Rachel walked into her office building full of excitement. She stopped to stare at her name on the wall of her new office, but it still didn’t seem real that it was there. As she turned the corner, she knew that she would see what many other leaders in the company had in their offices: a big desk and credenza made of this beautiful cherry wood, two chairs and a white board hidden inside of doors made of the same wood. The bookcase that would hold her books and give her a place to put the pictures of her family on top of it. All of this was now hers! She had worked so hard and it had finally paid off with the promotion that she just received. So why did she close the door to her new office and feel like there must be some mistake?
She felt like the same person, but people were treating her differently. Somehow having the title and an office made everyone assume that she had joined some secret management club and had all the answers now. She felt so much pressure. Instead of enjoying this moment, all the messages that were showing up in her head were full of self-doubt: “I can’t believe they gave me this job; I am not ready for this yet. What happens when they find out I don’t know what I am doing? I am going to fail, and everyone will know I am just an impostor.” Would she meet the expectations that everyone else had of her and that she had of herself?
What Rachel is experiencing is very common. Starting something new tends to bring about thoughts of excitement, but also brings in self-doubt. What type of thinking did you have the last time you started something new? Were the thoughts positive and full of confidence or were they negative and filled with self-doubt? For some people it is probably a mixture of both. Unfortunately, overachievers tend to focus on the negative thoughts amidst all the positive ones. Why does this happen?
It happens when you seek out external validation from others to give you a sense of how you are doing. It may have started in your childhood when girls used to be raised to keep quiet, not have strong opinions or speak out. When you did what was expected of you, you received positive reinforcement from your parents, teachers and once you entered the workforce from your managers. You figured out how to fit in and follow the rules. Basically, you got the message that you needed to be perfect. No one explained that perfection is an illusion and unattainable.
The need to seek out positive reinforcement took hold of you at that young age and you didn’t even realize it. Unfortunately, it isn’t something you grow out of and now it is showing up as impostor syndrome for you as an adult. Impostor syndrome was first identified back in 1978 in the article “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes, who highlighted how this challenge impacts over achieving women who are just trying to fit in and be perfect.
Impostor syndrome keeps you stuck, feeling like you don’t belong and full of self-doubt. It can show up in different ways depending on the person. Do you compare yourself to others and feel like you aren’t good enough? Procrastinate or self-sabotage to avoid being criticized? Are you a people pleaser or do you break your boundaries to make others happy at the cost of your own happiness? Do people diminish you or your work and you don’t say anything? Do you put on a mask and become what everyone else wants you to be?
The best way to eliminate impostor syndrome is by being aware of how it shows up for you and shining a light on it. Question the thoughts you have before automatically believing them. Are they true? What could be different if you didn’t believe those self-doubts and those negative thoughts didn’t exist for you anymore?
Just imagine all the possibilities that you could reach without your self-critic getting in the way. You could focus on what you think and not give power to what others think. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “no one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” Choose the stories that you believe about yourself and see how that impacts how you show up. You have so much potential and what you have to offer is amazing. Give yourself permission to trust yourself and shine bright. It will take time to shift your thinking, but nothing will hold you back from achieving your dreams unless you let it.
Susan M. Barber is an ICF certified executive coach and consultant. She helps high-performing, high-achieving leaders successfully navigate challenges, build confidence, advance their careers, achieve success and reach new possibilities.Prior to becoming a coach, Susan spent 20+ years in a Fortune 200 global organization as a Business Leader and IT Director. She discovered how transformational coaching could be as she went through a journey of self-discovery, which led her to become a coach herself.
She loves to work with teams in their organizations, help them creatively solve their business challenges and coach them to be authentic leaders. Her superpowers are creating trust quickly and building meaningful connections with people. Her mission is to help leaders to lead themselves and their teams with confidence, integrity, authenticity and courage. She is the author of an upcoming book titled, The Visibility Factor. Susan is married with three children and lives in the Northern Suburbs of Chicago.
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