Impostor syndrome is a well-known concept. It’s when you feel like a fraud despite having outward evidence of success. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, actress Natalie Portman, and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz have all talked about their experiences with it. It affects approximately 70% of people, but according to Valerie Young, impostor syndrome expert and author of The Secrets Of Successful Women, it is especially prevalent among those who are the first, the only, or the few–especially individuals who belong to a “group for whom there are stereotypes about competence.”
I’ve definitely been in that position, and for me, impostor syndrome has been an on-and-off struggle. When I was younger, it was pervasive, but as I’ve gotten older, it has affected me less. That said, I still have moments when the voice in my head tells me that I don’t deserve something, or I’m not good enough.
Earlier this month, I got a promotion at work that I knew I deserved (and worked extremely hard for). Overall, I was pretty confident about being able to perform in my new role. But at the same time, my new role required more responsibilities and a bigger workload. I knew I’d face challenges that would cause me to doubt my abilities, and I would need a method to get past those feelings. So I decided to conduct a monthlong experiment where I tried different ways to combat impostor syndrome. Here’s what I tried and learned.
1. Power dressing
Research shows that when we dress up, we’re more productive and engaged, and we command more authority. I know this in theory, but I found that since I swapped the blazer-and-heels environment of corporate law for the not-as-formal world of digital media, I started to prioritize comfort over presentation.
Not that there’s anything wrong with this, but I was curious to see whether paying more attention to presentability would make me feel like I was better at my job. I usually lay out my clothes on Sunday evening for the week, and for a month, I paid special attention to make sure that they all resembled business casual attire. I also started wearing heels to work, which I’d stopped doing. Initially, it felt like a shallow thing to do. And I felt a little guilty–am I just reinforcing the problematic stereotype of women being judged on how they look?
But I couldn’t deny the impact. I don’t know if I was necessarily better at my job, but it definitely increased my confidence, which in turn made me more productive. Not only did my focus improve, I also found that I started to voice my thoughts in meetings without worrying about whether or not I sounded stupid, and I found that I learned to enjoy giving presentations (which I used to hate doing). My colleague Lydia Dishman–who herself dresses up despite working from home most days–previously reported that for many people, dressing up puts them in a “work” state of mind, even if they’re typing from their kitchen table. That’s definitely my sentiment, and today, I’m still wearing my comfortable heels.
2. Positive affirmation
Almost every article I read on impostor syndrome recommended that I practice positive affirmation any time negative self-talk starts to take over in my head. Tara Swart, a leadership consultant and neuroscientist, told Michael Grothaus in a 2017 article that having a set of positive statements, such as, “I am truly capable” or “I make great decisions,” can “reprogram the neural pathways in the brain and prevent automatic shortcuts to negative thought patterns.”
I tried this method every time I felt myself getting nervous–before I gave a presentation to my entire department, and before introducing myself to strangers at networking events I forced myself to attend (more on that later). For some reason, this method didn’t really do it for me–at least when I said them to myself. However, it did lift my confidence when I said it out loud to someone else, and they agreed with the statement. Perhaps it was the external validation that did it? Either way, this one did not turn into a go-to method.
3. Power posing
Power posing has its supporters and detractors. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy coined the term in her 2012 TED Talk, claiming there is a link between power posing, behavioral effects, and hormone levels. However, when researchers attempted to replicate the findings from her 2010 study, they could not get the same results. As John Paul Titlow previously reported for Fast Company, the more recent study didn’t find any connection between posture and hormonal levels, but they did find that the test subjects reported “feelings of enhanced power.”
I wanted that feeling, so I was curious to see if it would momentarily take away any impostor syndrome feeling–which appeared the morning I was due to facilitate a meeting. I tried the pose Cuddy recommended (back straight, chest out) before I got to work, and looked at myself in the mirror. I just felt silly. When it came to the meeting, I tried to do the same thing. But I found focusing on my power pose distracting–especially when it came to Q&A time. What helped me feel more in control (and not succumb to my impostor syndrome tendencies) was surprisingly looking everyone in the eye as I was speaking. I thought that would be nerve-wracking, but it turned out to be a calming strategy.
4. Keeping (and referring) to a praise and achievements folder
Prior to my promotion, I put together a list of quantifiable achievements in my previous role. After my promotion, I received a number of congratulatory messages, some of which I wasn’t expecting. I remember making a comment to a colleague about how I wondered if some people were just being polite, and she told me to take it on its face and “file it to my praise and achievement folder.”
When I looked at the numbers, I realized I was being silly (and exhibiting major impostor syndrome tendencies), so I decided to follow my colleague’s advice and create a digital file on my phone of those compliments and achievements. The thing is, I hardly looked at it for the rest of the month. I realized that when I’m not feeling confident, looking at my phone is the last thing I want to do. Upon some self-reflection, I discovered that I associated my smartphone with social media. As we all know, seeing a curated feed of someone’s seemingly perfect life is not great for overcoming impostor syndrome.
5. Deliberately putting myself in uncomfortable situations
On days where none of these techniques work, I decided to commit to doing something scary–even if it’s not for that particular moment. That month,I said yes to coffees with prominent business leaders, I RSVP’ed to events and forced myself to talk to someone I didn’t know, and I agreed to speak at a panel in front of executives and management consultants, where I’ll be one of the youngest speakers.
In some ways, I exacerbated my impostor syndrome by doing all these things. But by giving myself no choice but to do them, I learned how to do the uncomfortable, even when I might be fueled by self-doubt. I also found that I referred to these experiences more than my “praise and achievement” folder. For example, whenever I tried to talk myself out of talking to a new person at a networking event, I’d think about how I gave a presentation despite being nervous. That would give me just the tiniest jolt of confidence–enough to get me to do whatever it is I was scared to do.
When I spoke to Young about why certain approaches to impostor syndrome worked better than others, she tells me that the best way to overcome impostor syndrome is to “normalize” those feelings, rather than fight them. “Feelings are the last to change,” Young tells me. “We need to keep going, regardless of how we feel.”
“The only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor,” Young says. An impostor might beat themselves up for not nailing a new job right away, whereas a non-impostor understands that “they weren’t hired because they already know 100% of the job. But rather that they have the core competencies for the position and the capacity to figure out the rest.”
For me, power dressing turned out to be a short-term, effective solution. But when I think back to my younger self and the extent to which I felt like a fraud (all the time) to now (when I only feel it some of the time), I realized that the more I forced myself to take risks, the more I started to see them as “lessons to learn” rather than “outcomes to achieve.” That shifted my thinking toward non-impostor, and over time, that resulted in less visits from those negative voices that stop so many of us from doing our best.