How do I overcome imposter syndrome?
How I've learned to embrace the feeling of imposter syndrome as a way to continue growing my career
Do you ever get that anxious feeling in your gut when you're not confident in yourself and are worried others will realize you're an imposter? This fear can sometimes feel paralyzing to see your full potential. You may feel inadequate, incapable, or fear of being exposed as a fraud. It can prevent us from speaking up in a meeting or volunteering for a new opportunity. This feeling may make us avoid asking about a promotion or raise that we deserve.
Let me tell you a little secret: Everyone I know experiences imposter syndrome. I've felt it in nearly every job. I still feel it today. Yet, in recent years I've started learning to love the feeling – the pit inside my stomach when I’m uncomfortable – because I now see it as a sign of my growth. It's still uncomfortable, but I've come to appreciate imposter syndrome as a moment when I'm doing something I'm less experienced in, which will stretch me into new opportunities.
Wikipedia defines imposter syndrome as "a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a 'fraud.'" If that sounds familiar, know that you're not alone. Imposter syndrome is often associated with high-achieving individuals who hold themselves to exceptionally high standards., regardless of their experience or seniority, including VPs at Facebook and Dropbox. Even Daniel Kwan, Director of Everything Everywhere All at Once, mentioned his imposter syndrome this week as he accepted his Oscar for Original Screenplay (video). Daniel Kwan is clearly a remarkable in his craft and yet is still feeling like a fraud on stage at the Oscars.
Imposter syndrome or reaching for something is good in certain aspects. I would challenge you if you are not feeling imposter syndrome at least 10% of the time; are you really challenging yourself and getting better?" –Susan Park (source)
For me, imposter syndrome has evolved from a daily dread of feeling like I'm faking it to "imposter syndrome moments." Those are the moments throughout my week when I'm doing something I've never done before and feel uncomfortable. I had several of those moments this past week. I felt awkward, even stupid, like I was doing something wrong. Yet as I sit here thinking back over this last week, I'm proud of those moments. I embraced my discomfort and pushed ahead.
The reality is that even though many of us feel this way, it often goes undiscussed. We internalize our fear and push on, hoping not to be discovered. Perhaps we can start a trend that, as part of 'vocally self-critical,' we can practice transparency in our skepticism of ourselves and find colleagues we can trust to share our doubts.
While I have a few ideas of how to grow within the discomfort, you'll never not feel like an imposter. When you stop feeling that way, it may mean you've mastered your current role, and it's time to identify how you continue growing. Today I'll share a few of my stories and ways I've grown to embrace the feeling instead of loathe it.
My story of struggling
Everyone feels like an imposter at some point. Let me share something I feel embarrassed by, but I suspect it may help someone out there to know others feel this way. When I started at Amazon in 2013, I had such bad anxiety that I sweat through my shirts every day before 10am and had to go on prescription-grade deodorant to stop sweating. This eventually calmed down as I became more confident, but I still remember how scared I was every day that they had made a mistake hiring me. I was having a physical reaction to the severity of my imposter syndrome.
Later, when I was promoted to Principal designer at Amazon, I was 29 years old, and self-doubt quickly emerged. I was skeptical that I could live up to the standards of my peers. I was worried that folks would find out I was an imposter, and maybe they'd demote me. I was comfortable performing as a Senior UX Designer but was torn out of my comfort zone and didn't think I would make it.
As time passed, I started to feel a bit better, though the feeling of inadequacy never disappeared. I've learned to lean into that discomfort and keep faking it until I make it. There were a few things causing my discomfort:
Inexperience being at this new level and fully understanding the expectations that come with it.
Lack of confidence caused my social anxiety.
Missing specific tools and skills such as leadership skills, learning to scale myself, how to self-start projects, and more that I continue to gain the longer I'm in senior IC roles.
After repetition as a more senior-level IC (individual contributor), I've started feeling more comfortable. If you're in a place of discomfort, it's okay to admit it and lean in, but don't give up because our discomfort is when we get the opportunity to learn and grow.
As I look back, this quote from Dr. Valerie Young's Ted Talk has encouraged me to embrace the feeling instead of shy away:
"Impostor syndrome is not a unique feeling, but rather a normal reaction to success and achievement."
Ask for help
A few months after my promotion to Principle, I realized I needed help. I met with mentors and other Principles I looked up to discuss how I was feeling. They shared their own experiences with imposter syndrome, which shocked me. These are my role models, leaders I admire, and I couldn't imagine them feeling like frauds. Hearing this reassured me, knowing they had to work through similar feelings not just after being promoted but daily.
