We All Experience Imposter Syndrome. What Can We Do About It?
Braden Ross, Owner of Braden Ross, LLC
Nearly every leader I coach is experiencing some degree of imposter syndrome. To some extent, this is a good thing. If you didn’t care about the work you were doing, you wouldn’t fight these feelings. For example, I don’t feel like an imposter when it comes to computer programming or my knowledge of rare flowers, because these aren’t areas where I claim any influence or authority.
At the same time, we must fight imposter syndrome if we’re ever going to reach our potential as leaders. It’s critical not only for our long term health and success as leaders, but for our own self-esteem and self-perception.
Essentially, imposter syndrome happens when we recognize a gap between our current position or standing and our idealized version of ourselves. This tension can lead to frequent comparisons or feelings of inadequacy. Usually, we’re comparing ourselves against one of the following standards:
Perfection. The standard of perfectionism isn’t helpful because it’s not realistic, and it’s incredibly harmful when it prevents us from taking action or embracing risk that could help us grow. Keep in mind that mistakes present incredible opportunities for learning and development.
Another person. Jon Acuff says it better than I could when he writes, “Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.” You won’t be as good a speaker as Brene Brown or Tony Robbins on your first try. You won’t know how to lead a team like Patrick Lencioni on your first day after a new promotion. Instead of measuring yourself against others, look for evidence of how you’re improved over time.
A better version of ourselves. Out of these three examples, this is the one standard that I believe is the most helpful. If you can acknowledge that you’re not as strong, smart, or skilled as you could be, you’ve taken the first step toward improving yourself or making yourself better. You know what work needs to happen, and you can begin the process of taking steps forward. However, rather than feeling inadequate because you’re not yet where you want to be, let this fuel your drive and determination to do the hard work of self-improvement.
Below, I’ll share three statements you can normalize in your conversations that will help you build greater confidence in yourself. Each statement acknowledges the gap between your current position and your perceived standard of where you should be, while also recognizing the work you’re doing to bridge the gap (or, in one special case, your lack of control over the gap).
“This is something I’m working on.” This statement acknowledges that you don’t currently have the skills or capacity that you desire, but that the potential exists for you to build new competencies. If nobody is perfect, than everybody can benefit from working on themselves.
“I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” Nobody knows everything, but we all have incredible tools and resources at our disposal. If somebody wants information that you don’t have, be honest but promise to do what you can to help them regardless.
“I’ve been fortunate (or blessed).” Sometimes we feel imposter syndrome because we don’t think we deserve our success. The truth is that we’re all impacted by circumstances outside our control - sometimes in a negative way, and other times in a constructive or beneficial way. Acknowledging how things have worked out favorably for you cultivates gratitude, which has strong connections to your overall mood and wellbeing.
I’ll leave you with an idea my friend Jordan shared with me one time. To be honest, I think about it almost every day. Jordan said that it’s easy to walk into a room and feel like everyone is staring at your imperfections. The reality is, they can’t even see them, because they are too focused on their own. We must remember that we see ourselves - the good, the bad, and the ugly - better than anyone else can.
We are acutely aware of our own limitations, but it doesn’t mean that we are the only imperfect people in the world. Embrace your imperfections, pursue growth, and remember that you’ll never fully “arrive” - no matter how much training or experience you get under your belt.