The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines imposter syndrome as a psychological condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success.
I, personally, like to define it as quite the son of a… well, I’ll let you finish the thought. Sometimes you don’t even realize you’re on the imposter rollercoaster until the ride is finally over. The trickiest part of the experience is one that flies right under our noses. That is to say, how do you solve a problem when the solution is overcoming yourself?
Having recently gone through a spell of imposter syndrome, I realized that if we shift our perspective and embrace the discomfort, we can use the experience to propel us forward. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from my most recent time dealing with imposter syndrome.
Talk to someone.
Incoming spoiler alert: Guess what, we’ve all been there! Even though no two experiences are the same, the relatability is identical. One of the effects of imposter syndrome is it’s a leech to your confidence. No matter how grounded you are in yourself or your skillset, imposter syndrome can take you out at the knees. The challenge here is to be bold and embrace the discomfort and reach out to a friend, colleague, or peer mentor.
Already being in a vulnerable state of mind, it can make asking for help that much harder. But if you can tackle it head-on and commit confidently, it will pay off in dividends. Sharing that space with a colleague or peer mentor can be a wake up call, knowing that you’re not alone. Being able to share your struggles with someone, who may not be dealing with imposter syndrome at the time, can be a strong grounding force for you. Oftentimes, the mountain we see ahead of us is no more than a speed bump.
That’s where a fresh perspective and clarity from a friend can be a game changer. Their shared experience can be a guide for you since they’ve worked their way to the other side of that valley. This acts as an anchor back to reality and provides a clearer perspective on the situation. We all need help seeing the forest through the trees from time to time and your current experience will eventually help guide others in the future.
Another way to combat imposter syndrome is to fight fire with fire. I was struggling with feeling like I was weak in a particular area of my design skillset and decided to take a two-day training course to hone and sharpen my skills.
As I prepared for the class, I built this idea in my head that this would be the silver bullet to my worries. Misguided thought, I know. But, when you’re struggling in the confidence department, even slightly, you hold on to any hope you can. What happened next was an unexpected, yet surprisingly delightful, plot twist.
As the course began, it was very much what you’d expect: high level introduction to the course, what you can expect from the two days, get to know you’s, and the like. Additionally, the curriculum was presented in a standard fashion: basic understanding of the design system, why it’s important, what value it brings, etc. Being a designer for over 10 years, I may have had a leg up on the rest of the class. So, I settled in and patiently waited while the instructor carried on through the initial phases of the coursework.
What came as a pleasant surprise to me was that I knew far more than I ever gave myself credit for. As my instructor made her way through the foundational work as well as the advanced topics, I found myself already well-versed in the material. I discovered that imposter syndrome can cause you to second-guess yourself in ways that challenge the things you do routinely. Far too often we don’t give ourselves credit when we need to. When this happens, we allow imposter syndrome to invalidate our skills and the value we bring to the table every day.
Remember that imposter syndrome doesn’t negate your experience.
A mentor recently gave me this valuable piece of advice, “One moment of imposter syndrome doesn’t cancel out all your years of experience.” 😳. She said it so eloquently and matter of fact that it caught me off guard. It took a moment to process what she said, but it was the perfect advice at the time I needed to hear it most. This small sentence packs a punch and can be applied to every one of us. The further we advance and progress in our respective careers, the more this sentence resonates.
At the beginning of our careers everything is new and unknown. The risks are relatively low and we have a greater chance for success. But, as we start to build our professional foundation and add layer upon layer of roles, responsibilities, and tenure, the air can get a little thin. The stakes become much higher and the doubts have a higher chance to seep in. It becomes so much easier for us to second guess ourselves and toys with questions like “what am I doing?”, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do”, or “how did I end up here?”.
But, if we can find a pause and take a moment to look over our shoulder and appreciate the worn trail that brought us to this point. All the years of experience and growth have allowed you to be right where you are. Fun fact, nothing can take that away from you.
Know that you’re exactly where you need to be.
This last point is maybe the most important of them all. The most enlightening part from my recent experience was the discovery that imposter syndrome is actually self validation. I know this sounds like an oxymoron, but stick with me here.
Imposter syndrome exists because there’s space for it to exist. That space is what you will eventually grow into over time as you overcome challenges, navigate obstacles, and ultimately find your victories. With each passing day, you’re acquiring new skills and experiences that will consume this new space and force that sense of imposter syndrome out. In short, that is growth. It may not be overnight, it may not be in a month or even a year, but eventually you will grow into this new and foreign space and realize you were meant to be here all along.
Growth is never easy and unfortunately it’s never going to be. Discomfort is the tradeoff we have to endure as we push toward being our better selves. Whatever unique form that means for you. If you’re feeling a little lost, unsure, or uncomfortable, take heart in knowing you’re exactly where you need to be.