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3 Steps For Breaking The Imposter Syndrome Cycle

If you feel like a fraud who's likely to screw up, sooner or later you'll prove yourself right.

3 Steps For Breaking The Imposter Syndrome Cycle
[Photo: Flickr user Bodie Strain]

Resilience hinges, among other things, on how you perceive a given stressor. As Maria Konnikova explained in the New Yorker last month, it isn't just adversity itself that threatens our performance. It's how we experience adversity. Researchers are struggling to explain what makes some people's responses to stressors more effective than others' responses. In other words, what's the nature of resilience itself?

But while scientists pick apart that question, there's one problematic thinking style in particular that silently threatens how resilient many of us are at work: imposter syndrome.

Breaking Imposter Syndrome Down

For many people who experience it, imposter syndrome (or "IP" for short) is a of intellectual phoniness. It's a voice in your head that sounds something like this: "Man, I got lucky this time. Pretty soon I'll be found out and people will realize that I don’t have a clue what I’m doing." Despite proof to the contrary—like degrees, promotions, or an impressive career—people who experience IP are unable to internalize and accept their success.

But what's less often remarked is how that chronic self-doubt can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, cognitively speaking: If you think you're a fraud and everyone else is legit, chances are you'll find ways to confirm that belief, even if it means discounting contrary evidence or attributing wins to luck.

Say you're prepping a presentation and all the while thinking you don’t belong on your team. The worry and self-recrimination you subject yourself to ahead of time increases the likelihood that you'll choke during the presentation itself. Any stumbles you do make just reinforce your original thinking: "I knew I’m not good enough to be here."

Nor is this just a mind-set that some unfortunate few happen to struggle with internally. Research that strong IP tendencies have real workplace consequences. Imposter syndrome leads to job dissatisfaction and reduced "organizational citizenship" behaviors. It also causes people to stick with a job, only because leaving for a new one seems too socially and psychologically daunting—hardly a good foundation for an engaged, productive employee.

Breaking free of imposter syndrome starts with breaking down its elements. According to psychologists, the is something like this:

IP = low self-efficacy + maladaptive perfectionism + neuroticism

Here are three steps (in layman's terms) designed to tackle different parts of that equation.

1. Get Social

Social support at work can help hold imposter syndrome in check. Not surprisingly, researchers find that "high-quality" relationships are the most effective. Those that researchers have found include:

  • Trust
  • A sense of play
  • Respectful engagement
  • Empowerment

What does that mean in practice? Simply this: Make friends at work, not just water-cooler acquaintances. A few high-quality friendships around the office can help reduce the sense of isolation that imposter syndrome creates—that feeling that you're the only one who's secretly incompetent.

2. Show Yourself What You Can Already Do

Self-efficacy simply refers to the extent to which you believe you can produce results. Psychologists have found that people who are highly self-efficacious do these five things well:

  • Set high goals for themselves
  • Welcome and thrive on challenge
  • Remain self-motivated
  • Put sufficient effort into accomplishing their goals
  • Persevere through obstacles

Again, pretty intuitive stuff. In order to build your self-efficacy while you're fighting imposter syndrome, here are a few things you can do:

Record your successes. Chances are you're already having successes somewhere in your life, but you aren't noticing them. Start a journal to note each time you do something well—but make sure to record the relative roles that luck, timing, and your own contributions played. It takes practice to build up the genuine belief that your own skills and expertise, not just luck, leads to results.

Learn from others. You can brush up on your own self-efficacy vicariously. Identify a person or a few people you admire and watch how they handle and achieve success. When they mess up, find out why. Ask what strategies they used to get back on their feet.

Grab some cheerleaders. Hearing others urge you on can help. Having a small team of colleagues to root for you is a great way to give that worried voice in your head some much-needed competition. Sometimes others will see why you succeeded at something that you yourself overlooked.

3. Turn Your Inner Critic Into A Coach

Shutting down your inner critic isn't about silencing self-doubt altogether. It's about using that internal criticism more productively. These four steps can help you do that:

  1. Label the feelings and anxieties you have when they happen.
  2. Talk about them. This part isn't easy, but it's just another reason why having those great social connections at work is so important. Put simply, we all need someone who can listen considerately when we're having a hard time.
  3. Figure out the root causes. Now that you know how you feel, it's time to figure out why: what situations, people, or challenges bring your inner critic out of the woodwork? What's the underlying pattern here?
  4. Have some self-compassion. Lots of people think they aren't cut out for their roles at some point or another in their careers. You aren't alone. Being too self-assured can actually be a liability of a totally different sort. So go easy on yourself and remember that with a little practice and self-awareness, you can get past this, too.

People tend not to talk about their struggle with imposter syndrome because this thinking style tricks you into imagining you're the only one who experiences it. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Just about anyone who's ever confronted big challenges has felt that way. And as Dr. Amy Cuddy writes her in new book Presence, "The more we communicate about [our fears and anxieties], and the smarter we are about how they operate, the easier they’ll be to shrug off the next time they pop up. It’s a game of whack-a-mole we can win."

Paula Davis-Laack is a speaker, lawyer, and expert on work-related stress, burnout, and resilience. Follow her on Twitter at @pauladavislaack.

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