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How to Beat Imposter Syndrome and Advance Your Career

Imposter syndrome is our brain's way of protecting us from failure, but it might actually be blocking you from success. Learn how to take steps to beat it and grow in your professional journey.
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Sometimes, the only thing standing between you and professional success is believing you're right for the job. For those with imposter syndrome, that can feel impossible to do.

Imposter feelings can provoke fear of failure, negative self-talk, and low self-esteem, which can keep individuals from taking risks that are necessary for their own success. These internalized struggles are not only unpleasant but can negatively impact one's work performance by manifesting as either paralysis or overcompensation that leads to burnout.

The good news is that while you may not be able to rid yourself of imposter feelings completely, there are tools you can use to invite opportunities for professional growth, one step at a time. We’ll walk you through eleven actionable strategies from career experts that can help you put imposter syndrome to rest for good.

What Is Imposter Syndrome?

The imposter phenomenon is “a psychological pattern rooted in intense, concealed feelings of fraudulence when faced with achievement tasks," according to early researchers of the psychological experience.

Those with imposter (or impostor) syndrome tend to view their own accomplishments as a result of external factors like luck or misinterpretation. Instead of feeling pride, they feel relief; they find positive feedback uncomfortable and fear being "discovered" or "found out."

Imposter syndrome is not diagnosable, but it’s more common than you might expect. Various studies have found that as many as 82% of people will experience imposter syndrome at least once in their lives, although the phenomenon is more prevalent in women and those who are minorities in their academic or work environments. 

While not limited to high achievers, imposter syndrome is particularly prevalent in fields like medicine, where multiple merits and high-level skill sets are prerequisites. In fact, a Stanford University study found that imposter syndrome is especially prominent in physicians. That means that despite being objectively accomplished, many people still feel that they have simply tricked those around them into thinking they are qualified for their role.

11 Strategies to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

While this guide may not stop you from feeling like a fraud at times, changes in how you think will help you battle the effects of imposter syndrome so that it doesn't get in the way of your potential. Let's get started. 

1. Understand the Factors Affecting Your Situation

As a psychological experience, imposter syndrome can come in varying degrees and can manifest from different sources like family background, relationship dynamics, competitive environments, socio-economic factors, or predispositions like perfectionism. Understanding the source can be a powerful tool in redirecting your thought patterns.

To combat perceived deficits, start by looking at where that perception could stem from in your life. For example, studies have shown that the gap between one's factual achievements and the perceived deficit is often linked to higher stress levels and related conditions like anxiety and depression.

Additionally, do you struggle with perfectionism? Did your parents have high expectations for you growing up? Are you a minority within your field or office? Have you had experiences that led you to feel as though how you perform affects not just you but the entire social group that you belong to?

If you answered yes to any of those examples, you are not alone in feeling unqualified, and your feelings are understandable, but that does not make your perception true. Instead, let's focus on what’s true.

2. Acknowledge and Celebrate Your Achievements

While it’s helpful to look into the root of your imposter syndrome, overcoming it requires action. To separate what you perceive from what's true, try keeping a record of successes, no matter how small. During times of self-doubt, reflect on those past successes and remind yourself that each one brought you to where you are now.

For example, if you are starting a new job and are experiencing imposter syndrome, mark down that you successfully passed the hiring process and were chosen for the position by competent, experienced professionals. Whether you’re right for the role or not may feel like a looming unknown, but the fact that you were hired is based on fact and gives validity to your position.

Every time you accomplish something, add it to the record. Give yourself space to celebrate milestones and build self-confidence by treating yourself to something that makes you happy. By congratulating yourself after an achievement, you can shift that feeling of relief or "a narrow escape" to one of pride and acknowledgment.

3. Challenge Perfectionist Tendencies

Imposter syndrome, like perfectionism, can come from a positive desire to do well. For that reason, both traits are common in high achievers. However, unadapted forms of these psychological experiences can lead to setting unrealistic goals or expectations that can actually block your productivity.

Holding yourself to an unrealistic standard can lead to negative self-talk, procrastination, and an unwillingness to take chances for fear of failure, in turn hindering your potential and contributing to a cycle of self-doubt and stagnation.

To challenge unproductive thought patterns, try setting realistic goals. If you have a large or long-term aim, separate it into smaller, achievable goals and check them off one at a time. You could even ask a trusted colleague or friend if the steps and timeline are realistic.

