Imposter syndrome happens when we doubt ourselves, our value and our self-worth out of an irrational fear that we might be seen as a fraud by other people.
We begin to question our skills and accomplishments by telling ourselves things like “my work isn’t good enough” or “everyone will think I don’t know what I’m talking about”, and so we procrastinate, miss deadlines, or in some cases fail to deliver for clients.
The good news is that this fear is both irrational – given our accomplishments, awards, certificates, experience, and praise from our peers – and not uncommon. However, despite all evidence to the contrary these negative thoughts can be paralyzing and could have a detrimental impact on our success at work or in business.
What can we do? With a little discipline and the right change in mindset, we can manage or overcome the self-doubt, step out of our comfort zone, and push ourselves to succeed.
Here is my little contribution as an imposter: a few actionable steps you can take (in no particular order) the next time you feel that your work just doesn’t stack up or you find yourself avoiding a project because you think you lack the expertise.
1. Accept some hard truths
We need to be accountable and that involves acceptance. In order to combat imposter syndrome, we first have to accept some truths.
Hard Truth Number 1 – You are an imposter (and that’s ok)
Marketing guru Seth Godin said in an interview: “We are all imposters, but we are not all committing fraud. Fraud is a crime, being an imposter is not”.
Think about the last time you cooked a meal for someone, or drove a friend to the airport. Are you a professional chef? Are you an Uber driver? Well you might be, but If you aren’t like most of us then you were acting as an imposter.
The meal may not have gotten a five-star review and maybe your friend didn’t like your music playlist, but you made an impact on someone. You contributed in a small way, and you didn’t have to sell them on the idea that you could cook a meal or drive a car.
Hard Truth Number 2 – You can’t start where you are not, so start where you are
While it’s definitely important to have a vision about where you want to be in your career or business, you have to start somewhere to get there.
Whether you want to start a company or create a blog, ask yourself who your minimum viable audience is. In other words, what is the smallest group of people you need to reach in order to be sustainable or achieve your goals?
Suppose you want to write a vegan cookbook. What is the smallest number of people who you know will benefit from the book, and who will help you reach your goals? Do they have friends who are vegans? Do their friends have friends who are vegan? You get the idea.
Start with the smallest viable audience and build outward.
Hard Truth Number 3 – Your products or services are most likely not for everyone (and that’s ok too)
Define who it is you are trying to reach and accept that you cannot reach everyone. Once you figure out who your audience is, you’ll have more success in figuring out what they need and how you can contribute.
A person selling mittens for kittens is probably not going to reach many dog lovers or even all cat lovers for that matter.
Decide who you want to serve and go where they are.
2. Reframe Negative Thoughts
Once we can understand and accept the hard truths, we can begin reframing our negative thoughts into more positive ideas.
Here are a few suggestions:
- “I’m making a contribution” – Remind yourself that you are helping someone with your product, service, or blog. By thinking you always need to sell or pitch, you will likely fall further into the imposter trap believing that you don’t deserve to get paid.
- “I don’t know everything but I’m willing to learn as I go” – It’s much easier to just dismiss yourself as not knowing enough. The good work comes though, when you accept that you don’t know all the answers but are willing to find out. Contrary to what we believed as kids, teachers do not have all the answers. They are simply great at research and know they are a valuable resource.
3. Show Up On Time Every Time
Most artists, whether they are graphic designers, musicians, writers, or photographers will tell you that they were not born with the ability to create beautiful work. They developed their amazing skills by showing up consistently and putting in hours and hours of work.
If we are diligent in our effort whether it’s posting designs to Behance every day, or blogging every day, or writing code every day, our skills will only improve and so will our confidence.
The important thing is that we stick with it and become comfortable with both our good work and our not-so-good work. Remember, we are still making a contribution.
4. Fake It Til You Make It
Sometimes we just need to “wing it” to accomplish our goals. Chefs burn dinner, carpenters miscalculate measurements, and as we discussed already, teachers don’t always know the answer.
It’s ok to feel like we need to just figure it out as we go along in order to get our ideas out. Act now and ask questions later, as they say.
If we always rely our confidence to dictate when we start a new project, we may never overcome our self-doubt and fall into the trap of starting a bunch of things but never finishing them.
Put yourself out there and your confidence will build over time.
5. Own Your Failures As Learning Experiences
Suppose you’re tasked with creating a logo or a website for your client, or your boss tasks you with a project. You pour your life into the project only to have the client or boss tell you he/she didn’t like it. This sort of feedback will inevitably cause us to shutdown and retreat. Then we begin the internal struggle with ourselves about self-worth.
Instead, turn the feedback into a teachable moment. Rather than focusing on how bad you are at your job, you might ask the client or boss what he or she didn’t like about it so that you can improve your process. Remember hard truth #3, your work probably isn’t for everyone.
Imposter syndrome is real and it is not uncommon. We all experience moments of self-doubt or that we don’t deserve some of our achievements.
The truth is we do deserve them. We need to stop telling ourselves we’re not good enough, and start making small contributions to prove to ourselves that we are.
By putting ourselves out there, finding our smallest viable audience, and changing our thinking from always trying to sell something (either ourselves or our products or services) to the idea that we are contributing to some segment of our community, then we can begin to grow the confidence we need to be successful.