Five Ways to Fight Imposter Syndrome

This article is sponsored by the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University

From an early age, many of us have been taught to leap into challenges even when we feel unsure.

Want to work in a field that’s still male dominated? Trailblaze away!
Don’t meet all the qualifications of a job listing? Apply anyway!
Not sure you’re cut out for grad school? Sure you are!

This is great and empowering and also, at times, exhausting. Pushing yourself outside your comfort zone means you might not feel confident that you belong there. Most of the time, you do belong, and the evidence to back that up (you graduated, you got hired, you got into grad school) is right there.

But what if you still feel like a fraud? You might be experiencing imposter syndrome, a psychological pattern where a person persistently doubts themself and their accomplishments and fears being exposed as incompetent — despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. It’s common; up to 70 percent of people have felt this way at some time.

And if you’re a woman, particularly a woman of color, the impact of your internal doubts can be doubled by external feedback — microaggressions and questions that imply you don’t belong. In a prestigious MBA program, you might get questioned in ways others are not — what was your GMAT score, where did you go for undergrad. What you’re really being asked is how did you get into this program, and those subtle but aggressive attacks can reinforce any doubts you already have.

How to push back on your doubts

So what to do? Start now with some concrete strategies to boost your confidence and confirm your qualifications. In their book Own Your Greatness, psychologists Lisa Orbé-Austin and Richard Orbé-Austin lay out ideas for coping.

Own your accomplishments

This is important because it fights fear with facts. Recognize your accomplishments, large and small — and make a list of them, including personal and professional deeds. Post work achievements on LinkedIn. When you doubt yourself, review your lists.

Build a community of support

Key relationships will support your well-being and reassure you that you are capable. A mentor can give you advice and perspective, a coach will help you set goals, a cheerleader offers unconditional support, and a grounder can do a reality check. Think about who fills these roles for you and then check in with them as needed.

Speak your fears

Suffering in silence can strengthen these feelings. Tell a trusted friend or family member about your doubts. Let them support you. Commit to speaking to them when you feel unsure.

Address your negative self talk

Notice the negative thought, look for evidence against it, and replace it with a more helpful, truthful thought. This might be something like “I’ve made a solid evidence-based decision and I need to move on to the next thing.”

Tend to self-care

When you lack confidence, it’s easy to overwork and burn out trying to prove yourself. Value your well-being by assessing your physical, personal, and professional needs. Create a care plan that’s just for you. Start small, adding things into your routine to keep you mentally and physically healthy.

Confidence might be overrated

Some of us will never feel completely confident — it’s just not our nature. Instead of looking for confidence, seek courage. Courage lets you forge ahead despite your fears. When you succeed, you’ll begin to trust yourself and your skills.

Britnai Nunley is an Accelerate Leadership Coach at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. After pivoting from a career in law to one in leadership development, she’s worked in multiple sectors, including business, government, and nonprofit. Through executive coaching, immersive engagement activities, and learning and development programs, she helps individuals develop the skills to be agile, effective, and inclusive leaders. Britnai holds a J.D. from Wake Forest University School of Law and an Associate Certified Coach credential from the International Coaching Federation.

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