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You're Not Faking It: Don't Let Imposter Syndrome Hold You Back

A little boy hiding in a pile of pillows on the couch.

Are you holding yourself back from going after that amazing job you just saw posted on Idealist?

Do you worry that you aren’t qualified, intelligent, or experienced enough? Do you assume that it’s a position suitable for “other” people—you know, the ones who are better, smarter, or more talented than you?

Chances are, you’ve probably got a great resume and are just as qualified as the next applicant. But, somehow, you still refuse to believe it.

So, what is it that’s holding you back? Why the self-doubt?

Don’t fret too much about this because you aren’t alone.

Am I the only one who feels like this?

The other day, one of my clients shared with me that her supervisor considers her one of his most valued employees. Before I had the chance to congratulate her, she snarked, “I can’t believe I’m fooling him!”

I was confused. How was she “fooling” him?

He had just given her positive feedback, she works hard, and is super responsible with her life—both personally and professionally.

This was one of my most “secure” clients (or so I thought, as I sat there scratching my head).

So, I asked her to explain this to me more clearly. But her explanation didn’t make sense; she insisted that his perception of her was inaccurate.

“I’m not a bad employee—I mean, I’m okay, but nothing special—I don’t know, I was just surprised to hear him speak so highly of me. He said I’m his number two, but….you know…”

No, I didn’t know.

Why the self-doubt?

Why is it so hard for us to accept positive feedback about ourselves? Why are you not applying for that awesome job? Why is this successful young woman convinced she is fooling her company?

All my client’s performance data—from her sales numbers to the positive relationships she has with vendors—support her supervisor’s assessment. But she refuses to accept the possibility that she is anything more than just “okay.”

In fact, she suggests that her skill set has more to do with being able to make others think she is better than she is. Or, in other words, her value is less about her good work and, instead, more about passing herself off as if she is good. Kind of like an imposter.

Imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome can strip us of self-confidence by plaguing us with nagging questions about whether we are skilled enough, smart enough, or good enough. And, it isn’t as uncommon as you may think. Does it surprise you to hear that up to 70% of people have experienced this at some point in their lives?

Perfectionistic, high achieving people tend to be those most commonly affected by this phenomenon. Those striving for mediocrity aren’t plagued by self-doubt because they set lower standards. Rather than engaging in the kind of mental gymnastics that stop you from applying for your dream job, they do what’s safe.

So, while patting yourself on the back for not settling for mediocre, stop engaging in a pattern of confidence-suppressing somersaults.

Clear the path

Here are some strategies to help mitigate imposter syndrome:

  • Mental conditioning. Accentuate your positives. In the case of my client, we reviewed how she got to where she was. Together, we reflected on all of the prior achievements that led her to be her supervisor’s “number two.” This served to remind her that she actually belongs where she is and that she arrived there through a genuine skill set—not by faking it.
  • Connect with supportive people. Talk to former colleagues or supervisors for some confidence boosting. Ask them why they would hire you (or why they hired you in the past). What makes you a valuable employee or colleague? A little ego stroking is necessary sometimes.
  • Become a mentor. I kind of love this one. I used to do it when I supervised graduate students and truly miss the positive charge it sparks. Never underestimate the value of imparting your own experience and wisdom unto others who are just learning. It’s a great reminder that you know more than you think. And, it forces you to stay engaged, current, and sharp.
  • Accept imperfection. You can’t get better at what you do by striving solely for perfection. There is always more to learn. This sounds cliche (and it is, sort of) but no one is perfect. Really. Even Maya Angelou suffered from imposter syndrome!
  • Embrace ambition. Job seekers, this one is especially for you. What do you have to lose by going for it? Don’t get stuck in the mediocrity cycle. Circle back to strategy number one—believe that job belongs to you. The results may surprise you.

In short, the truly incompetent, rarely worry about being truly incompetent. If you take nothing else away from this article, reflect upon that. Your self-doubt is actually your friend. It is the force that perpetually drives those who truly do belong (you).

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About the Author | Jennifer Abcug, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist in New York City, where she specializes in women’s life transitions. Prior to this, she counseled patients and families at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Convinced the earth moved after reading Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” the question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” has become a focal point of Jennifer’s practice.

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