Professional fight club: imposter syndrome vs self-affirmation
Updated: Jun 14
When I started my first professional job I remember thinking: "I don't belong here". I was exhausted by all the new rules, processes, and politics. There were a lot of practical skills I needed to learn quickly (none of which are taught in undergrad!) I made mistakes. I stayed up late re-working reports. And I felt awful.
After a few months, I was less exhausted and made fewer mistakes. My colleagues and managers started to give me positive feedback. The director even told me he often forgot it was my first professional job because I kept rising to various challenges.
In the years that followed, I continued to develop new skills, gain more confidence, and train/mentor junior staff.
But that feeling of "not belonging" never quite went away. I craved affirmation from my colleagues and clients (and, let's be honest, from friends and family too). It was like I was expecting at any moment someone would point at me and say, "You're not good enough."
Years later I learned that my experience was far from unique. There was even a term to describe it: imposter syndrome. Many of us spend our professional lives constantly doubting ourselves and berating our abilities. We also tend to be perfectionists, overly ambitious, and overachievers - which can lead to disappointment when our ambitions aren't met.
For those familiar with imposter syndrome, self-affirmation is hard. But it isn't impossible. While I definitely still feel like a phoney every now and then, below are a few lessons I've learned along the way:
Fake it: It's a bit of a cliche, but "fake it til you make it" has absolutely helped me to fight 'IS'. When you pretend to be confident (e.g. mirroring the mannerisms or speech patterns of more confident people), a strange thing happens. First, others start to believe you are more confident and then they treat you like a confident person. This can then trick your brain into believing you're confident too. It's a wonderful cycle of self-deception.
Self-reflection: Many people feel uncomfortable engaging in self-promotion (which can make performance reviews and job applications difficult). Personally, I found it helpful to start small by making a list of things I had done that I was proud of. Every time I did something else, I added to the list and it continued to grow. Engaging in this simple activity forced me to recognise my strengths and reflect on them regularly, instead of only focusing on the negatives.
Say thank you: Despite my craving for external validation, I'm not very good at receiving compliments and praise for fear of being considered arrogant (and therefore a phoney). However, by simply thanking someone for their compliment you can be gracious without undervaluing yourself. A wise man once told me "it's not arrogant if it's true".
Celebrate others: The flip side to accepting compliments is to give them back. Not in a forced or false way. Recognise when someone has done well and let them know they've been seen. You'll feel warm and fuzzy seeing the look on their face and you'll likely help wear down someone else's IS beast.
Learn from mistakes: As a wise monkey once said; "The past can hurt. But, you can either run from it or, learn from it." Instead of hiding from your mistakes or letting them consume you, focus your attention on "what's next". What steps need to be taken to make things right? What will you do differently in the future? What's within your control? What can you teach others to help them avoid your mistakes?
Imposter syndrome doesn't need to win the fight. Even when you find it hard to ignore the negative thought demons, just act the part. Apply for that promotion or job anyway, even if you don't think you'll get it. The worst outcome is that you're exactly where you were when you started. The best outcome is that the company you emailed out of the blue, telling them to hire you because you have lots of practical skills even though you aren't technically qualified, will offer you your dream job (true story).