critical skills. :)I know it's been a couple months since your post -- any update? Did you go for it?!
Thanks, @hannahlake! That's a good point, soft skills folks can really help unite different talents. I ended up deciding I wasn't ready to work and travel as much as that job required, but it definitely opened my mind to a broader array of work I can try.
This was a great read. As a female professor in computer information systems, it's something I struggle with often. I've also had a non-traditional career path and returned to work after my kids were older so I'm older than most newer faculty as well. It's not so much that I don't feel confident in myself (though there's always room for improvement) but the fact that there are some students who are biased against me because of who I am and it's hard to maintain the condidence I need to overcome that and maintain my authority in the classroom. I am currently reminding myself that I just passed my latest review with all "excellent" ratings and I have been reccommended for promotion (official in a few weeks).