Impostor syndrome causes people to doubt their achievements and fear that others will expose them as fraudulent.
While impostor syndrome is experienced across gender, race, age and profession it is especially prevalent among high achieving women and minorities. Impostor syndrome is extremely common in academia. It is hard to imagine being a PhD student, early career academic or seasoned professor without it. Impostor Syndrome is feelings of inadequacy despite all that one has achieved.
The feelings of incompetence that arise from impostor syndrome can be present for small periods of time such as when applying for jobs, giving a presentation, writing a journal article, applying for grant funding, or considering a career change. Others my battle with the effects of imposter syndrome daily, their whole lives. Read the seminal work by Drs Clance & Imes here.
Many of my followers express to me their feelings of not being good enough to go out on their own or to develop their personal brand even though I think they are kickass people with so much to offer. PhD training makes us feel like there are only one or two career options with our PhD (and that we aren’t good enough for those options). The combination of this training and our own impostor syndrome means that many PhDs are unable to create opportunities for themselves. You may dream of starting your own consulting firm, writing a book, being a guest speaker or leaving academia for industry, but you feel like you aren’t good/intelligent/smart enough.
Having small self-doubt is a good thing. It can help us realistically assess our abilities, competence and achievements. A small amount of self-doubt pushes us to do better and be better. Impostor syndrome is characterised by debilitating self-doubt that leads to unrealistic assessment and beliefs about our abilities. Dealing with your impostor syndrome is important because it is it’s causing you unnecessary stress and making you miss out on opportunities that you deserve to take. Impostor syndrome erodes your self-confidence, gives you paralysis to take action and cases job dissatisfaction.
22 ways to deal with impostor syndrome.
I’ve always suffered from impostor syndrome. I’m yet to figure out how to completely remove the feelings but I have learnt how to push them out of the way on occasions that I need to get stuff done.
I’ve received a number of DMs on my social media channels asking for a post on how to deal with impostor syndrome so here it is. In the following list, you will find what I do/have done when it strikes up in addition to other ideas that I’ve heard others using to help them. Try them all and see what works for you.
If this post helps you please leave a comment and/or share it with a friend or peer. Let’s help everyone feel like they belong in the spaces they are in and want to be in.
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Celebrating your success is an important part of diminishing impostor syndrome. How you celebrate will depend on your personality of course but every success should be celebrated. For me, I love to open up a bottle of champagne to celebrate my wins. Maybe you want to Tweet about it. Or you treat yourself to a coffee, massage, walk in the park. Perhaps you call your mum, hug your kids, do a happy dance in your PJs in your kitchen. It doesn’t matter how you celebrate but do it! Every single time! No matter how small the achievement!! When I sold my first online course I celebrated by having a glass of champagne with my husband (even if I wasn’t anywhere near breaking even). When I was first approached to be a paid speaker I did my happy dance around my house (even though the gig didn’t end up happening). When I published my first blog post I sat in silence for a few minutes and told myself how awesome I was (even though it didn’t have any readers yet). See the pattern, it doesn’t matter how small the accomplishment, celebrate it and own the hard work you put in to get to that point. No brushing it off as luck!
Document your accomplishments and read them when you feel inferior
When you receive external recognition for your abilities document it. Add it to your resume. Add it to your personal website. It is so easy to forget teaching awards, guest speaking, training, courses, and research grant successes when we are feeling impostor syndrome’s effects. If we have them listed out it is easy to refer back to them. Also, this habit helps when applying for future jobs, grants, etc. and the process will become less stressful, you’ll doubt yourself less and feel more worthy of applying.
When you feel inferior, pull out your accomplishments and read them. Really read them and think about how awesome you are to have achieved all this so far.
Focus on what you have achieved rather than what is still to be done.
One of the reasons I am contemplating leaving academia is because of the endless cycle of never being done, of never being good enough. You defend your proposal in your PhD and you have half a day to celebrate before feeling guilty about not working on the next stage. You get your data collected and you have to start analysing it and writing up before you have a chance to realise what you have already achieved. Become tenure-track and the tenure clock immediately starts ticking. Get one journal, focus on the next. What a terrible cycle.
When you get overwhelmed about how much you still have to do, take a few minutes to breathe and sit and think about everything you have achieved so far. Think about everything. The smallest little thing that you have achieved. Did you make your bed today? You rock! Did you brush your teeth? Look at you go! Submitted a paper last week? I’m in awe of you! Taught a class? You are a legend.
Think about what past you would have found daunting. I remember the first semester I taught, every morning before class I would be shaking with nerves for an hour before. Then after class, I’d be going over everything I said and questioning myself for hours. The next semester that nervousness was only there for the 5 minutes it took me to walk to the classroom and again on the 5 minutes to walk back to my office afterwards. A year later and it was a few seconds. Now I can walk into a classroom and teach without a single nervous thought. Do I focus on how much I have achieved? How great I now am as a teacher? Nope. I focus on what I still need to improve on and how I’m not as great as others. So don’t be like me. Focus on what you have achieved and how far you have come. Past you would be so proud of what you have achieved.
