How to Know If You Have Impostor Syndrome—and What to Do About It
The struggle to own your successes at work can be very real—even for uber-accomplished women like Well+Good Council member Claire Wasserman. Here, the Ladies Get Paid founder and career coach shares how she deals with self-doubt at work.
I’ve received an award from the Supreme Court. I was cast in a Broadway musical. I’ve interned at the Senate and have been nominated for a Student Academy Award. I’ve raised more than $1 million and spoken in front of thousands of people.
I also feel like a total and complete fraud.
No matter the number of accolades, I’ve suffered for years from what I’ve now come to understand as impostor syndrome. Turns out this fraudulent feeling has a clinical name, and it’s not just me that has it. According to the Harvard Business Review, it’s defined as a feeling of inadequacy that persists despite evident success. "Impostors" suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.
I’ve been taken aback by how many others also live with this fear of "being found out."
Maya Angelou described it well: "I have written 11 books, but each time I think, 'Uh-oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out.'"
I started Ladies Get Paid to create a safe space and support system for women to candidly share their professional challenges. I’ve been taken aback by how many others also live with this fear of "being found out." These often are incredibly competent and capable women with big-name jobs who nonetheless feel the need to continually prove themselves. The correlation between external success and internal impostor is strong. In my case, it’s almost as if I’ve built up my accomplishment muscle so much that I fear that my sense of self may have completely atrophied underneath it. Plus, the more accolades I rack up, the farther I have to fall. Failure is not an option.
What’s disturbing is how quickly my impostor syndrome can overtake my reality. Here’s an example: In the early days of Ladies Get Paid, I decided to record some audio during a town hall in the hopes of potentially making a podcast in the future. I didn’t plan on publishing it—I just wanted to take a listen. However, when I let the speakers know, they were taken aback, given the safe space of the town hall and sensitivity of the stories shared. I felt ashamed and apologized.
I almost quit Ladies Get Paid that night. As I walked home, I berated myself for not having been more thoughtful, for not having realized how absolutely antithetical that was to my entire mission. But instead of containing this as a learning experience, my inner critic developed into full-on self-flagellation. This couldn’t just be an opportunity to grow, it had to be a total takedown. If I could make a decision like this, was I fit to lead Ladies Get Paid? Who did I think I was starting this organization?
There it was: Impostor syndrome rearing its ugly head. Here's what I've learned since then.
The fear of being a fraud motivates me, in some part, to work hard. I set a precedent early in my career in which my diligence and over-preparedness led to praise, which in turn triggered a self-perpetuating system of overworking and obsession. Unsurprisingly, I’ve also suffered from burnout, something that is all too familiar to others who have impostor syndrome.
Does my story sound familiar? If you’re wondering if you might also have impostor syndrome, here are some other telltale signs:
- You tend to dismiss your success as a result of luck or timing.
- You find yourself overworking or overpreparing.
- You undermine your own achievements.
- You fear failure.
- You discount praise.
- You give the answers you think others want to hear.
- You dwell on mistakes and negative feedback.
- You’re a perfectionist.
Almost one year later, I’ve made significant strides. However, impostor syndrome will still creep up on me in the most unexpected ways. Recently, I was on a panel alongside other women I knew and admired. I wasn’t nervous—I’ve done a bunch of public speaking—so imagine my surprise when halfway through, I started to feel my self-confidence erode.
Though I’ve toured all over the country, speaking in front of thousands of people, it’s always been in a town hall format (lights dim, chairs close together in a semi-circle); I’m also always the moderator. In this scenario, I was a panelist on a bright stage, looking out into a sea of darkness. Unable to feel the energy of the room, to see the women smile and nod, I began to feel unsure. Did they understand what I was saying? Did it resonate? I left the stage feeling drained.
When I was going to bed later, I replayed everything in my head and realized how much of others’ affirmations I needed to give me the thumbs up that I’m on the right track. And there, BAM! Impostor syndrome: If I have this little self-confidence, who do I think I am leading Ladies Get Paid? The members should have someone who truly believes in themselves! (The tailspin is real.)
While men also experience impostor syndrome, women disproportionately suffer from it (in large part because of how we’re socialized). Incidentally, that realization was a enough of a kick in the ass to actually do something about it. My first step was fully taking stock of when I felt impostor syndrome, rather than pushing it away. That helped me spend energy solving it instead of trying to avoid it.
Along with seeing a great therapist, here are some things I’ve done to combat impostor syndrome:
- Avoid using ”just" and "only" when describing your work.
- Cultivate a mindfulness practice.
- View everything as an opportunity to learn, rather than a pass/fail test.
- Share your story. By speaking up about feeling like a fraud, you may find yourself.
- Keep a record of nice things people say to you. For example, I take screenshots of the emails I receive from women in the Ladies Get Paid community who tell me how the organization has positively affected them.
- Channel a mediocre white male. Do you think he’d question himself as much as you are? If he says he’s an “expert,” damn it, you can be, too!
My first real breakthrough happened during "Ladies Hangout: Don’t Feel Like a Fraud." It was a Google Hangout hosted by Ladies Get Paid and facilitated by a psychologist. Ten women from around the country each took a turn to describe how impostor syndrome was affecting their lives.
The act of telling others evoked a physical sensation where the fear and shame released from my body. It was an amazing thing.
I told the group how, despite all my wins at work, I’ve perpetually lived in fear of being fired. Everyone nodded knowingly. And then a funny thing happened: I felt lighter. The act of telling others evoked a physical sensation where the fear and shame released from my body. It was an amazing thing.
Does that mean it won’t come back? Of course it will—it already has. But the more I talk about suffering from impostor syndrome, each time it creeps back, it’s less intense and dissolves quicker than before. And the more I speak up publicly about it, the prouder I am to be helping other women.
The founder of Ladies Get Paid, Claire Wasserman's an educator, coach, and podcaster, who helps women navigate their professional options to find fulfilling career paths.
What should Claire write about next? Send your questions and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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