“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,”
- Eleanor Roosevelt
Isn’t that the truth? I love to apply this quote to imposter syndrome. If you can accept that the feeling of inferiority comes from the inside, then it follows that you can overcome it from the inside, too.
In my last piece, we established that imposter syndrome is far more common than you might imagine, and we covered two primary sources: feeling that we’re not as good as others and placing unreasonable expectations on ourselves.
So what can we do about it?
If you can accept that the feeling of inferiority comes from the inside, then it follows that you can overcome it from the inside, tooLet’s look at the first of those sources: feeling that you’re not as good as others around you.
Firstly, it is not your fault! We live in a comparison culture. From the age of five, we’re labelled “academic”, “sporty”, “arty”, “disruptive”. We're given school reports that tell us where we need to step up. We have tests, exams and competitions that very “factually” put us in our place compared to the rest of the field. We look at our peer group and assess their professional success against our own. We wonder at the beautiful people and Instagram influencers and can’t help but ponder the gap between how fashionable/beautiful/fit they are and our own realities.
It’s absolutely ingrained.
Inspired or intimidated?
Forgive me for showing my age a bit (a lot!) here, but I vividly remember the weekly ritual of watching Take Hart with friends when we were about 10. This was a TV programme where children submitted really fantastic drawings and paintings along with their age. Honestly, we all somehow thought that, if another 10-year-old had pretty much recreated the Mona Lisa and all we could manage was a scribbly bonfire (my masterpiece of choice), then we were total artistic failures. We used the “a ten-year-old can draw this” as our yardstick of what we SHOULD have been able to do.
But how many 10-year-olds can draw the Mona Lisa? Not that many.
And yet I don’t attempt to draw to this day.
I don’t suppose I’m alone. What may inspire some, will intimidate others.
Maybe you had a little brother that was always “the sporty one”. So you didn’t try that hard at P.E. because you were never going to be as good?
Or perhaps you’ve just come out of a meeting where you thought everyone else was cleverer than you and would just roll their eyes if you opened your mouth. So you kept schtum and left the room thinking “that’s an hour of my life I won’t get back”.
The trouble is, if you do that too often, people will stop asking you to join those meetings. They’ll stop giving you opportunities in favour of those who are speaking up and adding value. And eventually you get passed over for promotions and pay rises.
So what can we do to ensure imposter syndrome doesn’t hold you back?
1. Be kind to yourself
We compare ourselves to the wrong people. We don't use the whole field, just a subset of people who look like they're doing brilliantly.
The voice in our heads says: “I should be like that, I should be able to do this by now, why can’t I do that?”
But we wouldn’t say that to someone else because it would be demonstrably demotivating. A good manager would ask for high standards but do it in a way that's supportive, achievable and acts to motivate.
We usually give other people the benefit of the doubt that we don’t offer to ourselves. So that’s my first piece of advice: be kinder to yourself and become a decent self-manager.
2. Recognise when you’re playing the comparison game
When did you last walk into a room and rank everyone in it? We all do it, mostly on autopilot.
But knowledge is power. So become conscious of doing it. Make a mental or physical note every time you play the comparison game and come off worse. Ask yourself: is that helpful for me?
Believe it or not, if you can see that it’s unhelpful, that’s a spectacularly useful starting point. You can then choose not to play the comparison game that time. And one time becomes many times until the autopilot stops the game altogether.
3. Stop comparing your insides with other people’s outsides
Couldn’t she see that inside I was a quivering wreck, desperate for approval, terrified of failure?For me, the penny started to drop years ago when I was an account manager in a tech agency. At the end of a meeting about a fairly significant launch our client said to me: “Well this should all be straightforward Emma. I can’t imagine anything phasing you.”
I was absolutely struck dumb. Couldn’t she see that inside I was a quivering wreck, desperate for approval, terrified of failure? Clearly not! And yet it took years of this kind of comment for me to realise that the outside Emma was giving a great account of herself that the inside Emma could only dream of.
This is happening all the time. You're seeing outwardly confident people and, if you're feeling insecure, you'll tell yourself they aren't feeling out of their depth like you. I'm willing to bet good money that most of the time they are. You simply can't judge by their outsides.
4. Become aware of the way in which you externalise success
Marketing and PR/comms people tend to externalise success: it’s not enough to say to ourselves that we’ve done a good job; we need someone else to say so.
Yet we’re actually rather good at setting KPIs. So, as well as setting the usual KPIs at the start of a campaign or project, try setting a few extra personal ones that sit within your control. You can't control the outcome so, although most decent campaign metrics should be based on the results, set yourself some private action-related metrics where you do have control. Ask yourself: "how can I measure my own success here? What do I need to show that I've done in order to convince myself that I've tried my best?"
Over time, this process helps to redress the balance between self-validation and external validation. Unfortunately, it does take a bit of time to internalise success so please don't give up!
5. See yourself how others see you
And finally, it’s normally pretty hard to see how you’re viewed but one thing that can help is to get a colleague, friend or co-conspirator to write your professional bio, even if no one else is going to see it.
get a colleague, friend or co-conspirator to write your professional bio, even if no one else is going to see itYou know how hard it can be if you’re getting your CV together or need to pull a speaker bio together. Doing it yourself, if you suffer even a tiny bit of imposter syndrome, can feel like an exercise in BS. Yet often, if you can ask someone you trust to do a mini interview and create a bio that covers your career, skills and highlights, you’ll get the chance to see the professional version of yourself that others see.
This helps, I promise. And when you get it, for goodness sake read it and acknowledge it: “This is me.” Hide it in a drawer and peek at it if you need to. Keep a copy on your phone and check it out when you start to get that sinking feeling.
Unrealistic expectations – coming up in part 2
I really hope the advice here is useful. I’ve got bags more “stuff”, if so! And the next logical step is to look at ways of overcoming imposter syndrome when its root is in your own impossible standards, so I’ll tackle that in my next piece.
In the meantime, let me know what you think. Have you used any of these techniques? Have they helped? How have you been labelled and what were the effects?