I’m a big believer in positive self-talk. We believe what we constantly hear. These are some affirmations that I love!
- “Nobody belongs here more than me”
- “When I hold back I am robbing the world of my awesomeness”
- “Nobody knows what they are doing”
Start a “I kick-butt”/“I belong here” file
No matter how many positive student evaluations, online followers, comments, DMs, supervisor praises I receive that one negative comment, evaluation, or critic will send me spiralling down into self-doubt. Just recently I started an ‘I Kick-Butt’ file. You can also think of it as an ‘I belong here’ file too. I decided to do it when I was putting together my mid-tenure review packet am was drawing together all the positive comments I’d received. I wish that I had started this sooner. So take my advice and start one now.
Every time I get a compliment, a kind DM or a positive comment, I screenshot or take a photo of it and add it to my file. If I feel kicked in the gut or self-deprecating I open it and read all the people telling me that I kick butt and I am reminded that I belong here.
Talk about impostor syndrome with those you admire
I bet you that there is someone who looks to you and thinks you are killing it!
Just recently I had this occur to me. I mentioned in one of my classes (I teach social media marketing at a university in the USA) about a typo I had done in a reply to someone and explained how I’m not very good at grammar/proofreading. After class, a student came up to me and told me that he was so glad to hear that I wasn’t perfect. This blew me away because obviously, I didn’t think that anyone would think that about me and my imperfect abilities. Talk with those that you admire and ask them about their self-doubt. With an estimated 70% of people experiencing impostor syndrome chances are they experience impostor syndrome and at a minimum a little self-doubt once in a while. When I read that Seth Godin experiences self-doubt it made me feel just that little bit better because I think his content is amazing.
Discuss your impostor syndrome with a peer
If you aren’t comfortable talking with those above or below you then talk with a peer. Talk with someone who is at the same stage as you. Sometimes the smallest comment by a peer can make you realise that you do belong and you are kicking butt. At the very least, a conversation with a peer can make you realise that you aren’t alone in your feelings.
Give others the gift of imperfection (judge others less)
The more compassion we give others the better we can feel about ourselves. I am not one to judge others for typos and grammatical mistakes because I make so many myself. This makes me feel better when I discover a typo/error in a past piece of content because I can just say to myself ‘nobody cares about typos/small errors’. Doesn’t work all the time but any little nudge can help to not spiral into impostor syndrome.
Judge others more (realise it is about them not us)
I know I just said we should judge others less but sometimes you have to realise that others are just out for themselves and are trying to cause chaos in your world. Example: just recently an Instagram with a product I thought was cool started following me and I send them a DM saying that it was awesome and I’d love to collab with them. Later that day they unfollowed me. At first, I started to question myself but once I ‘judged’ them I realised that they were using follow/unfollow methods to gain more Instagram followers and it wasn’t about me at all. Sometimes judging others can make us realise that other people have their own stuff going on and we really aren’t on their radar.
Embrace the negative
This is a concept that resinated with me from Seth Godin. In his book Tribes Seth talks about making a ruckus and that if you aren’t getting any negative feedback then you aren’t pushing the boundaries. While Seth is really talking about creating online content I think it can apply to all areas of life. Academia can be very slow to change and so if you are pushing people to grow they will probably push back. Embrace reviewer number 2’s comments as validation that you are at the edge of your field, that you are doing something that is important. That you are questioning the staus quo.
Stop comparing yourself to others on a different path. Respect your journey.
Hands up if you are guilty of comparing yourself to others. Me! It is so easy to compare ourselves to others highlights real. Especially with social media. Nobody posts about all the failures, all the doubt and all the negative feelings they have – and if they do you probably unfollow them. We focus on our own failures and other’s success.
At time of writing this post, I have 6.5 thousand followers on Instagram and thousands of views to my website a month but I see another academic blogger who has over 30k Instagram followers and stunning pictures and I think that I am a failure. Even though she started blogging 4 years before I did, I still start to compare myself to her on the same metrics.
I remember when I was finishing my PhD I compared myself to a professor who had 30+ publications. She has just become full professor, was in her sixties and has been in academia for about 20 years. I was comparing myself to her? I was in my late twenties and at the start of my career. I’m guessing here but she probably looked at me and thought about how much better my career would be because I was starting earlier than she did.
