You’ve worked hard, managed to combine schoolwork, a job, possibly a family, and (on a good day) some semblance of a personal life. You’ve overcome challenges, figured out solutions to obstacles, and continued to move toward your goal of a better career.
You’re actually pretty darn amazing, which you’ve proven over and over again. But when a promotion or increase in responsibility comes your way, do you feel a sense of confidence or one of panic? If you’re like a lot of people (especially women), panic takes over. Welcome to imposter syndrome.
What is imposter syndrome?
Basically, imposter syndrome is the sense that you’ve been promoted beyond your abilities, that you’re in over your head, that through some combination of luck and others’ misperceptions, you’ve landed in a position for which your skills are wildly inadequate.
It’s the career version of performance anxiety, aggravated by a dread that you might be “found out” at any moment. It may not be rational, it may fly in the face of years’ worth of accomplishments, but it’s estimated that some 70 percent of successful men and women experience this chronic and often crippling self-doubt.
Say, for example, you’ve just been asked to step into a new nursing management role by a boss who’s known you for years and has seen you handle multiple challenges with calm and confidence. Her thinking? She’s worked with you for a long time, knows your strengths and weaknesses, and believes this is something you’d be good at. Your thinking, with an imposter syndrome “frame”: she’s completely overestimated my strengths, underestimated my weaknesses, and we’re all about to discover that in the most awful way possible. In essence you’re going to be “found out.”
Do any of these sound familiar?
Imposter feelings, that is, a sense of being in over your head, of feeling “undeserving” of success, can be at work when you:
- Feel like a fraud who has somehow managed, intentionally or unintentionally, to fool others about how capable (or not) you really are;
- Assume that your career achievements are due to luck, or being in the right place at the right time, or other “outside” factors not based on your actual skills or value as a contributor;
- Dismiss, discount, or downplay your successes to yourself and others with statements like “anyone could have done it,” “it wasn’t that important,” or “I really got lucky on that one.”
Points out imposter-syndrome expert Valerie Young, “self-doubt and negative feedback weigh heavily on the mind, but praise barely registers. You attribute your failures to a stable, inner core of ineptness. Meanwhile, you discount your successes as accidental or, worse, as just so many confidence jobs. Every positive is a false positive.”
Coping – or masking – mechanisms may include being overly diligent (read: working really, really hard), figuring out what behavior influential people in your career want from you and “mirroring” that – no matter how inauthentic that behavior is to the real you, or studiously avoiding drawing any attention to your strengths or accomplishments to avoid being seen as overly confident.
The imposter syndrome checklist: where do you fall?
Wondering if you’re suffering from imposter syndrome? Consider these possible indicators:
- Do you secretly worry that people will discover you’re not as smart or competent as they thought you were?
- Do you have a difficult time accepting praise?
- Do you hesitate to take on challenging opportunities because you’re afraid your lack of ability will be exposed?
- Do you avoid presenting your ideas or opinions in meetings in order to avoid exposing your self-perceived lack of knowledge?
- Do you have a hard time taking credit for your accomplishments, instead chalking them up to good luck or other peoples’ efforts?
- Do you see making mistakes as a personal failure, and not being perfect as a weakness?
- Do you feel like everyone you compare yourself to is smarter, more capable, more deserving of success than you?
- Do you worry with every new responsibility that this will be the one that unmasks you as a fraud?
If you’ve got mostly “yes” answers here, you’re in good company. Many, many people struggle with this issue – and in fact, the more you move up in your career, the stronger the sense of imposter syndrome can become. The good news is that it’s not just you. But you’ve worked way to hard on your degree program and developing your nursing skills to let this hold you back.
Getting beyond the imposter syndrome
What are some proven ways to get beyond the self-doubts and anxiety that imposter syndrome uses to undermine your confidence (and well-deserved career opportunities)?
- Recognize when imposter syndrome may be driving your reactions (for example, when you’re feeling panic rather than excitement about a job promotion), and work to short-circuit your emotions with a strong dose of reality-check. Feeling incompetent does not equate to being incompetent.
- Realize that what you are experiencing is not a sign of weakness or incompetence, but rather an indicator of a conscientious nature, and a sense of seriousness about responsibility – any idiot can be overconfident, so pat yourself on the back for your thoughtfulness…then jump in!
- Accept that many of the people you know and admire, in a similar circumstance, have experienced the exact same self-doubt, you just didn’t know about it. Your goal is to follow their lead, and not allow your anxiety to hold you back.
- Discuss your feelings with trusted friends and colleagues, to get those feelings out of your head and into the “reality” light of day.
- Learn to recognize when you are discounting yourself and your accomplishments with statements like “I was just lucky,” and try instead statements like “I worked really hard/was really on top of my game/did some great problem-solving,” etc. Let yourself – or rather insist to yourself – that you own your accomplishments.
- Check your self-doubt against reality by revisiting those accomplishments; my guess is you have, in fact, faced unfamiliar situations or roles or responsibilities and managed to figure them out just fine.
- Develop a healthy respect for the limits of your abilities, knowing that these aren’t weaknesses, these are simply areas that you haven’t yet chosen to develop into strengths. Then be honest about those areas when a promotion possibility is under discussion so you won’t feel like you have to “hide” those areas; instead, you can ask questions openly and learn from those who have developed those strengths.
- Lighten up, and unload the burden of perfectionism. Any new opportunity involves a certain amount of tap-dancing, and that necessarily entails learning new things, making mistakes, and having to ask lots of questions. This is called growth, not incompetence.
- Pay attention to whether you’re feeling imposter syndrome anxiety or a true match between a job and your real self. If the latter, then make a change to a position that aligns more closely with who you are and what you enjoy. But be sure this change is based on positive growth rather than damaging fear.
Remember, you’ve already succeeded (or are succeeding) in overcoming some very tough challenges as you’ve gone through American Sentinel’s nursing or healthcare management program. You have earned those promotions through hard work, diligence, and smarts. Time to give yourself credit for the strengths that others are recognizing in you.