If you feel stuck in your fear and imposter syndrome, seek out people you trust and admire. I realized a key reason I felt this way after being promoted was that I didn't have the right tools to give me confidence in the work. I had many skills that make up a successful senior designer but lacked the skills to make me an effective leader as a Principle.
I decided to move teams and sought a leader to help me develop the confidence and skills I needed at this new level. I took a risk and shared these feelings with the hiring manager during an internal transfer at Amazon. I shared how I needed his help to build that confidence. While it was scary being transparent, I've found a lot of value in discussing this with my manager to get his insight and help in areas to grow.
Ask for ongoing feedback.
Managers have varying styles for sharing feedback, praising your contributions, and providing rewards. Some leaders do this better than others. In my experience, feeling like an imposter can result from not knowing if you're doing the right thing and for the things you are doing, not being confident about how you could do them better.
If your manager or co-workers don't give you regular feedback, ask for it. After a meeting, I may ask, "how do you feel like that presentation went? What can I do better?" After I share a set of designs, I'll ask for feedback on the designs and how I've organized them. Whenever possible, be specific about what feedback would be helpful for you. For example, instead of saying, "How did that meeting go" I may ask, "how do you feel like I handled that situation where I disagreed with Ryan on their comment about…?" Being specific can reassure you about the moments you lack confidence or give you feedback to help you keep improving.
Related to feedback is also asking your manager for ongoing acknowledgment when you're doing well. This approach can help counteract the voice inside your head telling you how terrible you're doing or that you're insufficient. People like to receive praise in many types of ways:
Specific feedback: Rather than a generic "good job," people like to receive detailed feedback on what they did well and why it was necessary. This helps them understand what they should continue doing and reinforces positive behaviors.
Public vs. private recognition: Some people prefer public recognition, such as a shoutout in a team meeting or an org-wide email. For others, they can feel embarrassed.
Personalized feedback: People like to receive input personalized to their contributions and strengths. This helps them feel recognized for their unique superpowers and contributions.
Timely recognition: People like to receive praise after an accomplishment or achievement as soon as possible. This reinforces the behavior and helps employees feel valued and appreciated.
Celebrations and events: Similar to public recognition, some individuals crave celebratory moments for work well done. For others, this may feel unnecessary.
Help your manager understand how you like to receive praise and be acknowledged when you do good work.
Through my journey in dealing with imposter syndrome, I've discovered how important it is to have a growth mindset. My growth mindset permits me to admit when I don't know something and be transparent with areas I need to improve. But I don't stop at just recognizing it. I also take the time to dig into areas that I want to learn and areas I want to improve. When I started color-coding my calendar, I added a label for 'person learning' to hold myself accountable for spending work hours every week learning.
Grab a pen and paper (or open a digital notepad). Write down the reasons why your imposter syndrome comes up. What triggers these feelings? Use this list as the areas you want to keep learning, growing, and practicing. Next, ask yourself how to keep learning through job experience and learning opportunities such as training or books. Share this list with your manager so they can help you find opportunities to support learning in these areas too.
Avoid comparing yourself to others.
Comparing yourself to others can be a root cause for feeling like an imposter. When you see others doing something in a way you don't know how, you may find yourself feeling bad and having negative self-talk. Instead, start by focusing on your strengths and superpowers. There are many things that I'm not good at (perhaps a future blog?) – some of which I want to improve actively and others I'm okay with not being good at. I'm not a typography expert, but I'm okay enough to make a beautiful presentation, and I work with enough experts in this that I could leverage when the work comes up. Instead, I focus on my superpowers and am grateful for those who make up for the areas I'm not good at.
I hope this helps. These are my tips for overcoming imposter syndrome:
You're not alone. Everyone feels like an imposter at some point.
Sometimes it just takes time and practice to reduce feeling like an imposter.
It's okay to ask for help. Find your allies and be transparent with them.
Be transparent with your manager and work with them to build up your confidence.
Ask for ongoing feedback both as areas to improve and praise when you are doing well as reassurance.
Don't. stop. learning.
Instead of comparing yourself to others, lean into your superpowers.
That’s all I have for today. Thanks for taking the time to read. I’d love to hear from you: What is your advice for overcoming imposter syndrome? You can comment publicly or reply directly to this email. If there’s a topic you’d like to read, drop me an email. If you’re finding this newsletter helpful, I’d be grateful if you share this with friends.