Confessions of a PM: 7 Ways to Disarm the Impostor Syndrome

(This post was originally published on ThinkApps, a modern product blog.)

No one ever admits they have the Impostor Syndrome when they are going through it. Like most mental battles, you’re in denial when it is happening. It’s something others can see in you, but to which you yourself are blind. Why? Because the crux of the Impostor syndrome is believing that you are less deserving, less competent, less worthy than anyone else. If you are the problem, why rat yourself out?

Impostor Syndrome is a slow and insidious force. It grows slowly, one doubt at a time, accumulates and compounds like debt, and creeps up on you when you least expect it. It usually emanates from a little voice that saids ,“You’re not good enough.” The inner critic. You can feel its onset like a panic attack, by the time you notice it is already too late. The same paralyzing force when you’re on the cusp of awake and half dreaming, conscious yet unable to move your body.

The Impostor Syndrome is real yet invisible.

For me, the Impostor Syndrome stems from a sense of feeling different. Feeling different leads to a sense of inadequacy. If you feel different enough times that feeling of not belonging is worse than a thousand paper cuts. Ellen Chisa, PM at Kickstarter, wrote about how she felt different eating lunch with dads. Something so small and innocuous can make you feel different and self-marginalized.

That’s what being different does. It makes you aware of your actions, and that you might be imposing. It’s so minor, but it adds up. — Ellen Chisa

The narrative we tell ourselves dictate the actions we take consciously and unconsciously.

I told myself a couple of narratives early on in childhood:
1. I am not good at math. I like words.
2. Confucius sucks. I am not good enough to be the perfect Asian child.
3. Computer games are not for me. They are for boys.

Labels become narratives and narratives become beliefs. Beliefs influence our subconscious actions. Mental barriers are often a byproduct of believing that we can’t do something.

I can cite countless studies corroborating the negative effects of Impostor Syndrome or Stereotype Threat, but that won’t help you. What matters is how you’re going to disarm the inner critic in you. Yes, only you can unblock yourself. Here are a couple of disarming mechanisms that have helped me:

  1. Talk back to your inner critic

The voice of the inner critic is the chorus of all the negative opinions — your mom, old managers, exes, teachers — they blend together as a cast of Debbie Downers. I try to counter every negative thought steming from insecurity and doubt with a positive one. If I think I can’t do something then I try to think of an experience when I did overcome my biggest hurdles. For example, remembering that I could run long distances during crew cross-training disproved that narrative that I was a sick child with a congenital heart condition.

2. Stop putting on labels

I called myself a “non-technical PM” up until recently. By putting an adjective modifying my role I unwittingly second guessed myself before others could. In special education, teachers do not call children “disabled children” but rather “children with disabilities”. Separate yourself from an intrinsic quality. At the end of the day, I am so much more than a “non-technical PM”. My mentor Lesley helped me disarm my non-technical PM complex, debunking the Myth of the Non-technical PM. A PM is a PM; you should not trivialize or qualify myself.

3. Leverage your strengths

The Imposter Syndrome likes to rear its head when you are struggling and feeling insecure. These situations arise when an outside stimulus taps at your weaknesses. See this as an opportunity to leverage your strengths. When I was working on a highly technical project outside of my technical breadth, I defaulted to my project management and cross-functional leadership strengths to add immediate value. In tennis, if you have a strong forehand, keep serving with a forehand instead of a backhand. Don’t ever underestimate the power of your strengths. Playing by your strengths will build the confidence necessary to tackle your weaknesses. For me, that was becoming more of project manager while ramping up on all the technical knowledge I needed to feel confident in meetings.

4. Fake it till you become it

The common misconception to overcoming Impostor Syndrome is “fake it till you make it.” It implies that one has to feign confidence in order to be successful. The truth is, in the process of acting more confident, you actually increase your performance. Positive thoughts build momentum and overcome Stereotype Threat. You are priming yourself to succeed in a difficult endeavor by acting like you can succeed. Funny logic because this is all emotional and mental. Visualize what success looks like and act like it is in front of you while you’re striving towards it. Future self will thank you.

In her TED talk on the importance of body language, Amy Cuddy notes that powerful people seem to expand and take up the room, whereas powerless people tend to contract. Before important meetings I find myself stretching for a couple of minutes in the bathroom, which helps me feel more confident and powerful. It may look and sound silly, but body posture actually signals the release of serotonins and standing upright oxygenates your brain. My coworkers know me well as the girl in warrior 1 pose at 3pm in the bathroom.

5. Talk to your biggest fan

Find that person who will always be your champion. No matter how bad things are he or she sees the silver lining in everything. That person whether a friend, parent, roommate, or significant other will be your north star. During my lowest points in life, I’ve found solace and positive affirmation in friends, roommates, and mentors who believed in me even when I stopped believing in myself. Hang onto those precious people.

6. Test your reality

Create a table with two columns. On the left column, write down all the worst case scenarios and on the right column write about the actual outcomes. This is a test on thoughts versus reality. Monitor how many of your worst fears become reality. I did this for two weeks and surprisingly none of them came true. This helped me see that I have a reality distortion field in my head. Mentally walking down a dark path before every endeavor prepares you for the worst, but don’t believe reality will unfold that way.

7. Be kind to yourself

At the end of the day, be kind to yourself. You are your own worst critic. Only you can make yourself feel like shit. No one else can so don’t be so hard on yourself.

And don’t forget… we are all works in progress.