‘How Do I Get Over My Impostor Syndrome?’

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Photo: Kourken Pakchanian/Condé Nast via Getty Images

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Dear Boss,

I was wondering if you had any advice on how to conquer impostor syndrome. I’ve been working at the same job since I graduated college (about four years ago), and have been doing really well there (promoted almost every year, raises in every performance review, nothing but praise and minor feedback on how to hone my skills, etc).
Logically, I know everyone thinks I’m doing a good job, and people seem to really like and respect me. This is all awesome! Except that deep down my gut tells me I don’t deserve the praise I keep getting.

I’ve made significant strides in overcoming this. I hardly qualify anything I say with “this is probably stupid” anymore, and I am comfortable and confident giving advice in areas I have expertise in. But I still almost feel sick before performance-review meetings because I’m sure this time is when they’re going to realize I’m mediocre at best and point out all the times I’ve done things wrong in the past. More importantly (and alarmingly), I’ve found myself having urges to cover up when I make mistakes, so that people don’t realize I’ve been a fraud all along. To be clear, I would never actually do this — I care way too much about my team and the quality of our work — but I hate that the thought even crosses my mind!

Do you have any suggestions on how to kick this feeling for good? I’m so tired of feeling like I’m going to be found out.

You are so, so normal.

Talk to any professionally accomplished woman, and you’ll nearly always hear that she has struggled with impostor syndrome at some point (and maybe still currently does). This is true even of people at intimidatingly high levels — Sheryl Sandberg, Tina Fey, Maya Angelou, Sonia Sotomayor, and loads of other highly accomplished women have all talked about grappling with it.

Women who are conscientious seem to be particularly susceptible to feeling like an impostor. In fact, from years of reading employees’ self-evaluations as part of doing performance reviews, I can tell you that the more conscientious the woman, the likelier she is to give herself lower performance ratings than she deserves — probably because she’s acutely aware of all the ways she could be doing better and all she still has to learn. People who are a bit more, uh, cavalier about their jobs tend to rate themselves higher, even when the facts should say otherwise. This pattern is remarkably consistent. (There’s actually a psychological term for this: the Dunning-Kruger effect, which says that people with lower abilities tend to dramatically overestimate their own competence, and people who are skilled tend to underestimate their own work.)

But knowing that doesn’t make it any easier when you’re caught in the throes of self-doubt. Here’s what does seem to work:

1. Force yourself to look at the evidence. First, what are the goals for your position? Are you meeting them? Exceeding them? If so, that’s pretty compelling evidence that you are in fact equipped to do what you’ve been hired to do. Second, what do your boss and others say about your work? It sounds like you’re getting lots of praise — if you believed it, what conclusions would you draw? And if you don’t quite believe it, why not? Have you seen evidence that your boss pulls her punches, or is she generally candid with people? If she usually addresses problems with people when needed, assume that she’d address them with you too, if there were any, and that you can believe what she’s telling you about your work.

If that doesn’t convince you, then ask yourself this: Why are you giving your self-doubt more weight and more credibility than the opinions of your boss and your colleagues? You’re dismissing their assessment as if they must not know any better. But they’re probably reasonably smart people who know what they’re talking about and aren’t being fooled by you.

2. Ask for feedback. If you’re not already getting regular feedback from your boss outside of things like formal performance reviews, you can ask for more. And if the feedback you do get is primarily praise, you can ask your boss to talk to you about where you could work on doing better — which, if your boss doesn’t have any big things to suggest you change, can help you realize you’re doing perfectly well. It’s reasonable to say something like, “I really value critical feedback, and I’d be grateful to hear your thoughts on ways I could be more effective.” If your boss doesn’t come up with any particularly helpful input on how you could improve (and a surprising number of managers are bad at providing that to people who are doing well at their jobs), a good question to draw it out of her is, “If I were going to focus on improving in one area, what would you say would benefit me most?”

Or you might find it more effective to ask for feedback on specific pieces of work, especially when you’re feeling particularly shaky about something. For example, you could say, “I’m not sure how well I presented that idea in the meeting — is there a different way I could have approached it?” Or, “Could we talk through how Project X went? I’d love to get your thoughts on where I could improve that process for the future.”

3. Fake it. How would you act if you did feel confident in your job and like you deserved to be there? Start acting like that now, even if it feels insincere. Weirdly, doing this has a way of making it start to feel real over time.

4. Embrace what you don’t know or when you get something wrong. There’s going to be plenty you don’t know at work and sometimes you’re going to make mistakes — because you’re a normal human, not because you’re terrible at your job. But impostor syndrome can make you feel like the occasional mistake or lack of knowledge is evidence that you don’t belong where you are.

Interestingly though, openly acknowledging when you don’t know something or when you messed up will actually make people see you as more confident and credible. There’s real strength in calmly saying “I don’t have a good understanding of X — can you walk me through it?” or “I really messed this up — can we talk about how I should have approached it?” If you’re confident in what you do contribute, you won’t feel like you need to hide the places where you’re not as strong. (And again, this is where faking it until it’s real can help.)

Plus, openly identifying the places where you’re not as strong — and seeking out information from others to rectify that — will make you better and better at your job over time. So seen that way, one could argue that you should even be excited to find gaps in your knowledge, since that gives you a chance to build your knowledge.

5. If all else fails, resolve to stop thinking about it for now. This might be easier said than done, but there’s something to be said for just focusing on your work, and not dwelling so much on whether you deserve to be there. At some point, enough evidence will have accumulated that you aren’t a fraud that it’ll be easier for you to accept — but until then, you might as well not agonize over it.

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Ask a Boss: ‘How Do I Get Over My Impostor Syndrome?’