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How to banish impostor syndrome

Written by: Alaina G. Levine
Published on: Oct 25, 2021

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Image credit: C. Aycock/Science based on image by Oksanita/iStock

Impostor syndrome—the feeling that one doesn't belong or deserve their success, and that they will be discovered as a fraud—strikes many professionals. It doesn't matter whether you are a Nobel laureate, CEO, department head, university president, or graduate student. Many of us have felt like an impostor at various times in our careers, especially as we ascend into new roles and achieve milestones.

I myself have felt like an impostor. I remember that time like it was yesterday …

Oh wait. I did experience it yesterday. And 3 months ago. And last year. And a decade ago. And—shocking news—I will experience it again in the future (I don't need a time machine to tell me that).

I especially recall feeling like an impostor when I secured my second full-time job after finishing my bachelor's degrees. I was working for a university dean, managing a master's program that combined science and business. Amid my excitement and the rush of getting the job, I couldn't help but feel the creeping sensation that I didn't belong there. "I don't have experience leading these types of programs," I heard my mind whisper to itself. "I don't have knowledge about how students get hired in industry." I felt my heart's boom-boom-boom accelerate with anxiety every time I thought about how I got the position. I thought that at some point I would surely be revealed as a fraud.

But I wasn't a fraud! I did belong there! I had worked hard to get there. I had the requisite background. I had the intelligence to learn what I didn't know, and I had the skills to be able to build this program with success. And my boss obviously believed in these capabilities because, after all, he had hired me!

When I realized all this, I was furious. Really, truly, blood-boiling incensed with myself that I had convinced myself I was an impostor, to the detriment of my mental and career health. I vowed to never let it happen again.

But it did happen again. So, I decided to build a plan to recognize and banish impostor syndrome when it showed up in my life. Here's my advice for you, based on the process that works for me:

Realize that you are in the driver's seat. Impostor syndrome is a complete fantasy based on assumptions and opinions that are not rooted in facts. And because it is not happening outside you, but rather in you, you can take steps to do something about it. This gives you power.

Acknowledge your emotions. When impostor syndrome rears its ugly head, I sometimes feel insecure, fearful, confused, anxious, depressed, frustrated, and angry. It is perfectly OK for you to have these emotions and more; give yourself permission and space to own them. Write out what you are feeling so that you can gather data about how impostor syndrome impacts you emotionally. This will help you identify impostor syndrome when it strikes in the future.

Get angry! To banish impostor syndrome, unleash your fury on it. Curse at it! But don't get mad at yourself. Say: "Who does this impostor syndrome think it is and who does it think it is talking to? Why on Earth do I not think I am good enough for this position?" When I feel my blood boiling because I opine that I am a fraud, I force myself to go back through these steps and scream, "No brain of mine is going to convince me that I don't belong here!"

Review your professional record. Take a look at your experiences, including projects, skills, and problems solved. Your list of papers, posters, and presentations. All of these are facts about accomplishments that actually happened in the real world—as opposed to impostor syndrome, which takes place in a fantasy world. It's helpful to counterbalance mind trickery with hard data.

Try to make the case that you're an impostor. After reviewing your actual record, ask yourself: "Why, exactly, am I not qualified? Why, exactly, do I not belong here? Why, exactly, am I a fraud?" As you assemble your answers, note how many of them involve emotion and opinion rather than objective facts. More often than not, you'll discover the data do not support the claim that you are an impostor.

Look around you. Who else has achieved similar triumphs? Did they have the so-called requisite background that impostor syndrome has erroneously convinced you that you don't possess? Say this to yourself: "If they did it, I can do it."

Maintain forward momentum. Ask yourself, "What is one small action I can take right now to demonstrate that I am not an impostor and to help me move forward in my career?" For example, you could analyze a dataset, write a manuscript, or reach out to someone you'd be interested in collaborating with. Such actions may help distract from negative emotions—and provide yet more evidence that you deserve the position you are in.

Be kind to yourself. Know that combating impostor syndrome is hard, and that it takes courage, guts, fortitude, and agility. Continuously remind yourself of the truth: You do belong here, right now. You are not a fraud. You would never have made it as far as you did if you weren't capable. Praise yourself when you feel as though you've tamped down your inner impostor syndrome. But also recognize that it can storm back into your mind at any time. Don't be too hard on yourself if it does. Simply go back to step one and repeat the process. In my experience, it becomes easier to fight (and yell at!) over time.

Concepts in this column come from and build on the author's previous published works, including articles, speeches, and her book titled Networking for Nerds.

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Alaina G. Levine is a STEM careers consultant, a professional speaker, and the author of Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015).

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