Five Maneuvers to Neutralize Impostor Syndrome

“I don’t have anything meaningful to offer these women.” 

It takes a lot for me to be intimidated by an audience, but I was invited to deliver the closing keynote at a national conference for women in the fire service recently, and as I sat through the first day’s program and looked around the room, I couldn’t help but think, “I don’t have anything meaningful to offer these women.” Cue my impostor syndrome thought stack which usually starts with something like that and quickly devolves into other thoughts like “All the other speakers are better. My content isn’t good enough. I’m a fraud.” and pretty soon I’ve got a big ol’ stack of impostor syndrome thoughts weighing me down. 

Impostor syndrome and its nasty little cousins doubt, fear, and worry are frequent fliers in my coaching conversations with clients. I deal with these, too! Here are five action steps I take to help counteract impostor syndrome: 

  1. Clearly identify the impostor syndrome thought. Every time you have an impostor syndrome-related thought, put on your detective hat and investigate the heck out of it. Articulate it to a friend or simply write it down, but get the thought out of your head and clearly identified externally. You’ll move from vague feelings or that yucky pit in your stomach to explicitly articulated thoughts, “I’m a fraud. I’ll screw this up. They’ll find me out. I don’t belong. Literally anyone else would be better for this than me.” This clarity is the foundation of how you neutralize the negative effects of impostor syndrome.
  2. Ask yourself: “Is this true?” Keep that detective hat on, baby. It’s time to ask whether or not your thought can be true. Can you REALLY know it’s true? What is your evidence that it might be true? Be brutally honest here. Sometimes you’ll dig up evidence to the affirmative, and that’s ok! It might point you in the direction of some development. More often than not, however, it’s going to be hard to find concrete evidence that your thought is true and you can absolutely KNOW it’s not true.
  3. Identify the opposite or adjacent thought. It’s time to turn that thought on its head. Think you’re a fraud? Write down “I’m an expert in this area” or “I’ve got a lot to contribute here.” Afraid you’ll screw it up? Consider how you’ll totally nail it. You’ll knock it out of the park! Worried that you don’t belong or that some day you’ll be found out and exposed as someone who shouldn’t have been there in the first place? Instead, open yourself to the thought that you DO belong and you continue to belong. Suspicious that pretty much anyone else could be doing a better job than you? Instead, think that you are exactly the right person for your position.
  4. Go clue-hunting for evidence of your opposite or adjacent thoughts. What are even tiny slivers of evidence that this opposite or adjacent thought might be true? Feel free to rely on others for this piece, too! Sometimes they can see it more clearly than we can. Think of feedback you’ve received, the fact that you’re in the position you’re in, outward signs that this other thought might be true.
  5. Continue exploring with these three additional questions: 
  • Have you ever been in a similar situation or dealt with some level of impostor syndrome like this before that could offer lessons or help you contextualize this one you’re experiencing? 
  • What would your favorite mentor or best friend say to you about this? 
  • What would you say to a best friend or favorite colleague if they were the ones experiencing the impostor syndrome situation that you are right now? 

As I went through the above steps with my thought, “I don’t have anything meaningful to offer to these women,” it quickly became apparent that the thought was totally false. I did have something meaningful to offer. I’ve got strategies and tools galore that help women leaders – and all leaders, really! – on so many levels. I know that’s true because I’ve had decades of leadership experience and feedback from teams and individuals I’ve coached and helped that have told me. I’ve gotten responses and evaluations about my speaking style, and I spent time getting to know some of the women in the room and I was sure we would connect. If it was a friend or colleague sitting there thinking they didn’t have much to offer, I would ask them those questions and help them answer them honestly. 

Confidence is usually one unexplored thought away. When you feel that impostor syndrome knocking at your door, you don’t have to open it and welcome it in. It might bust through anyway, but you don’t have to allow it to stay. Examine those thoughts, do your detective work, and keep moving forward. We need what you’ve got to offer! 

- Nicole



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