Building your career is a journey filled with challenges, excitement, and forks in the road. And journeys are easier with maps. In this column, job experts answer your questions and deliver advice to help you take the next step.
Question: Sometimes I feel like I’m in over my head at work, like I don’t belong, or like I am not good enough. Any advice for how to overcome this feeling?
Answer: Anyone who tries to achieve something new or who moves out of their comfort zone could feel like a fraud at one time or another. And while there might not be an official senior manager of imposter syndrome, Trish Winter-Hunt has certainly seen and worked through the phenomenon enough to develop expertise on the matter. If you haven’t experienced imposter feelings yet, said Winter-Hunt, senior content experience manager at Microsoft working with Windows devices, it’s just a question of time.
In all her years as a professional communicator, working in public relations, marketing, and communications with PhDs and C-suite executives across a range of organizations, Winter-Hunt never met a single person who didn’t experience imposter syndrome—the fear that arises when people can’t internalize their success and worry they’ll will be exposed for the fraud that they believe themselves to be.
Imposter syndrome was first identified by clinical psychologists in the 1970s and has been a topic of study ever since. A wide variety of articles have been published on the topic, and the issue has received more attention in recent years with new research and as career coaches, business and self-help books, companies, and publications such as Harvard Business Review have addressed it.
Whether you are familiar with feelings of faking it or newly acquainted with your inner imposter, here are some tips to build confidence and beat back imposter syndrome so that you can achieve great things.
Self-talk really works, for better and for worse
First, Winter-Hunt said, “there is nothing wrong with you.”
If your inner dialogue is spinning thoughts like “I am not good enough for this job,” “the hiring office made a clerical mistake,” or “any moment now, someone’s going to find out how much I fake it every single day,” then welcome to the club.
According to one study, these feelings are especially prevalent among highly ambitious people, notably women, who have self-imposed standards of achievement. You can feel good about the presence of that voice; it means you are taking a risk. When you are venturing into new territory, there’s just a certain level of ambiguity that we have to learn to be comfortable with, explained Winter-Hunt.
But imposter syndrome ceases to be a helpful motivator if those feelings limit your ambition—if they stop you from going after what you want, a phenomenon that Winter-Hunt said she sees all the time when she interviews candidates. Because one place that you can almost guarantee that your inner imposter will show up is during a job interview.
“It’s really disheartening to hear so many people self-select out of a position, even when they’ve already landed the interview,” she said. “I tell them that I’d likely not even be interviewing them if I didn’t think they could do it.”
“One striking characteristic of the syndrome is that although impostors crave acknowledgement and praise for their accomplishments, they do not feel comfortable when they receive it,” according to Psychology Today. “Instead, praise makes them feel anxious because they secretly feel they do not deserve it. After all, they think, I’m just faking it—unlike everyone else here who seems to know what they’re doing.”
Imposter syndrome also likes to show up uninvited when you are beginning something new, but the feelings of fraud don’t necessarily indicate that you are about to make a mistake.
Winter-Hunt said that one way to combat those feelings of inadequacy is to turn those phrases on their head. Repeating mantras like “I am good enough” or “I deserve to be here” are small but mighty steps toward undercutting self-defeating thoughts.
So go ahead: just for a few seconds, take a deep breath, and say to yourself, “I’ve got this.”
Foster the imposter
Feelings of fear and inadequacy are uncomfortable but also natural. It’s tempting to try to hide it, to overcompensate with your coworkers or in an interview. But usually that inauthenticity only makes you feel like more of an imposter.
Instead, “foster the imposter,” encouraged Winter-Hunt in a recent article. “Because you most likely will never overcome feelings of fraudulence. Instead of viewing imposter syndrome as a defining characteristic, embrace it for the transitory experience it is,” she wrote. “One that forces you to evolve, try new things, and question your previously held philosophies.”
Some people welcome it and even use the opposite feelings—comfort, security—as signs that it’s time to try something new . . . that perhaps the very presence of imposter syndrome indicates that you are itching to grow in areas you’ve become stagnant.
Talk through it
Research shows that for people who can’t shake their imposter syndrome or feel their lives are overtaken by it, talk therapy can really help. And not even necessarily with a trained professional.
Winter-Hunt said that even just being up front with her boss and vulnerable with her coworkers has made a huge difference for her. In all the discussions she’s had, she has never been met with a reaction that wasn’t encouraging and supportive.
So go ahead, learn to love that imposter, but never give it decision-making power. Winter-Hunt lives by a quote from bestselling author Seth Godin: “Begin. With the humility of someone who’s not sure, and the excitement of someone who knows that it’s possible.”
Why? Because the world needs your talents, your persistent exploring, and your desire to keep challenging yourself. We need your help to push into what’s next.