Women tell Moneyish how they conquered feeling unworthy and like a fraud at work.
I’m a fraud.
That’s a sentiment some of the most accomplished among us — including Tina Fey and Meryl Streep — have felt. It’s called “imposter syndrome,” a feeling that you don’t really deserve your success because you achieved it thanks to luck or some other thing out of your control, rather than your skills and hard work, and a fear you might be “found out.”
And as Melinda Gates wrote on LinkedIn earlier this week — and research backs up — it’s a syndrome common among women.
When former television producer and editor Carlota Zimmerman switched careers in 2008 to start her own business as a career coach, she admits she “suffered horribly” from imposter syndrome. For years, Zimmerman had been the person colleagues and friends had come to for career advice, so she knew she knew her stuff. “I had so many ideas, but simultaneously, I also felt, ‘Who am I to be giving anyone advice’,” she says. “In my 20s in TV news, I was making six figures — suddenly I was in my middle 30s … coaching was the only thing I enjoyed, and when it worked, I felt great, but the rest of the time I was in a panic.” She adds: “I felt like a fraud since I, wrongly, assumed that everyone else knew what they were doing [more than she did],” she says.
For Libby Leffler, a Baker Scholar at Harvard Business School and Facebook and Google alum, her imposter syndrome sometimes left her paralyzed in meetings. She remembers one large meeting with senior executives early in her career where she didn’t say a word — despite having prepared for days for it. “I was younger in my career. I was intimidated. I felt like the people running the meeting were senior and they couldn’t possibly learn from me,” Leffler, VP of Membership for SoFi, says. But a more senior colleague noticed and called her out on it after the meeting, saying to her, “‘I was waiting to hear what you had to say, I know you prepared and you had something to say’,” Leffler recounts. “I was floored, but I knew she was right.”
And for Priyanka Prakash — who in 2015 became the first woman hired by FitSmallBusiness.com, climbing the ranks from writer to managing editor and receiving several raises along the way — big career and life changes have triggered her imposter syndrome. The latest being her return to work this summer after having her first child. “I worried a lot that I would get fired … I thought I would fall short and lose promotions,” she says. Part of this was that she felt that she might not be able to keep up with her mostly male colleagues since she now had to balance work and childcare. But she also notes that each time she’s gotten a raise or promotion, she’s had moments of panic that she wouldn’t be able to deliver what was asked of her in her new role. “I feel like sometimes I put so much pressure on myself, I feel like I have to be awesome at everything.”
Indeed, imposter syndrome can manifest itself in any number of situations and jobs and take years to get over, but there are strategies that can help. Here’s what women who have suffered from imposter syndrome tell Moneyish really works.
Know you’re not alone. “Anyone who tells you she never doubted herself is either a sociopath or just a blatant liar,” says Zimmerman. “Read my lips: everyone suffers from imposter syndrome.” That even includes Meryl Streep, who famously said of doing new projects: “You think, ‘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?’” Everyone feels like this, and adds psychologist Crystal Lee, you should talk to others about it: “Many people have the tendency to keep insecurities to themselves because it makes them feel vulnerable and less than. Fight that tendency and reach out to your friends,” she says. “It makes you feel less alone and isolated in your experience.”
Document your successes. Prakash of FitSmallBusiness.com uses the app Toggl, which allows her to track all the things she has accomplished each day. “You can easily lose track of the things you’re doing well.” And she also makes lists of quantifiable, larger “wins” in a spreadsheet, like when she edits a story that brings in revenue for the company. This helps her remember that she is good enough and successful enough. And what do you do when you’re hit with a big insecurity on the fly: “Go to the ladies room, close the door to the stall and talk to yourself [about your worth],” says Sandy Rubinstein, CEO of DXagency. ”Don’t let fear and insecurity consume you — you are the leader of your destiny.”
Make goals to confront your fears. After Leffler was called out for not speaking in a meeting, she began making lists of her talking points before meetings and promising herself that she’d make at least one of those points. And Prakash now schedules quarterly check-ins with her manager where they talk about her goals and her progress towards them.
Brush up on the skills you need to. Sometimes the imposter syndrome comes not from you being unable to do a job, but from an information deficit. “It’s important to make that distinction, ‘I am not inadequate, I just have a different set of skills and knowledge’,” says Isabel James, the founder of Elite Dating Managers. “When I do find myself in these situations, I learn about the new topic.” And when Prakash starts to say something to herself like, “I’m not nearly as good as John at X,” she makes it a personal goal to brush up on the skill set she wants to learn from the person, reading up on the topic or asking colleagues or mentors for help on it.
You can — and will — learn on the job. Jennifer Keough, the CEO and founder of JND Legal Administration, recalls landing at job when she was 31 to open up a new branch of a class action administration firm. “While I had already graduated law school and had spent several years working in law firms, I never had been responsible for starting an office from scratch,” she says. “I felt like an ‘imposter’ and I was hoping people wouldn’t find out that I didn’t really know what I was doing.” But she quickly realized that sometimes doing the job is the best way to learn it. “People learn best — or at least I do — when they roll up their sleeves and do it themselves,” she says. My mantra is always, ‘act like you’ve been there before,’ because soon enough you will be.”
Realize that others believe in you. When Candice Hahn got promoted to her first vice president role in her mid-30s, she remembers telling her uncle, “I got promoted and I’m not sure that I’m qualified,” Hahn, who is now the vice president and managing director of R/GA in Austin, says. “He looked at me and said, ‘what makes you qualified is that someone else knows you and promoted you and believes you can do it’.” And that, she says, was a big lesson for her.
Wait it out. Despite her fears, Zimmerman stuck with career coaching and went on to coach executives and members of the Obama administration. “Each success brought me more confidence, and more faith in my own abilities,” she says. “One day, someone whom you admire will come to you for advice and you’ll think,’whoa. She thinks I’m an expert. STFU’.”
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