This practice not only builds a sense of self-efficacy but also shifts the focus from perfection to progress. When perfectionism causes paralysis, allow yourself to start with work that is “good enough” and know that you can always go back and improve later.

4. Share and Learn from Failures

Acknowledging the role of failure is just as important as acknowledging successes. Valerie Young, co-founder of Impostor Syndrome Institute, points out that one of the major differences between those with imposter syndrome and those without is that those without understand that sometimes mistakes happen, and they can accept that and bounce back.

One of the best tools for shifting one's perspective on a topic is by creating dialogue around it. Try starting a conversation about failure with people you trust and respect. Vulnerability can be challenging, but sharing stories of our own failures and learning from others can both demystify the journey of success and shatter the illusion that failure is unacceptable.

Challenge yourself to view failure as an opportunity to reapply what you've learned to your next attempt, bringing you one step closer to your goal.

5. Foster Self-Compassion and Kindness

If your friend or partner told you that they had been promoted, how would you respond? Would you say, "I hope they don't realize you’re underqualified"? Of course not, because you have been watching them and recognize the hard work and talent that led to their achievement. Try approaching yourself with that same recognition and kindness.

Building trust with yourself can start with small gestures of self-care sprinkled into your routine. Maybe you begin by making your bed every morning and tidying up your space before you begin your day. Whatever is best for you, dedicate at least 30 minutes every day to doing something that makes you happy.

Consider incorporating mindfulness practices and positive affirmations into your routine. Meditation for 20 minutes a day has been shown to reduce stress, boost concentration, and promote kindness, helping you improve both your relationship with yourself and your work performance.

Positive self-talk is another actionable practice that you can blend into your routine. While it may feel silly at first, various studies have shown that positive statements can reduce anxiety and build confidence. The best part is that you don't have to believe what you're saying for it to work. Just by changing the way you talk to yourself, you will start to experience the benefits.

6. Recognize the Difference Between Humility and Fear

Humility is not contrary to confidence. Both feelings come from a conscientious self-assessment of our capabilities. While humility allows us to recognize where we have room to grow, confidence points to our strengths and tells us that we can harness self-assessment as a tool for success.

There is a difference between being humble and being afraid of success. While it’s important to recognize when your current capabilities may fall short of a complex situation, it's just as important to recognize when you are the right person for the job and to advocate for yourself.

If you find you're avoiding praise, shying away from an accomplishment, or undervaluing your own contributions, ask yourself if that’s an accurate self-assessment based on facts or if it’s simply how you feel.

To test yourself, write down a role you are considering and then what skills, characteristics, and experiences would be relevant to that position or assignment. If you find that you have applicable traits, challenge yourself to assert your value or contributions in a practice conversation with someone you trust.

7. Embrace and Accept Your Feelings

Imposter feelings come from a wide range of real circumstances and a positive desire to do well.

Instead of judging your feelings, try acknowledging that they exist and then asking yourself, “What is the most productive next step?” Endeavor to shape those intrusive thoughts into a motivating force by remembering that these feelings show a dedication to succeed and a consideration for your work that is admirable.

Allow these thoughts to be a reminder to self-reflect and grow while reiterating that everyone experiences moments of uncertainty, especially high achievers.

8. Maintain a Positive Mindset

Transforming imposter syndrome into a powerful motivating force requires reframing your thoughts. For every negative emotion, there is a positive reframe. When new challenges make you nervous and uncertain, move to a place of curiosity.

Instead of, "I don't know if I can do this," say, "I'm excited to learn something new and develop more skills." Even if you don't believe what you're saying, changing your thoughts will change how your brain reacts to that situation.

To build habits around positive thinking, practice gratitude journaling. Before you go to bed, write down what you feel grateful for, ways in which you’re growing, or what good things happened that day. See if you can pull a positive outcome from something that was challenging.

Visualizing is another powerful tool for cultivating a positive outlook. When your mind starts creating potential negative outcomes, practice visualizing positive outcomes instead. Positive visualization can help you build confidence while your mind and body rehearse what you need to do to bring that outcome to life.

9. Utilize Mindful Social Media Engagement

Too much uncontrolled scrolling can impact self-worth and make you feel behind when compared to others’ successes. Technology is not neutral, but that doesn't mean we don't have a say in how we engage with it. We know that social media platforms build algorithms based on how we interact with them. This actually gives us the ability to customize our experiences.

