Many years ago, in another professional life as a grain trader, I was at the top of my game. I wasn’t the envy of my peers, per se, but there were some who expressed admiration for my accomplishments, among them, my boss.
I liked that. It’s comforting and encouraging when you can be an inspiration of sorts to young leaders who aspire to go where you are. Yet, when I was alone with my thoughts, I felt like a fraud — someone playing the part of a leader. Secretly, I had a lot of doubts. Did I really know anything about my area of expertise? Maybe it was all a fluke. I worried: When will the jig be up? When will that infamous shoe drop, and I’m exposed for the fraud that I am?
If you’ve ever felt like this, you might be suffering from imposter syndrome, and you’re not alone. Some 1 in 3 U.S. employees, roughly 32 percent, or up to 70 percent of the population have battled imposter syndrome at some time or other.
But yes — you do deserve your success. For some, experience and career maturity help to cement the idea that. For others, it takes a bit of work. I had to do a bit of work, some self-reflection, but I eventually came to believe that I fit right in at the top.
What’s the problem?
Imposter syndrome, or imposter phenomenon, is a form of intellectual self-doubt. Suzanne Imes, Ph.D., and Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D. first described the condition in 1978, and back then people figured it was a woman’s thing — typical, right? But that has since been disproved — it occurs in men and women.
Imposter syndrome occurs in high achievers — though not exclusively — who have a hard time believing they deserve their success. They feel like frauds and commonly contribute their success to good timing, coincidence, or even pure luck. Imposter syndrome often goes hand in hand with anxiety, and the person suffers in silence, waiting to be outed as a phony despite there being no real evidence to sustain this belief.
Experiencing imposter syndrome is quite common. Albert Einstein and Meryl Streep both had it. Einstein feared his work wasn’t worth all the fuss, and believe it or not, Meryl Streep didn’t think she could act. Ridiculous, right?
Luckily, there are things you can do to move past imposter syndrome and genuinely appreciate your success. More importantly, you can do things to ensure this common feeling doesn’t actively derail your career.
It’s no longer a man’s world.
I was once a young commodity trader, and there were few women in my field or company at my level. As you can imagine, my male peers had quite a bit of fun at my expense. It was also a highly stressful, complicated position.
As the Baltimore-based general manager, trader, and logistics guru for an ocean-going, vessel loading, major grain export facility, I managed a three-shift facility, traded grain, and transported it from the Midwest to the east coast. It was a logistical nightmare running eight, 100-car trains to our small facility, loading ships that would sail the world, all under time constraints.
I often had moments of sheer panic and I wondered, what am I doing? Do I even have a clue about this whole thing? I worked every day, around the clock, eventually “moving” into my office at the facility so as not to miss a thing. Then, even after the program proved highly successful, I still thought, “Well, anyone could have probably done it.”
Turns out, anyone could not have done it as well as I did it; I understood my job quite well. On the other hand, I didn’t have a clue that I was suffering from imposter syndrome.
You can move on from your angst.
All these years later, it’s still a relief to share that I moved past this, and so can you. However, first, you have to admit a few things. In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of it, Dr. Valerie Young, who has spent decades studying imposter syndrome, identified five subgroups for it. They are:
1. The Perfectionist: Sets excessively high goals
2. The Superwoman/man: Works harder to measure up
3. The Natural Genius: Has high goals, works hard but wants success on the first try
4. The Soloist: Independent, can’t ask for help for fear of exposure
5. The Expert: Fears they will never know enough
Of course, these are extremely brief descriptors for Dr. Young’s subgroups, but do you see yourself in any of them? Identification is often the first step in determining if you are experiencing imposter syndrome.
I was the Superwoman, and my epiphany came when I was asked to be a mentor to a newly minted grain trader. As I taught him our trade, I realized just how much I actually knew. It was eye-opening for me — I really did know my stuff. I was pretty good at it! If you have the desire and the opportunity and think you might be suffering from imposter syndrome, become a mentor, it might help you more than them.
Face the truth. You’re great!
I left grain trading behind many years ago, and now I’m an international cultural consultant and etiquette expert. Yes, I’m an expert, and I coach people who, while not necessarily suffering from imposter syndrome, may not have adequate confidence. A good tip to either help you overcome imposter syndrome, to build your confidence, or both is to take a good look into your toolbox. Inside you will find all the tools that you need to wield confidently.
How are your communication skills? Do others understand what you say and what you mean? Are you present when you listen? Are you persuasive, creative, a good problem solver? Do you make things happen? If you’re reading this, I imagine you do. You are probably a high achiever, and you simply could not have gotten to where you are without good communication skills. Keep looking. I’m sure there are many tools of confidence in your toolbox. Be honest with yourself, and acknowledge your best features.
Another good tip is to talk to someone. Perhaps you have someone in your career whom you admire, who was helpful, perhaps a mentor. Reach out. Listen to what they have to say about you and about your career. It might be a pleasant conversation to hear how well you’ve done from a senior colleague you trust. However, if you can’t shake persistent feelings of self-doubt, it might be a good idea to contact a professional, a therapist, or psychologist. They can help you to work through them and process them appropriately.
As an etiquette expert, my final advice to you is my advice to everyone: Be respectful, be thoughtful, and always, be kind — especially to yourself. You work hard, and you deserve it. So, don’t hesitate to remind yourself that, “You’re great!”
Thank you for reading!
Heidi Dulebohn is an international cultural consultant and etiquette expert. To learn more about her or to get in contact with her, please visit www.heididulebohn.com.