Shortly after I was hired to be a columnist for Time’s website, I was asked to write about a book called The Confidence Code. Having actually been recruited and hired as a columnist, one would assume there’d be certain things I was capable of, such as writing a column. But this was my first column as a “columnist,” and I was rattled.
I labored over my introduction, writing and rewriting, deleting and retyping, cutting, pasting, moving sentences around, moving them around some more, then spending the next 10 minutes command–Z’ing my way back to where I’d started. Eventually, hunched over my sad desk (kitchen table) in my office (living room), clad in my freelancer’s uniform (pajamas), I decided I had no business having a column at all. In fact, I was pretty sure my new contract would be revoked by the end of the week.
It wasn’t—but the irony was that the book I was supposed to write about was about imposter syndrome, or that crippling sense of self-doubt that women often feel in the face of challenge, which in this case was the very thing that was making it impossible for me to complete the task at hand.
“Imposter syndrome” wasn’t coined as a term until the 1970s, but it’s safe to assume women have always felt it: that nagging feeling that, even after you’ve just done something great, maybe you actually don’t deserve the praise.
Imposter syndrome affects minority groups disproportionately: women, racial minorities, the LGBT population—or as Valerie Young, the author of a book on the topic, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, explains, people who have the pressure of “accomplishing firsts.” It’s common among high achievers, creative people, and students, and it persists in college, graduate school, and the working world.
Imposter Syndrome Comes In Multiple Flavors
That feeling comes about in different ways, though. Here’s a quick sampling:
Being absolutely 100% sure you’re going to fail. Even Sheryl Sandberg, the unflappable COO of Facebook, has said she often feels this way. As she described it in Lean In, “Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself. Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself—or even excelled—I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.”
Feeling like a complete fraud. Every so often, even when we’ve “made it,” we’re somehow unable to shake the feeling that it’s all smoke and mirrors, that we’ve still got everyone tricked, that at any moment we’ll be found out and exposed. Three days before this manuscript was due to my editor, when I was alone in my apartment, running on no sleep, I remember walking into the bathroom and thinking to myself: Why would anybody actually want to read about a bunch of experiences that are just . . . my own? To which my editor, also a woman, later replied, “I constantly ask myself the same question about my editing.”
Devaluing your worth—even as somebody else is actively supporting it. In my case, that recently manifested as me talking somebody out of giving me money for work. “Why don’t I just do it for free?” I wondered. To which a male friend—who happened to be in the room where this phone conversation was happening—practically shook me. “Jessica! Just take the money!” he said. (At which point I said yes.)
Underestimating your experience or expertise. I was talking about this very thing with a friend who is a teacher, and in the next breath she told me about a job that she was being recruited for, followed by, “But I’m totally not qualified.” (They had recruited her!) Another woman I interviewed—a postdoctoral engineering student named Celeste—told me that while she was working as a mechanical engineer, a supervisor once noted in her review that she wouldn’t call herself an engineer. “I didn’t realize I told my coworkers I wasn’t an engineer when I was,” Celeste said. “And I think, for me, it was an excuse just in case I made mistakes.”
Seven Ways To Fight The Feeling
So how do you combat imposter syndrome, in all its pernicious forms? Here are a few strategies you can use.
1. Find a wingwoman. Talk to a colleague or friend: Has she felt like an imposter, too? Knowing this is a thing that others feel will help make it just that: a thing, but not your thing. If you feel that doubtful voice begin to creep inside your head, repeat: “It’s not me, it’s the imposter syndrome talking.”
2. Squash negative self-talk. Ask yourself what evidence exists that you are any less qualified than anybody else to do this work. Now ask what evidence exists that you are just as qualified—or even, I daresay, more qualified—to do the job. Make a list of at least 10 things.
3. Stop letting screw-ups hurt your self-confidence. When women screw up, they question their abilities or qualifications. (“What did I do wrong?”) But when men screw up, they more often point to bad luck, poor work, or not enough help from others—in other words, outside forces. Remember this: even the best athletes screw up, the best lawyers lose cases, the best actors star in busts. Don’t let failure destroy your confidence.
4. Psych yourself up. The words you say to yourself can actually change the way you see yourself—boosting confidence during a nerve-racking event. So write yourself a sticky note or talk to yourself in the mirror. Tell yourself you are as fan-fucking-tastic as your male coworkers, and forbid yourself from falling back on excuses like luck to explain away your successes.
5. Visualize success. Olympic athletes do it; so do military officers. Visualize precisely how you’ll navigate the situation—successfully—before it happens.
6. Overprepare for the task at hand—just to preempt any potential feeling of fraudulence or insecurity. German chancellor Angela Merkel has said she does this to overcome her doubts. Managing director of the IMF Christine Lagarde acknowledges that she overprepares regularly. As Lagarde has explained it, “When we work on a particular matter, we will work the file inside, outside, sideways, backwards, historically, genetically, and geographically. We want to be completely on top of everything, and we want to understand it all, and we don’t want to be fooled by somebody else.”
7. Unsubscribe from doubt. In his book Originals, Adam Grant describes two kinds of doubt: self-doubt—which causes you to freeze up—and idea doubt, which can actually motivate people to work on refining, testing, or experimenting with a good idea. Try to turn self-doubt into idea doubt by telling yourself, it’s not that I’m crap, it’s that the first few drafts of any idea are always crap—and I’m just not there yet.
Seven Famous Impost-Hers
This article is adapted with permission from Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace by Jessica Bennett. Copyright © 2016 by Jessica Bennett. Published on September 13, 2016, by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.