Overcoming Impostor Syndrome (You're Really Good at Your Job)

Aug 17, 2016   |   Clock Icon 5 min read

Welcome to another Tuesday Talk at Workshop Digital!

If you haven’t heard, we're an award-winning digital marketing agency and one of the fastest growing companies in Richmond. Our clients range from leading local businesses to multi-billion-dollar corporations, and we offer employees some of the best benefits and culture anywhere.

And we’re pretty picky about who we hire. None of us got our jobs due to luck, but according to academic research, that exact thought has crossed most of our minds.

Why is that? Impostor Syndrome.

What is Impostor Syndrome?

In 1978 doctors Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined this term to describe an inability of high-achieving people to internalize their accomplishments and, therefore, sometimes fear that they’ll be exposed as a fraud. Studies have shown that anywhere from 40 to 70% of people experience these feelings at some point in their life.

Impostor Syndrome Symptoms

Those who experience impostor syndrome tend to dismiss their own achievements and abilities, and they tend to do this in a few different ways:

“I’m lucky.”

Those dealing with Impostor Syndrome often write off accomplishments due to luck or timing. For example:

Person A: “Hey, that campaign you ran was amazing! How’d you get the conversion rate so high?”

Person B: “Well, I think I just got lucky…Who would have thought people liked photos of llamas so much?”

“I’m nice, so they’re being nice.”

Those with impostor syndrome may honestly believe their charm or likability deceives others into thinking they're more intelligent and competent than they believe they are. For instance, high-achieving people tend to seek out relationships with supervisors in order to increase their knowledge or skillset, but when they receive praise from these same mentors, they may believe that it’s based on friendship and not ability alone.

Person A: “That was really awesome client feedback, you must be killing it for them!”

Person B: “Thanks, I mean...I think they just kind of like me because my mom’s in their quilting circle.”

“I had a lot of help.” And, very commonly, they might try to attribute their success to others instead of themselves.

Person A: “I heard your presentation helped us land a new client!”

Person B: “It did, yeah! I mean, I just really helped Joe. He did most of the work—he’s really smart.”

Can you guess who is quoted below?

“I’ve written 11 books, and each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find me out now.’ I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”

That's Maya Angelou! Someone who was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, won five Grammy Awards, has 50 honorary degrees, and who even knows what else. Deep down, she still felt like a fraud who didn’t have a clue what she was doing.

And the list of successful people who have experienced Impostor Syndrome goes on and on: U.S. presidents, best-selling author Seth Godin, screenwriter Chuck Lorre, Neil Gaiman, best-selling author John Green, comedian Tommy Cooper, Sheryl Sandberg, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and actress Emma Watson—which is ridiculous because you know Emma Watson is the real deal.

So you may be thinking: “Okay, if these extremely talented and successful people feel this way sometimes, then it’s okay for me to feel this way. This is just humility, and it won’t hold me back."

And that’s partly true. There are benefits to feeling like an impostor. Namely, you work harder to prove yourself. You push yourself to acquire as much knowledge as you can to make up for your perceived lack of ability.

But it can negatively affect you if you don’t become aware of these thought patterns. Your impostor syndrome needs to be addressed if:

  1. You Self-Prescribe Limits. The more knowledge you acquire and the higher levels you reach in your field, the more likely you are to find yourself in new terrain—and therefore feeling like you're winging it. You may eventually feel like you have reached the pinnacle of your achievements and may fear going any further because the risk of failure or being "found out" is too high.
  2. You Avoid New Experiences. It may keep you from trying new things you’ve never done before because you feel like a "fake."
  3. You Don’t Enjoy Your Achievements. Impostor syndrome may keep you from enjoying what you’ve worked hard to achieve.

If any of these sound familiar, there are a few things you can start doing to overcome your impostor syndrome.

Impostor Syndrome Treatment

Own Your Successes. Just as we take responsibility for failures in our personal and professional lives, we must also take responsibility for our successes. Minimizing them serves no one. So if you sometimes feel undeserving of your successes, try writing a list of all the key things you’ve accomplished over the last five years, or even the last 12 months, and it will help you see how much you’ve really achieved.

Cease Comparisons. Comparisons are always subjective, often biased, and rarely helpful.We are acutely aware of how hard we’re working to keep our head above water in work and life, and often we mistakenly assume others are getting by effortlessly. The reality is that many, many people are stretched just like you, with their own unique set of challenges.

Risk Exposure. Hold firm to ambition. While our fears urge to us to stick with what we know we’re good at—where risk of being uncovered is minimized—letting fear hold you back is a surefire path to mediocrity.

And just remember, you’re really, really good at your job.

Portrait of Aimee Sanford

Aimee Sanford