Identifying and Overcoming Impostor Syndrome
At last year’s SAP TechEd Barcelona, I presented a popular session on personal branding (here’s the follow-up recap if you missed it). During that session, I asked the attendees (primarily men) if they had heard the term “impostor syndrome” in the past. I was not surprised to learn that most of them had not. It’s not something that most men contend with. However, they were eager to learn more, and I am always more than happy to share my knowledge and research on this interesting phenomenon.
Today’s blog post is a continuation of my series on diversity and inclusion in the SAP Community, in which I’ve already covered topics such as sponsorship and meritocracy. However, today I want to shift focus a bit away from the actions that allies and those with the power to affect change can take to influence the systemic factors that lead to discrimination and inequity. Today, let’s talk about how those affected by systemic bias, namely women and minority groups, can practice self-care and avoid self-sabotage throughout their careers.
What is “impostor syndrome”?
Impostor syndrome is defined as a form of “intellectual self-doubt” (coined in this article from the American Psychological Association), in which the sufferer believes they are not as competent, intelligent, or capable as others perceive them to be. It is a deep-rooted fear of being “found out” as a fraud or pretender to the accomplishments that the sufferer has achieved. People experiencing this phenomenon truly believe that their success has been a matter of luck, rather than their own competence. Or worse, they believe despite all the evidence to the contrary, that they are not successful. The phenomenon more often affects women and minority groups but does not exclude men – particularly those who grew up in families placing a higher emphasis on achievement and a high correlation between the expression of love and the achievement of professional success.
“…differing in any way from the majority of your peers — whether by race, gender, sexual orientation or some other characteristic — can fuel the sense of being a fraud.” – Feeling Like a Fraud?, Kristen Weir, American Psychological Association, 2013.
Impostor syndrome isn’t entirely an invention of your imagination either. It can be a result of being repeatedly told you are an impostor, especially by peers and authority figures in your life (e.g. family elders, professors, or supervisors). Sometimes, simply by merit of being different than your peers can make you feel like you have to work twice as hard to prove that you belong among them.
One of the biggest tangible challenges that we see arise from impostor syndrome is particularly prevalent in women – the tendency to self-select out of opportunities. For example, women tend to not apply to a job posting if they do not meet 100% of the qualifications. Alternatively, men tend to apply if they meet at least 60% of the qualifications. Interestingly, in this Harvard Business Review article, a survey of over one thousand men and women showed a variety of reasons why an individual might opt out of applying for a position that they did not meet all the qualifications for. The response with the largest margin of women over men was a fear of failure. In other words, women, more so than their male counterparts, chose not to apply because they were afraid of taking a risk and failing. Other top reasons included not wanting to waste their own time and energy in applying to a position they did not think they would be hired for and the belief that the job posting was only intended for people who met 100% of the qualifications.
So, how do you recognize this pattern of internal self-sabotage?
Those who suffer from impostor syndrome are often, ironically, natural high achievers. They are committed to proving their worth to the point of exhibiting destructive behaviors, like:
- Workaholism/Overworking – working more hours than anyone else, beyond even the time needed to accomplish their required tasks
- Destruction of self-worth at any sign of failure – beating themselves up when something doesn’t go as planned or their work is not 100% perfect
- Lack of perseverance – inability to get past the feeling of failure when something doesn’t come naturally or easily to them
- Destructive independence – inability to work in a team because they feel they’re better off working alone or inability to trust others to complete tasks because they won’t be perfect (or they could have done it better if they’d just done it themselves)
- Inability to ask for help or admit they don’t know something
- A constant need for outside validation of their value – often in the form of the perpetual need to complete formal training and certifications
Obviously, some of these behaviors are fine in moderation. For example, if you want to pursue a certification because it will have a tangible impact on your career, that can be constructive. However, if you are constantly pursuing the next certification to make yourself feel accomplished and valuable, that can be destructive and indicative of a deeper sense of insecurity that needs to be addressed.
Once you’ve identified any self-destructive behaviors resulting from impostor syndrome, how do you begin addressing them?
The first step in solving any problem is acknowledging that the problem exists. Once you’re able to identify and acknowledge self-destructive behavior, the next step is to figure out how to overcome it and stop the habit. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Keep a Journal of Wins. Your Journal should be a record of every time you accomplished something you’re proud of (big or small) or received recognition or accolades. This could be something as small as a positive comment on your work, or as big as receiving a promotion at work. When you’re feeling like you’re not performing at your best, refer to your Journal of Wins to remind you of all the great things you’ve already accomplished.
- Regularly check in with people you trust and who are familiar with your work. Find a mentor. If your company offers a formal mentorship program, take advantage of it. If they don’t, reach out to someone whose experience you trust and opinion you value. Meet with your mentor regularly and don’t just talk about challenges but celebrate wins together. When you’re feeling down, schedule a meeting with your mentor and talk through your recent successes together.
- Build networks outside of your industry and/or workplace. Attend meetups. Make contacts in your industry to build a security net beyond your current workplace. Living only within your work environment can create an echo chamber of negative thoughts.
- Teach others. Offer to mentor someone else. Freely share your expertise through online communities, speaking at events, leading discussion groups, and publishing (blogs, articles, books, videos, podcasts, or even just participating in open source projects). This will give you a sense of meaning bigger than your current role. It will also help you gain confidence and establish your reputation as an industry leader and expert.
- Remember that much of the amazing work you see published by other “experts” is the result of lots of failures, practice, hard work, luck, and – did I mention failures? No one is ‘naturally’ good at everything or anything.
Overcoming impostor syndrome is a process. Just remember that the first step is to acknowledge that the issue exists. Then, remind yourself that you ARE good enough to be here, no matter what that little voice of doubt in your mind might tell you. Eventually, you can overpower that voice and feel as amazing about your work as everyone around you already knows you are.
The best part about this practice of self-care is that it will empower you to promote your personal brand and build career connections that will last your lifetime. It will open new doors to you and give you the confidence to step through them, instead of questioning whether you’re qualified or not.