Maria Klawe has an impressive resume. A mathematician, computer scientist, and scholar, she is the first female president of Harvey Mudd College. She’s on the boards of Microsoft and Math for America.
Before that, she served as dean of engineering at Princeton. She gives talks around the world about diversity in the STEM industry. No wonder she was named among Fortune's List of "The World's 50 Greatest Leaders."
But despite all these accomplishments, Klawe feels like a fraud. It started years ago when she felt like she couldn’t even take a taxi or stay in a hotel because she grew up in a family that never had the money to do those things. The feeling popped up at various points in her career when she was surrounded by men and felt like she didn’t belong in the insular world of computer technology.
Klawe is in good company. A cadre of stellar talent including Coldplay’s front man Chris Martin, Tina Fey, Denzel Washington, and Chuck Lorre have all felt the creeping claws of "impostor syndrome" clutch at their confidence. Even the highly decorated actress Meryl Streep once said her inner voice told her: 'Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don't know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?"
Though you may never set foot on a red carpet, just walking down the corridor on your way to a meeting may be enough to send a shudder of recognition into this particular inner angst.
Shirzad Chamine, chairman of CTI, a global coach training organization, calls it "the universal condition" because he’s seen hundreds of otherwise intelligent executives struggle with feelings of fakery over the course of his 30-year career.
The worst thing you can do while these nagging thoughts nibble away at your confidence is to try and beat them back. Harvard social psychologist Daniel Wegner and other researchers conducted myriad studies that indicate when we try to stuff away an idea or an image it becomes an even larger part of our frame of reference.
The good news is that Klawe believes it’s no longer necessary to fear she'll be found out for what she's not. "I have three ways of coping with the impostor syndrome," she tells Fast Company. Let’s break them down.
"I remind myself of all the things that made me feel like an impostor in the past that I’m fine with now," says Klawe. And you should, too.
UC San Diego neuroscience professor Bradley Voytek writes that while it’s important to hear the voice and understand where it’s coming from, we often fail to see what we’re really made of.
"Be aware that you're failing to recognize your own accomplishments," he says. "You're overemphasizing the accomplishments of others and you're vastly underestimating the failures other successful people experience on their way to success."
The way he sees it, painting an accurate picture of yourself—with all your achievements and disappointments—can give you a better perspective on your value. Voytek includes an entire section in his CV called "Failures and Rejections." "It's important to me that other people know how hard this life, science, and career stuff really is. People should know that often, success doesn't come easy."
Your personal list can take the form of a CV, just not one that you’d necessarily ever push across the desk of a potential employer. The point of the exercise is to write down everything you’ve accomplished, both great and small, and juxtapose it with those spots where you’ve stumbled. You’re likely going to have a lot more wins and losses.
"I practice doing what scares me until it doesn’t," says Klawe. That meant even something as simple as checking herself in to a hotel, even though as a young professor, she felt certain that the staff would send her and her luggage out the revolving door.
When Jillian Beirne Davi, founder of Abundant Finances, was trying to get her consultancy off the ground, she typically caved to her inner critic and lowballed her fees.
Once she mustered the courage to charge more, she discovered that none of her clients were complaining. Just the opposite. "They were getting good results, writing testimonials, and referring friends. I could breathe a bit easier," she said. "I felt like I had scaled a small mountain and found a spot at the top where I could rest."
A task like asking for a raise likely sends the saboteur in your brain into full-throttle mode. That’s when it’s helpful to remember to practice "posturing" the way social psychologist Amy Cuddy detailed in her inspiring TED talk about body language. Assuming a position of power—arms and legs uncrossed, spine straight, face relaxed—actually raises testosterone and lowers the stress hormone cortisol in both women and men. Cuddy says:
"Tiny tweaks can lead to big changes. Before you go into the next stressful evaluative situation, for two minutes, try doing this, in the elevator, in a bathroom stall, at your desk behind closed doors.
Configure your brain to cope the best in that situation. Get your testosterone up. Get your cortisol down. Don't leave that situation feeling like, oh, I didn't show them who I am. Leave that situation feeling like, oh, I really feel like I got to say who I am and show who I am."
Klawe’s final bit of advice is simple:
"I surround myself with people who support me when I doubt myself."
There’s nothing better than a supportive hand at your back and a kind voice in your ear telling you that you really can do it. Cuddy found this in an academic advisor at Princeton who encouraged her to keep going "even if you're terrified and just paralyzed and having an out-of-body experience, until you have this moment where you say, 'I have become this. I am actually doing this.'"
You don’t need to have a mentor to get this kind of support. A BFF at work has been proven to boost engagement and employee satisfaction, according to a Gallup study.
When all else fails, it’s important to remember that time often unmasks the biggest truth. As freelance writer Steph Auteri observes: "I think when you’re a newbie, you assume everyone knows better than you. You soon learn everyone's winging it."
[Image: Flickr user gnuckx]