Imposter Syndrome: Busting the Myth and How to Escape Self-Doubt

By Judy Wilkins-Smith

Most of us are raised to believe there’s basically something wrong with us. We pick up the chronic message from society, media, and, (unfortunately) often our own families, that we’re not thin enough, smart enough, funny enough, successful enough, rich enough, responsible enough, and on and on.

To balance out the scales and soothe our damaged self-esteem, we read self-help books and go to seminars to help fix what we think needs to be fixed. And all the while, we’re rarely given any positive reinforcement or told what’s right with us. Even worse, we even more rarely give positive reinforcement to ourselves.

Interestingly, one of the quickest, best antidotes for flagging self-esteem can be found at work. After all, you were hired to do what you do because of your abilities and expertise. Right? Unlike our family and social arenas, our bosses desire, encourage and expect success.

Of all the places in our lives, we not only have the space to shine in our jobs, but we also have a mandate to do so. Right? Which is pretty much the complete opposite of our personal lives. 

Your career may be the antidote for low self-esteem

This makes our careers the perfect incubators for growing ourselves into the people we want to be. Thing is, the negativity society has baked into us all too often invades our professional lives as well. Many clients tell me they feel they don’t have what it takes to qualify for the positions they hold. Despite their abilities and knowledge, they find themselves hanging back and playing small.

They let doubt creep in the door and sabotage their ideas. Even my most successful clients end up with Imposter Syndrome, where they don’t feel they deserve the position and money they’re paid. And they’re terrified that someone will find out they are a fraud.

And yet, to serve their companies (and themselves), they actually need to bring the best of themselves to the table every day. And to do that, they have to believe in themselves. But how do you transcend years of social putdowns, negative comparisons, cultural conditioning and smallness?

Let me tell you what I tell my clients: Transformation is simply a matter of switching focus and changing your perspective. There is no such thing as “Imposter Syndrome.” Actually, you have “Pioneer Syndrome.” Nobody has all the answers all the time. But you are willing to go in search of them, and that is a quality of a good leader.   

Instead of sitting around thinking about your shortcomings and all the things you don’t do really well, I want you to write down every little thing that you do know how to do well. I don’t care how insignificant it might seem or how much it doesn’t seem to relate to your work. I want you to write it down. 

Are you into beading as a way to relax? Can you unscramble word puzzles in nothing flat? Do you notice the smallest changes in your surroundings? Do friends come to you for advice? You never follow a recipe, yet people rave about your cooking? Write it all down. Take your time and make sure your list is comprehensive. I don’t care if it includes bathing the cat. (Do you have any idea how hard that is?) 

Now, look at that list. You think beading is meaningless? It shows you’re a meticulous detail person with an aesthetic eye. Unscrambling word puzzles means your brain is super good at making sense out of patterns. Noticing changes makes you keenly observant. Your friends come to you because you’re a good listener and good at solving relational issues. Your culinary flair shows fearlessness and an ability to pull together seemingly unrelated ingredients to create something new and delicious. 

All of these supposedly simple things reveal powerful abilities and gifts only you can bring to the table. Every client I ask to do this process ends up really surprising themselves! Now, the next thing I want you to do is add your character attributes to this list. For example, kindness, gratitude, resilience, perseverance, etc. Even if you’re naturally modest, do your best not to hold back. 

Now, look at that list. Hello? You’re a powerhouse! The only problem is, you’ve just never been taught to see it let alone use those capabilities or, heaven forbid, actually list them.

Combine your character list with the list of all the things you can do, and imagine taking that list with you to work every single day and showing up as that person. Would you be more of an asset to your company? Would they be able to see who you really are? Would you? Could you kick the Imposter Syndrome to the curb at last and finally realize that you are a pioneer, not an imposter?

Transformation is perception

Now, make the “other” list—you know, the negative one with all the flaws and faults you’re all too familiar with. Write down the ways in which you fail and aren’t good enough, as well as the character attributes that go with that list. Place this negative list side-by-side with your powerhouse list. Guess what? Both lists belong to the same person. You’re looking in a mirror that reflects all of you.

