How Smart Women With Imposter Syndrome Can Build Self-Confidence

I didn’t realize that for most of my career I’d felt like a fraud until I began to help a number of smart women with imposter syndrome build their self-confidence.

imposter syndrome
(c) / michaeljung

I thought I was the only one who believed that the admissions officers at my undergraduate and graduate schools had probably made a mistake. I was convinced it was mostly luck that had landed me my job at an ad agency. And the brilliant researchers I’d worked for must clearly have been so desperate for any help that they’d hired me, even though I wasn’t completely qualified for the job.

I’d fooled them all.

I didn’t realize I wasn’t alone in feeling this way until, early on in my coaching career, a client described how she got dressed for work every morning. My client worked in a male-dominated field. As soon as she’d landed her job, she said, she went shopping. From what she’d seen during her interviews, the few women who worked in the office looked professional and polished. She knew her comfortable, casual look wasn’t going to cut it.

For many months, she put on her new clothes every morning and looked in the mirror. While she recognized herself in her reflection, she said, she felt “it wasn’t really me. I was playing a part. I was acting.” She said she had to convince herself every morning that she could continue to pretend.

It was hard work trying to keep up that facade. And that is precisely why…

“Faking it till you make it” doesn’t work.

Many smart women feel they’ve been working hard to fake it for some time, but they have yet to feel that they’ve made it.

When they continue or intensify their efforts, their case of imposter syndrome seems to only worsen. And behind closed doors, or deep down, they feel even less confident. So this commonly given advice falls flat.

Working with my clients has taught me what does help smart women with imposter syndrome build self-confidence.

Unlike other advice you may receive from friends, family, colleagues, or the media, my suggestions are effective because they:

  1. are grounded in social-science research; and
  2. have been tested by my clients.

This is how I usually work: after I summarize relevant research for my clients, together we devise a strategy to fit their lifestyle and attitudes. For more information on imposter syndrome, you may want to read Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, the researchers who coined the term.

My suggestions:

  • Know that you are not alone. You probably can’t help but compare yourself with others—that’s natural. But consider this: there’s a good chance that they’re also struggling with imposter syndrome or lacking confidence.
  • Stop keeping score. Though teachers issue report cards, and employers may give performance evaluations, in life you aren’t usually given a grade. So rather than focus on specific outcomes, learn to appreciate the process. I sometimes think that watching athletes, musicians, artists, and other performers can be very deceiving. We see only the end result, which is usually close to perfection. What we don’t see is the critical piece: the practicing. Learning to enjoy practicing, especially when it is challenging, is actually where happiness lies. (I hope to provide more on this in my next Book Note, so please stay tuned.
  • Take up a cause. Smart, caring women may find it helpful to focus on the people they care about or a “higher mission” they’re passionate about. For example, I used to be terrified of giving presentations and doing any sort of public speaking, yet now I do both quite often. I overcame my fear thanks to an adviser who suggested I was nervous because I was too focused on myself. He suggested that I worry less about how I would perform and focus more on how I could help my audience. Similarly, when faced with doing something that frightens you, try to determine your greater purpose. Consider how that cause is important to you or may help those you care about. Then draw strength from it.

Sometimes it’s easier to find your cause, overcome imposter syndrome, and build self-confidence by talking to a knowledgeable person about them. If you’d like to speak with me, please click here to see if you qualify for a complimentary consultation.



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