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Imposter syndrome is fueled by self-doubt and the belief that the position we hold is one in which we are not qualified or deserving. When you are the kind of leader or individual contributor who brings new ideas to the market, you are, by definition, doing something that you have not done before. As women, we are conditioned to believe that we must have experience and expertise in something in order to take the job or run the project. That conditioning is fueled by the belief that women must be perfect.
Self-doubt is a common experience that many women face in the workplace, particularly in positions of leadership. Like many, I used to think that female C-suite executives and board directors were filled with confidence and self-belief and were in no way inflicted with imposter syndrome and the self-doubt that fuels it. After years of working with, studying, and being one of the few women in the highest ranks of business, I found the opposite is true.
Related: 5 Easy Ways You Can Turn Self-Doubt Into Success
It’s not that female executives don’t face imposter syndrome. We do. In fact, in a 2022 study conducted by KPMG, 75% of executive female research participants report having feelings of imposter syndrome throughout their careers; 81% believe that they put more pressure on themselves not to fail than their male counterparts do. What sets us up differently is how we have learned to combat imposter syndrome by turning our self-doubt into strategies waiting to happen. Of the several strategies that I have observed, there are six that women often use to manage and reduce self-doubt in the C-suite:
1. Acknowledge and accept your self-doubt
It’s important to recognize that self-doubt is a normal feeling and that everyone experiences it at some point. Acknowledge your doubts and accept that they are a natural part of the process of taking on new challenges. Leaders face unknowns every day. Confidence comes from the repetition of doing the same thing over and over again. Getting frustrated with yourself for your lack of confidence works against you. Instead, list out the concerns you have. For each concern, write a list of things you want — not need — to know, then create a plan of action to find the answers. This approach not only gets you out of your head, but it also creates momentum toward your goals.
2. Replace ‘fake-it-til-you-make it imposter mindset’
Ignore well-meaning fake-it-til-you-make-it advice. It perpetuates the belief that you are not enough. Leaders who embrace a growth mindset based on the belief that your abilities can be developed through hard work and dedication. Adjust your values to prioritize and favor curiosity over ego. Cultivate a learning mindset by seeking out specific feedback from trusted sources, learn from what is working and what is missing in the market, and constantly seek to improve your delivery and idea rather than trying to “fix” yourself. There is nothing wrong with you.
3. Build a support network
Surround yourself with supportive colleagues, mentors, and friends who can provide encouragement, offer guidance, and give honest and productive feedback. Seek out individuals who have experience and success in leadership roles and can provide advice and support as you navigate your own path. Do not look for cheerleaders who are unable to give you productive input into how to progress your idea or your career. You want positive support with pragmatic and strategic coaching in a way that enables you to test ideas and approaches in a safe place before trying them out in primetime.
Related: 10 Inspiring Women Entrepreneurs on Overcoming Self-Doubt and Launching Your Dream
4. Focus on your strengths
Recognize and embrace your unique skills, talents, and accomplishments. One of the best ways to hold a mirror up to see what you are good at is to ask friends, family, colleagues or mentors for their honest opinion about what they think your strengths are. Often, others can see qualities in us that we may not recognize in ourselves. As you take in this feedback, consider your accomplishments and what it took to find success, finding themes with the input of others. Finally, if you have not already, take an online assessment such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) or StrengthsFinder to help identify your cognitive and behavioral strengths and learn how they can best be used in consideration of other people’s styles and preferences.
5. Be on your own side
Someone once told me that you can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat waitstaff. The people who serve us are not in their roles to be treated rudely. The same goes for how you treat yourself. You have been through a lot and are going through a lot — every day. You are tough and can handle it. There’s no question. Make a choice to fire that self-inflicted micro-manager inside of your head. That same compassion you use toward waitstaff is the same compassion you deserve to use on yourself. Prioritize rest, exercise, healthy eating and other activities that help you feel energized and balanced. If you are tired, stop what you are doing and take a nap or go for a walk. The work will be there when you return. The world will not end if you shut down work early for the night. Treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer to a good friend. Be gentle with yourself, especially when you make mistakes.
6. Challenge your negative self-talk
This is a tough nut to crack. Isn’t it crazy how we believe our worst inner critic? We trash talk ourselves as a way to prepare for others who we believe are either thinking and/or telling us the same thing. Identify the negative self-talk that is contributing to your self-doubt and challenge those thoughts. Change your inner dialogue to separate yourself from your feelings. For example, try replacing “I can’t do this and everyone is going to find out” with “I have nervousness inside of me. Why is that nervousness there?” When you say it like that, you are able to create a healthy separation between your imposter self-talk and yourself. It’s also important to intentionally infuse positivity and passion in your life. Hang out with people you like and who like you. Have fun, laugh and try new things. Put yourself in positions where you enjoy being in your life. Cultivate positive energy for yourself and the people around you.
Overcoming imposter syndrome and self-doubt at any level requires practice. A lot of practice. Actively and intentionally build these steps into your everyday life. Over time, your ego-focused imposter syndrome inner voice will be replaced by a narrative of curiosity of what could be in the unknown pathway you are paving.
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