4 ways to quiet imposter syndrome and start believing in yourself

May 21, 2019 /

Many of us have an inner voice telling us we lucked into what we have or we’re a fraud. That’s normal; the problem is when we believe it. Here’s how to start recognizing your own worth, from coach and consultant Tania Katan.

I’m about to get onstage at one of the largest tech conferences in the world, CiscoLive!. Then, I’m supposed to share some wisdom that will inspire thousands of people to embrace their inner superhero. No biggie. (Insert emoji face screaming in fear!)

Just so you know, I love public speaking. But that doesn’t mean I don’t channel my inner scaredy-cat when staring out into a sea of smart, capable and curious people. My nerves start acting up, especially when I am reminded that it’s me, a five-foot-three-inch nerd with a tendency toward seasonal eczema, about to tell a room full of real, largely acne-free superheroes how to be a … superhero.

Holy fraud, Batman!

I am scheduled to speak right after the senior vice president of Cisco Systems and right before Lieutenant Carey Lohrenz, the first woman lieutenant to fly an F-14 Tomcat in the US Navy. Talk about intimidating.

Palms a little sweaty, I climb up onto the stage. I stare into the sea of faces and ask, “Are there any superheroes here today?” I take a breath and continue, “That’s right, we are all born superheroes, then we spend the rest of our lives apologizing for it.”

Just like that, I’m off and running. The minutes pass faster than a locomotive, and I exit the stage in a post-talk fog. Standing there is the first woman F-14 Tomcat fighter pilot, who says, “How am I going to follow that? You were amazing!”

But here’s the thing. Until that moment, I was totally convinced that I had blanked in the middle of my talk, farted, or used the f-word. I was positive the wave of applause was actually an explosion of boos.

Isn’t it amazing how sometimes the only difference between feeling like an imposter and a superhero is finding out how other people see you from the outside? But what if we could channel that outsider all the time — like what if we could carry a fighter pilot around in our pockets to constantly remind us how awesome we are? And we actually believed it?

If you often feel like a fraud or phony and worry that someone is going to call bulls—t on you at any moment, you’re not alone. It’s been proven that the more accomplished we are, the more likely we are to feel like an imposter. In fact, the more I coach and consult with some of the most hardworking, intelligent and super-successful business leaders, performers, movers and shakers, the more I hear: “I feel like an imposter; can you help me with that?”

We all feel like an imposter from time to time — that we lucked out and it’s the only reason we’re running the company, speaking on stage, leading trainings, being given opportunities. Even worse is when we decide that we don’t have the credentials, knowledge or experience to run the company, speak publicly, lead trainings or get opportunities, so we don’t even try or we give up too quickly or we tell ourselves that pursuing these things isn’t that important.

The truth is, we are all a hard act to follow. So, can we put a lid on those internal monologues? And while it often takes an outsider who believes in us to see what we’re capable of, we can develop that capability inside ourselves, too. We just gotta do our homework, develop our skills, and show up — and continue to scale buildings like the superheroes we are.

If you’re not ready to embrace your inner superhero, do it for the young people in your life just so they can see what it looks like to be scared but do it anyway. Or, do it for your colleagues; otherwise, you’re cheating them out of all the ideas, skills and connections you’ve developed and could develop. Don’t be stingy with your gifts.

Here are four creative ways to silence your fear and insecurity and unleash your superpowers.

Stop underselling yourself

A coaching client needed guidance. She’d worked in technology years earlier, then moved into finance and now wanted to get back into tech. She was interviewing for a position at a company I knew very well and asked for my insights. First, I assured her that no one currently in that department had as much direct technology experience as she had. Secondly, I told her that I knew the salaries of the last two people hired in the position: $70,000. And finally, I gave her a full-blown, rah-rah, pompoms-in-the-air pep talk, which wasn’t difficult because she was totally and uniquely qualified for the job. A few days later, the company invited her to be part of the team. When they brought up salary, she asked for $55,000; they offered her $50,000. She took the job. Why?

Even though she was more qualified for the job than the last two people, she doubted herself and her experience. She had textbook imposter syndrome and, as a result, undersold herself to the tune of $20,000 in that first year alone.

