How To Harness Imposter Syndrome And Make It Work For (Not Against) You

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Have you ever doubted yourself? 


Maybe you didn’t tick every box of a selection criteria, so you opted not to apply for the job at all. Perhaps you received a promotion, but questioned whether you deserve the new role.


Spoiler alert: you’re not alone. In fact, these feelings of being a ‘fraud’ are experienced by nearly 7 in 10 people, and can impact our ability to perform at work and in our personal lives.


But despite what you might have heard, imposter syndrome isn’t something that needs to hold you back. Instead, we’ve pulled together a bunch of practical tactics to help you harness imposter syndrome and make it work for (not against) you.


Ready? Let’s dive in.


What is imposter syndrome?

Let’s start with the basics. In a nutshell, imposter syndrome captures that uncomfortable and ever-present feeling that you’re a fraud at what you do and that, at any moment, you’re going to get called out for it.


The term was first coined back in the 1970s by a duo of US psychologists (Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, if you’re interested) who originally theorised women were uniquely impacted by imposter syndrome. 


But more recent studies have shown that its reach extends beyond women, with up to 70% of people said to experience feelings of being an imposter at some point in their lives. 


Essentially, imposter syndrome is all about perceived confidence and ability. It can show up in many different ways, from feeling ‘unqualified’ to apply for a job to dismiss the value of our contribution to team projects.


While it impacts everyone differently, in general terms, here are some of the common signs of imposter syndrome:


  • Perfectionism and only being able to focus on the flaws, not your successes.
  • Overworking as a way to ‘prove’ yourself and back up your skills. 
  • Undermining your successes by pointing out the mistakes instead. 
  • Fear of failure and procrastinating on tasks for fear of feedback. 
  • Discounting praise and emphasising other’s contributions (not your own). 


How does imposter syndrome affect women?


Early studies of imposter syndrome were focused solely on one group: high-performing women. And that has gone on to characterise imposter syndrome as a “women’s problem” for decades. 


But the truth is this: imposter syndrome can be experienced by everyone, but it will be experienced differently.


That’s because these feelings of being a fraud typically show up when we’re doing something outside our comfort zone or something that’s stereotypically out of our comfort zone. 


And it starts from the way we’re raised as kids. 


As long as gendered norms continue, boys will continue to be told to “play the game” and “fake it to you make it” while girls will be left to feel like the odd one out if they show ambition or decide to break new ground. 


While structural change is needed to ditch these outdated stereotypes for good, we know there are ways we can harness imposter syndrome to work for us (not against us). 


How to harness imposter syndrome for good


A tech billionaire might seem like the most unlikely person to face imposter syndrome. But for Atlassian Co-Founder and Co-CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes, he’s struggled with feeling like a fraud throughout his entire career.


In a recent TEDxSydney talk, Mike opened up that he’s felt out of his depth and like a fraud at work for over 15 years. He sums up his experience of imposter syndrome with this quote from one of his favourite writers, Neil Gaiman:


“I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard would be there to tell me that it was all over, that they’d caught up with me, and that I would now have to go and get a real job.” 


Even after stacks of awards and business wins, here’s what Mike realised: imposter syndrome doesn’t go away with any form of success. Even the most successful people still feel like a fraud at one point or another.


But it’s not all bad news. Instead, imposter syndrome can become a helpful tool that can work for you (not against you). 


So, here are some practical ways to flip the script on imposter syndrome:


  • Don’t question yourself, question your ideas: feelings of fear and anxiety usually crop up when we’re tackling something new or uncomfortable. So, use that to your advantage by channeling your critique into the project you’re working on and focusing on creating something great. 
  • Ask for a helping hand when you need it: you don’t have to go it alone. When feelings of imposter syndrome strike, use this as an opportunity to reach out to those who can support you or compliment your skillset. That way you can learn something new along the way, too.
  • Tune into your triggers: become aware of when imposter syndrome usually strikes, and find practical ways to tune out the negative self-talk. That might be keeping a folder of achievements or positive feedback on your computer or writing out your thoughts and feelings to get them out of your head. 


When it comes to imposter syndrome, there’s no silver bullet or quick fix. Instead, it’s about learning what signs to watch out for and finding practical ways to channel your feelings in positive, productive ways instead. 




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