Recently, I was talking to a really good friend whom I have known for years. She is a high capacity leader and the true definition of a “boss.” She was offered the opportunity to step into an interim role as CEO at her non-profit organization. I was shocked when she told me that she just did not think she was going to be any good at being a CEO. She said, “How in the world could I step into this role?” All I could think was, “How could you not?” She is overly qualified and has been working for the organization for many years. After this conversation, I found myself reflecting on times when I experienced similar feelings of inadequacy. I realized that everyone, even the most qualified leaders among us, have told ourselves the lie of inadequacy.
This lie of inadequacy is called imposter syndrome. According to Harvard Business Review, imposter syndrome is “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.”
What causes these feelings of insecurity in our life in situations where we are perfectly capable of success? I find for myself that the feelings of insecurity creep up the most when I’m not taking time to identify why I’m feeling inadequate. Here are four reflection questions to help you identify and overcome imposter syndrome:
- What are the feelings of inadequacy that I’m feeling?
Start by naming your feelings. You may find that you are comparing yourself to your boss or colleague. Maybe you are comparing yourself to a friend or someone on social media. Maybe you are doubting your intellect, personality type, or ability. Write down your feelings and reflect on why you are experiencing them.
- What do I know to be true?
There is a story you are telling yourself, and then there is the truth. The story you are telling yourself is likely full of doubt and apprehension. The truth is that you have overcome challenges your whole life. When you write down what you know to be true, you’ll likely find that you have already faced (and overcome) something similar in your life. What do you know to be true about your past success? What do you know to be true when you have faced the unknown before? Did you survive? The answer is a resounding yes. Remember what is true.
- What goals can I set to measure real success?
I recently had a meeting with a client who asked me, “Are you winning, Holly?” The question caught me off guard because I usually don’t think about my life in terms of whether I am winning or losing. I realized that the only way I could answer the question “Are you winning?” was to know what winning would actually look like in my life. Without setting goals that are measurable, we can’t know whether we are succeeding or not. We are always going to feel inadequate if we haven’t set benchmarks of success for ourselves. So, what would winning look like for you? Write down what winning looks and then ask yourself if you’re setting up your life to win. Remember that our vision for winning needs to be a personal one, and not just one you’re borrowing from someone else or from the culture at large. For Christian education leaders, this means reflecting deeply on, and then integrating, your faith and values as you do this exercise.
- What feedback would help me know if I’m winning?
Once we have goals in place, we need to create feedback loops in our lives that help us know if we are winning. This should not look like asking for constant affirmation. We should not be fishing for compliments in order to feel affirmed. Instead, ask for real and candid feedback. You will receive real and candid feedback when you ask questions based on specific measures of success in your performance. Ask questions like, “Could you please share with me the best thing that I did in that meeting?” Or, “How can I improve [specific thing] in the future?” I encourage you to do this on a regular basis. You will find that the feedback you receive will often affirm your gifts rather than discourage you, like the story your insecurities want you to believe. This is true for outside of work as well. Ask your spouse and closest friends for regular feedback as well if personal goals are a part of what you wrote down under the answer to question #3 above.
Every leader should put these four reflection questions in her toolkit to take with her every day. As you run your business or work within your organization, these are going to be immensely helpful to you for battling imposter syndrome.
Now that you know the questions to ask yourself, you can start developing daily habits to resist feelings of inadequacy. I encourage you to adopt these four daily rhythms to help combat imposter syndrome before it gets ahead of you:
I know. Who has time to journal every day? I thought the same thing before I started journaling after joining a coaching group last May. Our coach suggested that we try journaling one page every morning. We were told to write whatever was on our mind, stream of consciousness. At first, I thought it was an exhausting exercise. But when I realized the journal was a tool for brain dumping, and not only meant for emotional release (like I expected it to be), I was pleasantly surprised. It was a time and a place for me to write anything that was on my mind, start building my to do list, and mentally process any stress I woke up with that day. Journaling has become a great tool for me to unpack the day ahead. I have experienced a dramatic change in the stress I carry into each day. Journaling has become the best way for me to recognize and name feelings of imposter syndrome as I start my day.
Keep a folder on your phone, desktop, or Google drive of photos/screenshots with words of encouragement you have received from others. Save texts, emails, or Slack messages with feedback that has meant something to you. In those moments where you are feeling imposter syndrome, go back and reflect on the data. You have made an impact on the people around you. These notes of encouragement remind you that you are winning, you’re making an impact, and to keep going.
Staying humble and eager to learn is a great way to overcome imposter syndrome. When we are working toward something and can see progress, we’re more likely to have grace with ourselves as we grow and develop. What class can you enroll in today? What online course can you join? What coaching group can you be a part of that will challenge you to grow? Join a community of other women who are learning and growing, and you’ll soon realize that no one has it all together, and we’re all just figuring it out as we go. Having an insatiable curiosity allows us to be further equipped for the unknown every day.
When you are having that moment where you are thinking, “I am not qualified for this,” recognize it, and then go encourage another female leader in your life. Send them a note or a text telling them how impressed you are with them and their leadership. If you are investing in other women leaders in your life, you will find that your own imposter syndrome will not feel like the burden it did before. Every time I have received a text like this, it was exactly in a moment when I needed it. If we can share and empower other women around us, we will be empowered as well.
When imposter syndrome creeps in, practice these reflection questions and daily rhythms to help you recenter on what you know to be true about yourself and the world around you. You got this!
Note: This post was originally published in March 2021.