We can judge no matter what stage we are in. Respect your own journey. Try to focus on the unique things you would not have done or achieved if you took a different route. I wouldn’t have met my husband if I didn’t take a detour into a Finance minor in undergrad. I wouldn’t have started my blog if I didn’t move to America and start teaching social media marketing. I’m sure you can come up with some pretty cool life experiences that make you who you are today because of your journey. You should only compare yourself to your past self.
Treat it as an experiment (remove the requirements of success)
Those who pursue a PhD usually have very high expectations of themselves. Everything they do must be perfect and to the highest standard. Those high standards can paralyse you.
You feel like if you don’t try at least you can’t fail. I found this with my research. I wouldn’t submit my journal articles for fear of failing. Although the requirements for success were still there I told myself it didn’t matter. I’d say to myself, this is likely to be rejected but who cares it’s just for the fun of it. Or ‘it’s just to get more feedback’. Take away the pressure to always succeed to always be winning.
Say ‘it’s just impostor syndrome’
Acknowledge that it is impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome is defined as “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.” If you can convince yourself it is impostor syndrome you are halfway there because you have admitted that you have success. Then you can work on feeling legit and deserving.
Write a stream of consciousness.
This one is great when you have writer’s block from self-doubt. Writing is a habit, so write a stream of consciousness every day. Do it at the same time every day. If you are in the mood to write your research/blog etc then write that. If you aren’t then just write a stream of consciousness. Practice writing. Eventually, all of your self-doubts and excuses will be out of your head and onto your page.
3,2,1 go! Do something every day that you aren’t ready for. Think less and act more. Think about yourself as a work in progress. Record that podcast interview, publish that blog post, submit that journal article, draft the first sentence. Remember a draft can always be improved so write that draft. Practice makes perfect so start practising.
If you are failing you are doing. Celebrate your failures. Think about yourself constantly moving forward rather than as a stationary impostor.
Give yourself grace and
Accept that perfection is impossible and give yourself the grace that you probably give others. Most of us judge ourselves much harsher than we do others. Stop being so hard on yourself. Try to give yourself the same courtesies you would a dear friend.
Remove the negative labels
Telling yourself “I’m not good at…” I’m not a … person” needs to go. This is one I need to work on. I used to say “I’m not good at statistics”. I don’t know why because I love mathematics, I love data, I love problem-solving. This really held me back as a researcher and made me feel like I was a faker. Impostor Syndrome alert! Time to remove these negative labels from our lives.
Develop a skill
Feel like you aren’t good at something? Then sign up for an online course, read some blog posts, borrow a library book, or watch some YouTube videos. Become the expert that you think you aren’t. (Do this with the removal of negative labels to double down).
Understand your abilities/strengths/personality
Spend some time rationally assessing your abilities, strengths, and personality. For example, in the first module of my Establish Your Personal Brand course participants spend time defining your skills, abilities and personality so that you understand your strengths and weaknesses. Then they can feel confident in who they are and build their authority in areas they feel comfortable owning.
Another great way to get insight into your abilities, strengths and personality is to ask people that you interact with daily/often to tell you what they think. When I have done this I realise that I have strengths that I knew deep down I had but didn’t think about.
Ask for recommendations
Even if you aren’t going for a new job or promotion make a habit of asking for recommendations for those you work with and for. I recently asked past students, peers, and bosses to write me a recommendation on LinkedIn and reading them as they came in made me feel like I was amazing.
If you don’t want to go the formal route, just text a peer and say, hey I’m doubting my abilities if you were describing my abilities to someone what would you say?
Embrace rest, recovery and reflection
Remind yourself that you do not need to be constantly working or hustling. It is okay to have some downtime. You do not need to be improving every second of every day. Find the flow that works for you. I hate it when people talk about how much they work, academia and entrepreneurship both have the culture of being busy. The more time you work the more you are seen as doing the right thing and ‘successful’. This is so detrimental because I believe you can work much better in less time. There are people who work all the time and that works for them but in my opinion, most people are either procrastinating or lying.
When I was doing my PhD I took a holiday/vacation every year and often for 3+ weeks. I rarely did any work on my PhD during that time off (except that one time I had to find an internet cafe in New Zealand to fix the formatting on that one paper I has submitted oops). While this doesn’t work for everyone (as I said, find what works best for you), for me the looming deadline of an international flight worked wonders and the rest, recovery and reflection of time off made my work so much better on my return. I tell you this because I want there to be alternative stories out there to combat the ‘busy’ culture. I work bloody hard, but I rest when I need it.
So what has this got to do with impostor syndrome? Well, I know many (including me) feel like they aren’t up to the standard of others because ‘others don’t take time off’ or ‘others work more hours’. Take some time out from academia/entrepreneurship and rest, recover and reflect. Come back refreshed.
Do you have another way to diminish your impostor syndrome when it sets in? Let me know in the comments below and help everyone feel like they belong in the spaces they are in and want to be in. Don’t forget to share this with anyone it can help!