While most of my friends wisely studied Spanish in high school, I took German for one simple reason: I dreamt of going to my great-grandparents’ village in Austria and speaking fluently with the locals (ideally before twirling across an Alpine meadow in the style of Julie Andrews).
With that goal in mind, I spent the next seven years learning how to ask where the restroom was, how to order dinner and the names for all sorts of pieces of furniture. My dream stayed alive until the first morning of my study abroad program in Munich: as I walked into a coffee shop and asked for a latte, the barista sighed and responded to me in English. This would become a recurring theme. All summer long, the only opportunity I had to use German was in the classroom. Everywhere else, people recognized I was a fake the moment I opened my mouth. That was me being a real imposter. The effects of imposter syndrome don’t feel much different: just like everyone in Munich could immediately tell I wasn’t a native German-speaker, I also fear my inadequacies as a parent or employee will reveal themselves in a matter of time, regardless of preparation.
The good news is that actual frauds don’t usually feel that way, says Tanya Geisler, a certified leadership coach who specializes in helping women conquer the imposter complex. She explains if you’re experiencing imposter syndrome, “It’s because you have strong values of mastery, integrity, and excellence.” This doesn’t mean driven people are fated to contend with imposter syndrome on a daily basis—you just have to recognize it for what it is. Here, Geisler and fellow imposter syndrome expert Lauren Bacon, author of “Curious for a Living” and “The Boss of You”, walk me through the steps to gaining confidence.
According to a 2011 study, 70 percent of people felt like imposters at least once in their lives. Really, it’s rarer to not feel that doubt every now and then. As Geisler puts it, “Self-doubt is proof of your humanity, not your inadequacy.” To overcome this, Bacon advises considering what about the situation is causing you to second-guess yourself. “Perhaps the voice is signaling to us that there is work we can be doing in this area,” she says. Otherwise, accept that you don’t have to be perfect in every way.
With the majority of us feeling like imposters every now and then, why is it we feel like everyone else has it together? It probably has something to do with the grand illusion we all strive to uphold. “Most of us do develop mechanisms to project confidence and competence in the world so we can get on with our daily lives without crippling levels of anxiety,” Bacon says, advising that we shouldn’t “compare our insides to other people’s outsides.”
The moment you begin to think you don’t know anything or that you are a complete failure, Geisler says it’s the imposter syndrome talking—and the key to taming it is to ask yourself if it’s really true. Along with that, you also have to give yourself the grace to accept we’re all works in progress. “It’s the rooting into what is true about our capabilities and looking to other people as models of possibility,” Geisler says. “Every pencil can be a little bit sharper. The truth is, you are ready enough.”
A few words that are immediately symptomatic of imposter syndrome: “I just think...” Geisler says those are big red flags you are subconsciously watering down others’ expectations of you in an effort to avoid outright rejection. The problem with this is by undermining our own messages, we’re only feeding into a lack of confidence, and allowing the vicious cycle to continue. The same concept applies when you’re complimented on something and instinctively respond with a disclaimer along the lines of, “Oh, it wasn’t really that great.” Next time that happens, Geisler says to instead reply with “the two words feared most by the imposter complex: thank you.”
Geisler says imposter syndrome thrives when you keep the feelings bottled up—which is the natural tendency when we think speaking up will draw attention to inadequacies. But, she says, the more you keep the emotions to yourself, the more imposter syndrome tightens its grip. “The truth is, of course, everyone around you is far less self-assured than they appear and they’re probably going to appreciate the honesty and vulnerability.” The catch, she adds, is to take a short step back before pouring your heart out. “In the moment you can just pause and say, ‘Why am I sharing? What is the end point to this sharing? Am I looking to connect? Am I looking for praise?’”
As counter-intuitive as it may be to those of us who believe asking for help only draws attention to our shortcomings, Geisler says this is actually crucial to overcoming imposter syndrome. “Asking for help just means you are serious about your success. Your people want you to succeed—let them help you.”
“Self-doubt is proof of your humanity, not your inadequacy.”