Everybody has good points and not-so-good points, strengths and weaknesses. Welcome to the club. Nobody’s perfect; everybody’s human. However, my point is, which part of you are you focused upon? Which list do you live with day after day? Can you see that the list you choose to focus on every day is the version of yourself that inevitably shows up? Can you also see that the things you aren’t good at are simply opportunities waiting to be explored?

Knowing that your choice will shape your career and your life, which list do you choose? And remember, most likely, you have inflated the list of your flaws out of habit, repetition and negative reinforcement from the world around you. As well, most likely, you have deemphasized your strengths and positive attributes out of fear of appearing prideful or over-inflated. 

So many people believe that genuine change is almost impossible to attain when, in fact, it really boils down to a simple matter of rewiring your brain by choosing where you place your focus. It isn’t rocket science. It’s a step-by-step process that anyone can do. So? Which list do you prefer? What thoughts, feelings and actions do you want to invest in? Take the time to consciously decide, then follow through with the steps outlined below.

Focus on your strengths

At the moment, the world is deeply locked into the perception that it is flawed and broken. You can see, quite clearly, which list society has (so far) chosen. In the West, we’ve been rigorously trained to focus on our weaknesses and been told to strengthen them. And yet what about focusing on our strengths? The opposite of Imposter Syndrome.

A long time ago, I read a quote from the health guru Deepak Chopra, MD, and he said something like this: “What do you do when you’re great at tennis but really bad at math? Take tennis lessons or hire a math tutor?” This is a “glass half-empty versus glass half-full” question. Instead of doing what most people do and hire the tutor, what about embracing the half-full glass and taking tennis lessons? Maybe you’re the next Serena Williams and don’t even know it!

Changing your life begins and ends with changing how you view yourself. But sometimes old habits are hard to break. If, despite your desire to change and focus on your strengths, you find yourself drawn back to the negative list that keeps you small, you may well be expressing an old unconscious and unresolved pattern of being loyal to somebody in your family system who also stayed small. If this is the case, ask yourself:

  • Who in my family is negative? Who thinks small? 
  • How am I invested in being like them?
  • Who thinks big and how are they judged or perceived in the family?

Does your mom fly under the radar at all costs, never bringing attention to herself at work or at family gatherings? Was your dad afraid to advance and be the first in his family to get a college degree? Did your older sister go out and start her own business and draw fierce criticism for being “dangerously irresponsible” from your parents and/or other family members? These are the kinds of “Imposter Syndrome” things to look for. Find the places where you or your family members struggle, are dissatisfied, dogmatic, or stuck. 

If you find such people and events in your family system, now you know where the habit of being small (aka Imposter Syndrome) came from and why it’s so hard to switch focus from the old list to the new. It’s not you. It’s just an inherited emotional DNA pattern in your family. And you’re being asked to break the mold!

Ask yourself:

  • When did this pattern begin to show up in me?
  • What was happening in my life at the time?
  • What could have triggered this pattern?

After you answer those questions, ask yourself: “What is my biggest desire? What do I want to change or experience in this particular area?” Be sure to write your answer down. Now, to help move in that direction, be sure to:

  • Post your desire statement where you can see it every day.
  • Post your powerhouse list next to it.
  • Acknowledge yourself and speak your powerhouse list out loud until you feel it in your body. 
  • Let yourself really experience appropriate pride and satisfaction knowing what you can do and what the best you is really like. Feeling positive emotions will help cement your positive list as a truth in your mind and body.

Commit to this. Some studies say it takes up to 40 days to rewire new thoughts and actions into your brain. But your brain has to tell your body a story that the body believes. That’s why engaging your powerhouse list every day is so important. Once your body believes the story and feels appropriate emotions about the story, your journey begins.  

And remember—you’ve already done most of the work. You’re not trying to become somebody better or new. This is not Imposter Syndrome. You already are that amazing creative genius in the kitchen who also easily cooks up new software solutions at work, making the whole IT division look good. And hey, remember—you can also bathe a cat.