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How to Keep Imposter Syndrome from Holding You Back

Confession time: I have roughly 20 years of experience in human resources, including director-level positions. I have a master’s degree in HR Development, a SHRM-SCP certification, I'm a Certified Professional Coach (CPC), and I teach at Georgia Tech. Yet, there are days when I still feel like an imposter in my work.

I’m not sharing this to brag about my credentials (though I am proud of them) but to make a point: no matter how hard you work or how much you achieve, no one is immune to imposter syndrome. Just ask Michelle Obama, Tom Hanks, or Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Imposter syndrome describes the internal belief that you're less competent than others perceive you to be — a feeling that’s all too familiar to many of us. It's akin to an uninvited party guest perched on your shoulder, whispering that you're a fraud, and attributing your achievements to luck, timing, or the ability to fool people. Imposter syndrome is relentless; no amount of success or external recognition will shut it up. So, it’s up to you to mount your own internal defenses against this unwelcome interloper.

The impact of imposter syndrome

While imposter syndrome is harmful to our mental well-being, it can also be detrimental to our professional growth. When left unchecked, it can lead to: 

  1. Procrastination and Burnout: The fear of not meeting others’ expectations and your own sky-high, self-imposed standards can result in chronic procrastination, leading to stress and burnout.

  2. Underperformance: Constant self-doubt erodes your confidence, causing you to underperform and resulting in a vicious cycle that can derail your career. 

  3. Stagnation: Avoiding challenges and new roles out of fear of failure can lead your career to stagnate and prevent personal and professional development.

  4. Anxiety and Depression: Relentless self-criticism can contribute to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

I’m no stranger to imposter syndrome. One standout example is when I was approached to take on the senior role of Benefits Director at a large company, despite having no prior experience in benefits. Imposter syndrome immediately questioned who I thought I was to oversee health and welfare, retirement, voluntary benefits, and well-being programs for over 24,000 employees and their dependents.

Dealing with imposter syndrome was the last thing I needed in a stretch role, and I knew overcoming self-criticism was crucial to my success. Fortunately, I had a supportive leader, and I took my own steps to banish imposter syndrome and protect my career. Here’s how I tackled it (and still do!):

Practical tips to overcome imposter syndrome

Acknowledge Your Feelings The first step in combating imposter syndrome is recognizing and acknowledging it. Understand that’s a common experience – just ask pretty much any high-achiever! – and doesn’t reflect your actual abilities or achievements. Keeping track of your thoughts in a journal or even the Notes app on your phone can help you identify patterns and triggers, and make it easier to address them.

Reframe Negative Thoughts Challenge your negative self-talk by reframing your thoughts. Instead of thinking, "I am not good enough," shift it to, "I am learning and growing." This might feel a bit Tony Robbins-esque at first (don’t worry, no fire walking seminars here!), but it’s a science-based cognitive behavioral technique. Swapping out irrational thoughts for evidence-based affirmations can help shift your mindset and boost your confidence.

Celebrate Your Achievements Regularly take stock of your accomplishments, no matter how small. Create a "success file" to document positive feedback, completed projects, and milestones. I call my Outlook folder the “You Kick A**” folder and it comes in super handy when completing a performance self-evaluation or going to pitch myself for a project. Reviewing your work achievements provides a tangible reminder of your capabilities and progress, giving you ammunition to silence imposter syndrome.

Set Realistic Goals – and Celebrate Along the Way When imposter syndrome strikes, break down large projects into smaller, manageable tasks. Set realistic and achievable goals to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Build momentum and confidence by celebrating along the way—whether it's a coffee break after sending an important email or some well-deserved R&R after completing a big project.

Seek Support Imposter syndrome is widespread, which means you're not alone! Discussing your feelings with trusted friends, colleagues, mentors, therapists, or coaches can provide valuable perspective and reassurance. It’s easy to assume anyone successful has never had a moment of self-doubt, but I’ve found that sharing honestly about my experiences has sparked meaningful conversations and strengthened connections with others facing similar challenges. I can also tell you that this is a common topic in coaching so you’re not alone!

Develop a Growth Mindset Embracing a growth mindset means understanding that mistakes are part of reaching for stretch goals. It's about believing that abilities and skills can be developed through effort and persistence. A growth mindset fosters continuous learning, resilience, and a positive attitude towards challenges, and can reduce anxiety about failure.

Limit Comparisons Social media makes it all too easy to compare our messy, human selves to others' carefully curated personas. Resist this urge by focusing on your individual path and progress. I struggled with this early on when I made the leap into consulting, and it helped to remind myself that everyone has their own journey with different strengths and weaknesses and that we’re all on our own unique timelines with unique definitions of success.

Practice Self-Compassion Despite what your internal imposter syndrome heckler may say, you deserve kindness. Try treating yourself with the same compassion and understanding you would offer a friend in a similar situation. Self-compassion can help reduce the harsh self-criticism that fuels imposter syndrome. When your inner bully starts talking, ask yourself, "Would I ever say that to anyone else?"

Seek Out Professional Development You don’t have to know everything. Life (and your career) is long. Make time for professional development, networking, or working with a coach. Building your skills and knowledge can enhance your confidence and competence. Attend workshops, pursue certifications, or join professional networks to stay updated and connected in your field. My favorite - find a few quality newsletters and spend intentional time weekly benefiting from the curation of ideas and articles.

You don’t need to be an expert on everything all at once. Invest in continuous professional development — attend workshops, pursue certifications, or engage with professional networks. These efforts will boost your confidence and competence, keeping you informed and connected in your field throughout your career.

As much as I’d like to offer a quick fix for imposter syndrome, I’ve found it’s more of an ongoing practice. For me, it surfaces every time I don’t close a proposal and my mind starts racing: Did I say something wrong? Did I overestimate my worth? Should I have worn a different blouse that day? (No, no, and no!) Remember, feeling like an imposter often means you’re stretching yourself and taking on new challenges—both signs of growth. To the extent you can, embrace the discomfort as part of your journey toward success. Use it to fuel your determination and don't forget to look back once in a while to see how far you've come.


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