During the first week at my first full-time job post college, I cried. I was asked to “user test” a new release of one of our technical products, to see how intuitive it was to someone with little knowledge of the product. When I went to test, I couldn’t even figure out which program to open. I felt like a failure. Turns out I was experiencing imposter syndrome for the first of many times in my career.
According to Harvard Business Review, imposter syndrome defined is a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. Imposters suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.
I Don’t Belong Here
My feelings were valid, given that I was a freshly minted marketing degree graduate, working at an IT company. I had no business being issued a badge to a place I knew nothing about. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the user test I had to do, was not only not my job, but it was way beyond what I ever should have been asked to do. That was on them, not on me.
I’ve experienced imposter syndrome countless times in my career. It happened when got my first promotion. It happened again when I started talking to executives about our technical products. It still happens when I talk to the engineers that write the code to our systems.
It manifests itself as doubt.
“I am not smart enough to talk about this.”
“These guys are never going to listen to a twenty something female.”
“They are going to see right through me and know I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“What’s a twenty something doing working alongside people twice my age and experience?”
“Who made the mistake of thinking I am the right person for this job?”
Naturally, I tend to fear what others think of my ability and whether I will measure up. Every time I was asked a question I didn’t know the answer to, I felt like a fraud. Turns out I’m not the only one. According to a study by Amazing If, almost a third of millennials in the UK suffer from imposter syndrome.
Psychologies.co.uk shared this on the study:
“An incredible 12 million millennials admitted to suffering from such [confidence] gremlins, with 52% of all those studied having a fear of being asked questions on the spot by their superiors. Interestingly, 40% of women in the study reported being intimidated by senior staff, versus only 22% of men.”
One of my absolute favorite voices that leads how I strive, lead, and work is Brené Brown. No other author or speaker has made as big an impact on my work as she has. The irony is that she is not a workplace or culture consultant, as you would expect. She’s a shame and vulnerability storyteller.
Those who have perfectionist tendencies can be more prone to imposter syndrome, since perfectionists generally want to have the answer before the question is asked, so that others will be impressed or validate them. Brown had this to say on it:
“Wherever perfectionism is driving, shame is riding shotgun. Perfectionism is not about healthy striving, which you see all the time in successful leaders, it’s not about trying to set goals and being the best we can be, perfectionism is basically a cognitive behavioral process that says if I look perfect, work perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid shame, ridicule, and criticism. It’s a defense mechanism.”
It would make sense then, that those of us striving to look perfect, work perfect, and do everything perfectly would feel like a fraud when we mess up, make a mistake, or admit we don’t know something.
The truth is that there’s not a single person on this planet that is capable and knowledgeable on everything they do before they have experienced it. Knowledge comes through learning, which is a product of having experienced what you have never seen.
Every single person, as they go through their career and life, enters into new roles, responsibilities, and seasons that require them to stretch, learn and grow. As they do so, they naturally have to admit, at least to themselves, that they don’t know the answer or right solution to problems. The CEO was once a newbie. The star of the team was once a rookie.
You Are Not Who You Think
Maybe I’m the only one that sees my ability as less than others see it, but I have a feeling I’m not. Sometimes I have interactions, meetings, or tests that I walk away from feeling as though I could have done better. I should have prepared better or brought it to the next level. I beat myself up for hours or even days about it.
Then I hear from someone else who was there. They will say something like, “What you did was perfect!” or “That was exactly what we were going for!”.
Has this happened to you? I don’t say this to toot my own horn. I say it because our view of ourselves can sometimes, or often times, be smaller than what other’s see.
Maybe you think you are missing the mark, but other people look up to you. Maybe you thought you blew your opportunity, but you impressed everyone who heard you speak.
This self-doubt or self-criticism can be debilitating. In fact, when we start to believe the lies we tell ourselves, we can limit ourselves from opportunities and experiences that we have earned and deserve.
How To Overcome Imposter Syndrome
I’ve not perfected the ability to be completely self-confident in every area of my life, but I have learned a thing or two as I’ve taken on new jobs or started new ventures, such as this blog.
When I decided to start this blog, I kept saying things like, “There are plenty of other blogs that talk about this exact same topic,” or “I’m not an expert because I don’t have multiple degrees,” or “No one will value my advice because I’m not an executive.”
Frankly, all of those thoughts were lies and doubts I told myself. What finally got me to publish this blog was the realization that I would learn as I went along and that even if I wasn’t the foremost expert on my topic, I still had valuable advice to put out into the world that maybe just one person could use and apply.
Brené Brown gave me the inspiration and confidence I needed. Her wisdom on shame and vulnerability told me that there will be days that suck and you feel overexposed and unintelligent, but there will also be days when you feel accomplished.
I took it from Brené and promised myself that I wouldn’t let the opinion, positive or negative, of anyone that’s not “in the ring” with me, or putting themselves out there authentically on a public platform, get to my heart.
I started this blog and immediately felt the tug of imposter syndrome. My face shouldn’t be plastered on an advice blog! But guess what happened six months after I started up this ole blog? Forbes approached me about writing for them!
It was validation that what I was doing was worthwhile and I was qualified. They asked me to write a bio for myself that shows on all of my articles I post. I looked at the bio of other contributors to get a sense for what format to use and had imposter syndrome all over again. These people had multiple degrees, their own institutes, are small business owners and have decades of experience. I was a millennial with a full-time corporate job and a startup blog.
Yet, doubting myself was unnecessary. Here I am more than two years later and I’ve been a consistent contributor for them on two different channels over that time. I have had countless people reach out to me about what I have written. My words have reached millions – I’m not exaggerating.
The lesson here is that your voice, experience and background matter, even if they don’t look anything like what everyone else’s does. You might not be fully prepared for your next step as you are taking it, but few people are. You are not alone. Most importantly, you will figure it out as you go.
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