How I Deal with Imposter Syndrome as a Female Leader

I am the walking poster child for Imposter Syndrome. So often, when I write a blog post, stand right off stage before speaking in front of a few hundred people, go into a meeting or hop on a call for what could be a fantastic opportunity, or face a challenge my mind is filled with:

“I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“I’m in over my head.”

“How did I convince so many people that I’m an expert?”

“Everyone is going to realize I am a total fraud.”

 

I live at the intersection of brazen ambition and crippling fear and doubt. While I feel like an anomaly, the idea that someone thinks they are a fraud, despite evidence to the contrary, is the very definition of “Imposter Syndrome.”

If you share these thoughts and beliefs, you’re not alone. According to a 2015 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, it affects almost 70% of people. If you’re in a leadership position or are an entrepreneur, you’re even more likely to deal with it. In fact, the idea has been tossed around that imposter syndrome isn’t not a syndrome at all, but a by-product of success.syndrome at all, but a by-product of success.

I’ve always found it fascinating that my mind would swirl with self-doubt, yet my actions went in the opposite direction. On the surface, I have it all together, but on the inside, well, that’s a different story.

Do you ever feel the same?

When I feel overwhelmed with doubt, which is often, I turn to a few strategies I’ve learned along the way, to give me the push I need to move forward.

These aren’t cures for the feeling of inadequacy, but a way to keep on going.

How I Deal With Imposter Syndrome

How I Deal with Imposter Syndrome

Believe Your Press

As women, we are often raised with this idea that humility equates to being ladylike. That somehow deflecting our success is the proper thing to do. You see it all the time: from the female leader complimented on a successful project who shares the credit with everyone else (whether it’s deserved or not) to the fifth grader who acts like her math grade is “luck,” and not hours of study and practice.

I catch myself doing this often. A few weeks back a good friend of mine complimented my hustle and called me an “inspiration,” and I replied by saying, “Really? I have no idea what I’m doing.”

We have to start rewriting our internal script and flipping the narrative around. If you did something amazing, own it, if you look fantastic, own it, if you’re generally a badass, own it.

When I’m feeling extra unworthy, overwhelmed or starting to psych myself out, I revisit my good press. I have a box in my office I call “love notes.” It’s filled with every note, card, and email from former clients and readers I’ve received since the day I started my business. It’s an in-my-face-reminder that no matter what my mind is telling me, my success is pretty undeniable.

Related: Interrupt Anxiety with Gratitude 

Celebrate Small Wins

There is a particular kind of exhaustion that comes with the constant vulnerability of being an entrepreneur. Everyone knows that feeling when nothing is working, and you start to use every misstep or hiccup as a sign from the universe to quit.

When I find myself in this place, my internal dialog goes straight to, “See, it’s all falling apart.  It was never going to last.” I turn into, as my dear friend Maribeth calls me, an “emotional flogger.” (Isn’t that the best term?)

Instead of focusing on all the little things getting in your way, focus on all the little things working out. This helps me keep the negative speak to a minimum. It can be anything. For me, some days it’s reviewing the increase in our readership since last year. How small changes and updates made a big difference. Other days it’s as baseline as falling asleep knowing all the laundry is folded and put away.

It goes back to flipping the script and staying positive.

Do it Anyway and Bribe Yourself

Imposter Syndrome lives in your mind.  It’s not an actual disease. The best “cure” for it is movement.  The more you move forward the less power you give the conversation in your mind. What I find works the BEST is acknowledging you are having these thoughts, take a deep breath, and refocus your attention to your work.  It sounds simple, but it takes a tremendous amount of discipline to keeping going.  The more you do it, the easier it gets.

Because I’m basically a five year old, I give myself little rewards for completing certain tasks.

Sometimes I get incredibly nervous before a speech.  It’s so bad I could convince myself to run away, or fake my death.  Instead, I think back to all my successful speeches, remind myself that I’ve yet to be booed off stage and promise myself a celebratory glass of champagne when it’s over.

When I’m struggling with content for the blog or think everything I write is crap, I set aside a few hours to focus on work, and then meet a friend for dinner.

It gives me something to look forward to and focuses my thoughts away from the negative and on to something positive.

Know it Happens to EVERYONE

I’ve been fortunate over the last ten years to meet some incredibly successful people.  Whenever I have the opportunity, the one question I always ask them is, “When did you stop feeling like a fraud?”  And every single time the answer is, “I still do!”  Knowing that this feeling of inadequacy is a natural response to pressure and success makes it easier to move past and get on with your agenda.

Knowing you’re not alone is often the best remedy.  As women, we are in a powerful, watershed moment in so many ways. I have talked to so many women, heard from so many readers who are thinking of stepping into something new and different, whether it’s going off on your own, or taking on more responsibility in an organization.

Don’t let your thoughts of inadequacy hinder your future. We all feel like we are frauds at some point.

Related: How to Brand Yourself as a Thought Leader 

Don’t Dumb Yourself Down

I’m just going to say it: I know what I want, where I want to be and what I’m doing, and so do you. The only thing in any of our way is ourselves. Work on letting go of your negative self-talk. You’ll be more productive and your confidence will increase.

