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Dealing With Imposter Syndrome At The Executive Level

Updated: May 24, 2021

The imposter phenomenon is when an individual feels inadequate despite having had lots of success and accomplishments. This individual is typically aware of their success, but they may feel like they didn't deserve it. They may feel fearful or anxious that someone will find out that they didn't earn all their success and accomplishments.

Imposter Syndrome

The imposter phenomenon is not a mental health disorder. However, people who experience this phenomenon can also experience symptoms of anxiety and depression if they perpetually feel like a fraud. Feeling like a fraud can cause a person to feel so anxious and depressed that it could begin to interfere with their daily routines and relationships.

What Imposter Syndrome Can Look And Feel Like

We all deal with inner voices that tell us good and bad things. You can spot imposter syndrome by noticing thoughts and feelings that include:

• Feelings of self-doubt, whether in your ability to be effective in your role as a whole or decisions you make and your ability to make them.

• Feelings of unworthiness of our accomplishments or attention from others; feelings of being unworthy in your role at work.

• Feelings of fraudulence or being a phoney; feeling that you're just a minute from being found out, or that you don't know what you're doing and/or don't know enough.

• Thinking your skills are nothing special no matter how skilled you are in your field or speciality.

• Attributing your successes to luck or others; being overly modest and not owning your accomplishments and talents (i.e., "I didn't do anything — my team did it all, and I just got out of the way.")

• Sidestepping accomplishments and recognition out of discomfort.

Imposter syndrome has become a popular topic over the years, and rightly so. Many of us have had feelings of inadequacy, of being unworthy or undeserving of where we're at in life or at work, and have even thought that one day we might be exposed as a fraud.

Research has shown that up to 70% of people will experience imposter syndrome at least once in their lives. The good news is that we are recognizing the signs of imposter syndrome and more people are talking about it.

Why Imposter Syndrome Becomes More Difficult For Executives?

The best antidote for imposter syndrome is to talk to others about your thoughts and the feelings you're experiencing, but the circle of trust often becomes smaller for leaders and executives. They have fewer mentors and people who feel like they can talk to honestly. They feel more pressure to be perfect and to deliver.

A senior leader may have an amplified imposter syndrome experience because he/she feels that more people rely on her/him.

Even though he most likely have enjoyed a successful career leading up to their promotion, he may also feel he hasn't earned the position, like he was only lucky to have been chosen for it.

Executive positions often equate to high-stress roles that can quickly wear you out. If you have perfectionist tendencies, you may suffer over every small mistake while pushing yourself without feeling fulfilment in your position.

How To Deal With Imposter Syndrome?

1. Identify the thoughts you're telling yourself when you begin to think you're a fraud

What exact statements are running through your head as you begin to think that you are an imposter? Some examples:

"I'm lucky to have been accepted in this company."

"I'm not smart enough to have been accepted into this position".

"Somebody from the board is going to find out that I shouldn't have made it past the first year of promotion."

"Everyone is going to find out that I'm not smart."

2. Evaluate the factual accuracy of your thoughts.

Look for the evidence to support and contradict your thoughts. Some examples:

"I have all the qualifications and required experience to be in this position."

"I have never had a bad review."

3. Identify the worst possible outcomes

What happens if these thoughts are true?

"I will lose everything."

"I am going to look like a fool when they find out that I'm not smart."

4. Assess how realistic the worst possible outcomes could be

"I'm doing well, and I haven't made any major mistake, so I don't think I am going to fail."

"It's possible that other people may be having a similar feeling like me."

5. Identify the purpose or function of continuing to tell yourself those thoughts

"Telling myself that I was lucky and not smart enough to get into this company is only putting myself down and hindering me from my goals."

"I'm only hindering myself by thinking that I'm an imposter."

6. What would be the outcome if you changed your thoughts?

"I would have more confidence and appreciate myself more for my accomplishments. If I had more confidence in myself, then I wouldn't be so stressed."

7. What advice would you give to your friend if they felt like an imposter?

"I would tell my friend that she was being hard on herself. I would tell her that she worked really hard to get to where she was and that it was not all luck. I would tell her that she was being really hard on herself and to give herself more credit."

8. Write down what you want to tell yourself when you catch yourself thinking that you are an imposter

"I am qualified and skilled. I have worked hard to be where I am now."

"I'm doing well at work, and I am delivering results."

"Though at times, I may doubt myself, this is normal, and I know more than I give myself credit for."

"It's okay not to know everything because no one knows everything."

Doing these steps takes time and a real reflection on your thoughts and feelings. In the beginning, it may seem superficial and forceful, but with practice, you should start to notice small differences in your feelings and behaviours.

Remember that you are not the only person who feels this way. There is nothing like talking to someone else about your feelings of self-doubt, and the best way to get comfortable with asking for help is to start, even if that means starting slow at first. Talk to peers, mentors and coaches. Ask your mentors and peers about times they've felt in over their heads and experienced similar feelings of self-doubt. If you feel like you can't talk to just anybody, allow yourself to be vulnerable with those who have earned the right. It is essential to cultivate a wider support network around you with whom you can freely express your feelings.

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