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Acknowledging and Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

This is the second of two consecutive posts describing the vagaries of impostor syndrome. Picking up where I left off regarding its prevalence (send me an email at lin.coughlin@greatcircleassociates.com if you’d like a copy of the earlier post), the following are 8 coping strategies that have worked for me—and can work for you too!

  1. Recognize the impostor phenomenon when it emerges. Awareness is the first step to changing. It’s important to remember where you came from. Remember the long journey and the hours you spent working to achieve your goals. Remember the strength you already have. For me, going to my core in terms of my relevant achievements is what, in the end, enabled me to raise my hand and take on a major restructuring assignment.
  2. Remember that you’re not alone. Research shows your peers and superiors have likely felt like they were frauds as well. Even Starbucks’ Howard Schultz has admitted to having felt undeserving and insecure, despite being the leader of such a major international corporation. In an interview with the New York Times, he revealed, “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe that today they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.”
  1. Talk about it. Most of us experience moments when we are less confident, leading to feelings of “uselessness.” Open dialogue with trusted colleagues (most of whom have experienced impostor moments themselves in their personal and professional lives!) helps reframe the context, as opposed to harboring negative thoughts alone.
  1. Conquer your fears in the moment. We must become uber-self-aware of those moments when we find ourselves slipping into the trap of feeling like a fraud and take those opportunities to course-correct. We must tell ourselves that we are not frauds, and why. List those reasons and go for it! Tell yourself, “If I’m going to doubt something, it’s only going to be my limits!” Accept that you’ll probably never completely get over your fears of being found out. This is critically important to overcoming impostor syndrome.
  1. Set goals that are attainable and realistic. Celebrate the accomplishment of each goal and use it as motivation to keep going. This is what saved me as I worked a complex and far-reaching restructuring assignment, ultimately positioning the portfolio for a successful value-creating transaction.
  1. Visualize successful outcomes. Whether it’s completing a task or pitching a challenging sell, imagine the change you want to see. It will help you maintain focus and calm.
  1. Reimagine failure as a learning opportunity. Be open to and embrace lessons learned and act on them. Like most of you, I have experienced inevitable setbacks in the course of my leadership experiences. With that restructuring assignment, for example, I learned the power of assembling my team to fail forward, celebrate and act on shared lessons learned. As a result, our team performance quotient skyrocketed, and we became unstoppable.
  1. Change your mindset! The only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor! Instead of telling yourself that you are going to be found out or that you don’t deserve success, be aware that it’s normal not to know everything. Moreover, remember that setbacks happen to everyone. Honor your vulnerability and have faith that you will learn as you go—as you always have!

You have the right—and, in fact, you owe it to both yourself and the significant stakeholders in your life—to break from the shackles of impostor syndrome and in turn the tyranny of the status quo. Don’t be crippled by your fear of being found out. Instead, lean into that feeling and get at its roots—IN THE MOMENT! Let your guard down and let others see the real you and benefit from all that you have to offer!

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