Life coaching expert Tal Fagin responds to a professional who received a promotion but feels undeserving of it. She offers a handful of tools to deal with the self-doubt and to bolster self-confidence.
I recently got a big promotion at work. I was initially thrilled, excited to take on new challenges and nearly ecstatic about this clear vote of confidence in my work and my value to the company. The high lasted all of 3 seconds, quickly replaced by an all-too-familiar feeling of inadequacy and dread.
You know you’re not nearly as capable as they think you are. You keep managing to fool them, but how much longer can it last? Don’t screw this up or they’re finally going to find you out!
I have been successful throughout my life, yet have regularly struggled with this background fear of imminent failure and humiliating exposure. Back at school, I was certain I would bomb every exam, despite a lifetime of academic achievement. When I began my career at a selective and competitive company, I was convinced everyone else truly belonged, but that I was undeserving of the position. I expected the feeling to fade as I gained seniority and experience, but clearly, it hasn’t.
What is this all about, and how can I put it to rest and finally learn to own my accomplishments?
Dear Feeling Inadequate,
The feelings you describe might be easily confused with simple self-doubt, but they are actually common enough to warrant their own special name. I generally don’t like to diagnose from a distance, but it sounds like you might be suffering from imposter syndrome.
It’s the dirty little secret of high-achievers everywhere. Famous actors, world-renowned writers, high-level executives—countless people we look up to and admire have gone on record as feeling like undeserving frauds just waiting to be exposed.
I assure you, you are in excellent company.
What is this all about, you ask?
Experts are divided as to the causes of imposter syndrome. It could be nature (some of us are more prone to anxiety or neuroticism than others), it could be nurture (nothing we ever did as children felt good enough to please demanding parents). Most likely, it is some complex combination of factors involving both our biology and our life’s experiences, together with some hard-wired, evolutionary survival instincts.
Whatever the causes, it is one heady cocktail of insecurity and shame.
You seek to “put it to rest and finally learn to own” your accomplishments. Unfortunately, no level of external achievement permanently mutes the You-Are-A-Fraud voice. The good news, however, is there are a number of tools you can use to turn down the volume, ease the stress of those dreaded moments and generally bolster your self-confidence.
I invite you to try the following:
Practice Pausing and Befriend Your Breath. When you catch yourself slipping into that “all-too-familiar feeling of inadequacy and dread,” simply pause and breathe. Take a deep inhale, letting your belly inflate and your lungs fill. Hold it for a moment, then let out a long, slow exhale. Repeat this again and again, focusing on the in breath and out breath, until you feel yourself settling down. Negative thinking activates the body’s fight or flight response. Deep, deliberate breathing activates the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, and can be your best friend in any tense or stressful situation. (Adopting a regular meditation practice will make this more instinctive and effective—while also helping with just about anything else you can think of. This practice of pausing and breathing will work in a pinch.)
Acknowledge and Investigate. Take care not to judge yourself too harshly for those insecure thoughts. Remember, we all have them. Recognize and accept them as a normal part of being human, rather than trying to shove them away or allowing them to take over. What we resist tends to persist. Instead, acknowledge your feelings, allow them momentarily, then get curious. Why does an upcoming exam or your reputation at work trigger such fear? Would one “screw up” forever tarnish your record of success? What exactly are they “finally going to find … out” about you? On some level, you are likely telling yourself you are not up to the job, not worthy of their confidence and possibly just not that smart. Whatever your investigation uncovers, my guess is, it won’t stand up against more thorough questioning. This is your opportunity to focus on the evidence.
Focus on the Evidence. You cite a long history of achievement. You did well in school. You were accepted by a “selective and competitive” firm. You just received a promotion. This is all solid evidence that you are capable, not inadequate, that you are an asset, not a massive liability waiting to happen.
What successes have you had? What smart choices have you made? How have you been value-added to your firm? The brain loves to go negative (it feels safer), but I am sure they gave you that promotion for a reason. Make a written list of your many accomplishments, and keep it handy. Pull it out—literally or mentally—whenever that familiar dread rears up.
The 3 P’s. What are some Positive, Pride-Worthy and Powerful things about you? These may overlap with the written list referenced above, but should also go further. Think beyond the office. Reflect upon your relationships, your contributions to your community or anything you value about yourself. People who suffer from imposter syndrome often attribute their success to luck, or having fooled everyone into thinking they are worthy. Human beings are programmed to scan for problems and control for weaknesses. In the process, we rarely celebrate our strengths. You can counter this tendency by setting aside a little time each day—while brushing your teeth, commuting to work or whenever you like—to acknowledge your many wonderful qualities. Making this a regular practice can actually change the structure of your brain, making those imposter thoughts less reflexive, while generally bolstering your ability to think confident thoughts.
Find a Friend. I understand the pressures to look the part and inspire confidence, and I also know the toll feeling like a fraud can take. I remember my earliest days practicing law, feeling like a kid playing dress up, never sure I knew what I was doing. I was determined to act the part of the competent, capable attorney, while keeping my doubts and insecurities to myself. As a coach, I work with a number of stressed out lawyers, many of whom struggle with similar feelings. They swear that the only way to get by is adopting a “fake it till you make it” attitude, a sentiment I remember all too well from those early days of practice. Fortunately, I figured out the futility of this early on, and found the confidence to be more honest with a few colleagues and trustworthy mentors. Their support was invaluable. Confessing to those feelings of inadequacy (expressed in a professional and appropriately measured manner, of course) opened up pathways to conversation and gave me the freedom I needed to start asking questions and taking on new risks and challenges.
Might you be willing to find someone you trust—whether friend, colleague or even a higher up—and share some of your worries? Might you be willing to request a review or seek constructive feedback? Who gave you the promotion and what conversation might you have about why they trusted you or what their expectations might be? If that feels too scary, who else in your life might you lean on to get some positive reassurance?
Carrot or Stick? Given your admission of a lifetime of success, you might be tempted to thank your imposter voice for keeping you motivated. Imposter syndrome is just another iteration of the inner critic, whose primary job is to protect you, to ensure your survival and even provide a competitive advantage. Feelings of inadequacy and fear of “humiliating exposure” are techniques our minds use to keep us terrified, pushing us harder and harder to succeed.
Fear can fuel you, but too much of it can be draining, and in the extreme, even self-sabotaging. I would urge you to try another way. Redirect the energy spent worrying if you are good enough, and give yourself permission to go deeper, to access your true motivations. What do you really want to accomplish? Free from any fear of failure or embarrassment, might you still pursue excellence just for its own sake?
Go back to that 3 second high. Close your eyes and linger in that place, where you feel excited and proud. Luxuriate in those positive feelings, notice how it all feels in your body.
Try pursuing your work—and your—life from that place. Trust in your efforts, experience and skills. Acknowledge your weaknesses or any mistakes you have made, but don’t let them define you. Learn from them, take ownership of them, but maintain a larger perspective. Celebrate your successes, and make sure to take ownership of those, too.
Best of luck to you, Feeling Inadequate. I look forward to hearing about your next big promotion!