How many times have you undersold yourself to an employer? When you do, not only are you leaving cash on the table, but you’re telling yourself (and everyone around you) that you don’t value your abilities.

Next time, try admitting that you are worth it. Admit that you have put in the work. Admit that you are uniquely qualified for this opportunity. Admit to your awesomeness. Admit it again and again. The more we admit we have value, the more that valuable opportunities present themselves.

Make your own “I ROCK Files”

Remember The Rockford Files? That TV show from the 1970s about detective Jim Rockford, who was imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit? Once he got released, he lived in a ramshackle trailer while trying to launch his career as a private eye. He had career setbacks, like we all do, and yet still managed to rock his cases.

Creative Trespassing” is a term I’ve coined to mean the ability to conjure imagination in any place, at any time, knowing it will make you and others more innovative, more energized and more valuable in your work in the world. As its exponent, I’ve spent years testing dozens of crazy, status-quo-busting practices. Jim Rockford was my inspiration for an act of Creative Trespassing that I call the “I ROCK Files.”

It’s time to become a private detective hot on your own trail. Create a physical file (or a digital one or both), and gather evidence that proves the unique value you bring to work. Slide a glowing performance review in there. A print-out of an email from a colleague or boss that praises you for a “job well done!” Press clippings from events you helped produce, reports showing goals achieved or surpassed, thank-you cards from customers, awards, certificates, and so on. From teeny to extra-special, every piece of evidence counts.

Whenever you need a reminder that you rock or you need to hear it from an outside source, open your file, read about one or more of your accomplishments, and mentally give yourself a high five. Then get back to rocking.

Assemble a legion of superheroes

You know how corporations have a board of directors to — in theory — make them stronger, maintain checks and balances, leverage resources, and help advance the organization’s vision? Why not assemble your own board of directors to leverage resources to help make your career stronger, keep you in check and balanced, and advance your vision?

My friend Alison Wade, president of conferences, training and consulting at Techwell, calls her personal board of directors her “front row” — those are the people she invites to sit spitting distance from the stage, cheer her on, challenge her, and review her performance. I call mine my “legion of superheroes,” because I dig the idea of joining forces to do good in the corporate galaxy.

The point is to assemble a group of diverse humans who have your back. They should be diverse in all directions: cultural background, thinking, skill set, and so on. Meet once a week or once a month or once a quarter. Share your experiences, fears, creative ideas, aspirations. Celebrate each other’s accomplishments. Challenge and support each other. Discover what you are capable of doing when you combine your powers.

Ask for a raise in haiku

Disclaimer: I’m not promising this technique will get you a raise, but I’m not promising it won’t. I did crowdsource it with several hundred Creative Trespassers, and based on their responses, it appears this exercise works — at least as a creative way to blow off steam about being underpaid and/or celebrate your unique value in a job (even when your boss doesn’t seem to be celebrating). And even if it doesn’t get a zero added to your paycheck right away, it will get you noticed and maybe pave the way for a future raise.

A haiku is a Japanese poem that uses five syllables for the first line, seven syllables for the second, and five syllables for the third line, and it generally celebrates the beauty of the natural world. We’re gonna put our own twist on it and use it to write a poem that celebrates the beauty of what you bring to the workplace. Here’s an example:

I’ve done a great job

She agreed with me, then said

Yes to the request!

Once you’ve written your haiku, you’ll want to deliver it to your boss in a creative way. You could email it to yourself — and cc her — on Employee Appreciation Day. Or, have the florist write it on the card that accompanies the flowers or cupcakes or both you send him for his work anniversary. Or, give it to her at the holiday gift exchange, along with an empty envelope.

Or, you might go the slightly more sincere route and tell her in haiku that her leadership is part of why you are thriving. Do whatever feels right to you as long as it shows that you’ve got awesome creative impulses, that you come up with unique approaches to address everyday challenges, and that you’re capable of seeing the value you bring to work. At the end of the day, your value resides in your being uniquely qualified to be you.

Excerpted with permission from the new book Creative Trespassing: How to Put the Spark and Joy Back into Your Work and Life by Tania Katan, published by Currency Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Copyright © 2019 Tania Katan.

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