Don’t let your thoughts of inadequacy hinder your future. We all feel like we are frauds at some point.

 

Megan Kristel

Megan Kristel is an entrepreneur, working mom, and former personal stylist. Tired of the one-dimensional portrayal of women online, she founded The Well Dressed Life as a resource for other professional women.

8 Comments
  1. Megan,
    My gut tells me Imposter Syndrome is more likely for women than men. Is that what your research has shown or you’ve seen or not? I ask because I work in engineering where we see a “Confidence Gap” leading to our glass ceiling. Women aren’t getting promoted partially because the atmosphere isn’t conducive to promotion (it’s harder to “rub elbows” across genders due to a commitment to professionalism) and because we are not self-promoting or as confident as our peers.

    I really like the post! Think its a great discussion for us to be having. Was curious if you too found that Imposter Syndrome is more likely for women or if it’s common in men as well.

    1. Hey Meredith,
      Thanks for the note!
      I’m sure men deal with this to a degree, but almost all of the information I read focused on women. Personally, I don’t know a woman who doesn’t feel this way, yet with some of the men in my life, and I don’t think they’ve had a moment of not feeling entirely deserving of their success. But I don’t want to dismiss how this might affect men in other ways.

      There is a lot of research on how general roles and the messages girls hear in childhood play in dealing with these feelings as adults. And because of that, it makes sense that women would experience this to a higher degree and are affected more intensely.

  2. I also suffer from “imposter syndrome,” even though I have been successful at what I’ve been doing for years. As Meredith wonders in her comment, I also wonder if imposter syndrome is more common in women. One reason that I am founding my new summer camp (Camp Timbrel) is to help girls to understand their own worth, as they are, without looking different, acting different, or displaying interest in things different from what they are genuinely interested in. On the one hand, it seems ok for one to have a little humility about one’s own success. And on the other hand, as women we should be able to embrace our successes without second-guessing whether or not it is deserved.

    Thank you Megan, for this post and this opportunity to think about this a bit.

    1. Hey Rachel,
      I LOVE the idea behind your summer camp. As I mentioned to Meredith, there is a lot of research around how the messages in our childhood effects or worthiness and confidence as adults, which absolutely play a huge role in “imposter syndrome.” One of the things that really helped me was going to an all girls high school. By the time I hit college I never questioned whether I should speak up in class, or have a strong opinion. And while I’ve had my feelings dismissed as “emotional” and “crazy” like every other woman walking the planet, I don’t let it stop me from speaking my mind. The more we can lift young girls up, and not make them feel less than the boys, the better chance they have of not being consumed or hindered by this feeling of being a fraud. I think that’s one of the reasons I experience the feeling of being inadequate but can quickly move past it. Best of luck with the camp!

  3. Outstanding post! As a leader and a writer, I have certainly dealt with Imposter Syndrome. I read a fantastic book by Karen Salmonsohn called “30-Day Plan to Whip Your Career Into Submission”- it was hilarious and made me realize that I was scaring myself out of moving my career forward, but that I am totally capable and awesome. I ended up getting a new job and a promotion since I read that book and am thinking of dusting it off and reading it again. Your advice is great too- and I think you are so right, just knowing someone else is dealing with this too makes it feel far less scary and shameful (I see how Brene Brown’s teachings would fit right in here!)- thanks for being brave, Megan. We need your voice.

    1. You’re so nice, Cristin, thank you. I just ordered the book – love a good recommendation! Maybe we’ll write a post around it in the coming weeks. I totally get scaring yourself out of moving forward, I’ve done that to a degree, and then I turn around and jump into something head first, which isn’t always the best thing to do either 😉

  4. Thank you Megan for sharing this thought provoking post. As a college professor, I encounter many of the same thoughts that you wrote about. I like the title of “Imposter Syndrome” and now know how applicable this is to my position. Students both younger and older are looking to me to impart wisdom and knowledge to them. It’s sort of a scary thought now that I just wrote that. I certainly do not have all the answers. I have been teaching for about 12 years and I must say that every year or every class that goes by, I gain more confidence. I also believe that confidence comes with increasing age. So, by the time we are ready to retire, we are so darn confident. 🙂 I had to smile when reading about your collection of thank you notes, etc. I also keep all the nice compliments I receive from students on my course evaluations, as well as many actual thank you notes I have received from them.

    1. Thanks for the comment Heidi. It’s crazy when you realize people look to you for advice and in your case, knowledge. Years ago, a dear client was encouraging me to expand this site to cover more topics. I was reluctant at first because I thought, why would anyone listen to what I have to say? But she said something I’ve kept with me, “You’re already getting the questions, which means you’re already perceived as a source of knowledge, you just have to step into it.” Wow. I realized because I’m a curious person by nature, I’m not so much telling people what to do, but more sharing information I’ve learned and discovered along the way, which made me feel more confident. I image it’s similar as a professor! Also, looking forward to the wisdom and confidence that comes with age 🙂

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