Instead of engaging with media that fuels comparison, try searching for pages that foster inspiration and learning. Seek out motivational accounts that promote mental health, and follow educational pages related to your field that are motivating or teach you a new skill or approach.

Most importantly, create reminders to monitor your social media use and set boundaries that protect your mental well-being.

10. Accept New Opportunities

This step is going to feel uncomfortable, but that’s okay. Remember that overcoming imposter syndrome starts with changing our behavior before we can change the way we feel.

The imposter syndrome tendency to avoid new opportunities (and potential failure) can keep us trapped in uncertainty and self-doubt. To break that cycle, practice saying yes to new opportunities. If they lead to success, celebrate that accomplishment! If they lead to failure, welcome the chance to learn that failure isn't as scary as it seems.

Strengthen your chances of personal growth by shifting the focus from ”Will I succeed?” to “What excites me, and how can I prepare?” Ample research can build confidence and ground you in the work.

11. Turn Imposter Syndrome into a Personal Growth Plan

Imposter syndrome doesn't have to block you from success; it can actually be the driving force that leads you toward your goals. Channel the energy of imposter syndrome into positive action by setting challenges that align with personal and professional aspirations.

When you feel intimidated by a competitor, ask yourself what you admire in that person and see if you can build that same skill or characteristic in yourself. Acknowledge the moments where your strengths might simply differ, and ask yourself how you can foster the traits that make you unique and valuable.

While you work toward your goals, push yourself to get comfortable readjusting the plan. Perfection is not the key to success, but flexibility and progress are.

Real-Life Manifestations of Imposter Syndrome in Career Development

Challenging imposter syndrome is a difficult, ongoing process—but worth the effort. Left unchecked, imposter syndrome can limit career growth and chip away at satisfaction. Take a minute to consider how imposter syndrome manifests for you at work in the following ways:

Hesitation to Apply for Promotions or New Roles

Those with imposter syndrome tend to underestimate their qualifications and capabilities, steering them away from potential promotions, new roles, or even career changes that may have led to an offer if they’d applied. Additionally, someone who rationalizes their accomplishments as a product of luck may not feel confident enough to negotiate raises, take on new roles, or start their own business.

Difficulty Accepting Praise and Accomplishments

Feelings of fraudulence make it difficult for individuals to accept praise or recognize their own accomplishments, potentially cutting them off from building connections or discouraging prospective employers. For example, someone who accepts an award for an accomplishment might avoid networking at an afterparty so as to avoid praise and subsequent discomfort.

Overworking to Prove Worth

Individuals who struggle to recognize their inherent value and the value of their work may try to overcompensate by staying late or consistently reworking a project or proposal, eventually leading to poor work-life harmony and burnout. Someone who feels they constantly need to prove themselves may take on extra tasks beyond their role, driven by the fear of being perceived as inadequate.

Fear of Failure Causing Paralysis

Individuals with imposter syndrome tend to view failure as unacceptable or evidence of their fraud. At work, an individual may avoid voicing new ideas, offering a controversial perspective, or taking the lead on a project. The fear of making a mistake can become overwhelming, leading to procrastination or distracted thinking. This paralysis can hinder creativity or productivity, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Undermining Your Expertise

Individuals who consistently downplay the significance of their contributions may refuse to recognize their own expertise, even after working in a specific field for many years and becoming well-versed. Despite having the necessary skills and experience, a lack of confidence could undermine your efforts and lead to getting passed over for recognition.

Combat Imposter Syndrome with Professional Guidance

It’s time to recognize that you deserve success. Overcoming imposter syndrome is a vulnerable process that asks us to accept our failures, adjust how we measure success, and foster positivity and trust within ourselves.

If you’re struggling to recognize how your skills, characteristics, and experiences can translate into strengths, career coaching is an invaluable tool. An expert in your corner will recognize when your imposter syndrome becomes self-sabotaging, talk you through helpful strategies to overcome it, and give you confidence.

Whether you’re writing a cover letter for a job application or looking to reach the next level in your career, a professional coach like the experts at JobTest.org can help you navigate these steps with confidence while showcasing your unique assets.

The process of breaking free from imposter syndrome will take consistent work and patience, but by embracing your worth, you’ll not only celebrate your authentic self but also transform your career journey. 

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