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How Impostor Syndrome Sabotages Your Career Success

By Julian Lewis May 17, 2022

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Impostor syndrome wears a lot of different masks, but all of them are pretty similar: you have feelings of inadequacy and feel like a fraud. You think that other people are better than you and excellent at what they do while you're the one faking things.

These thoughts can lead to having zero confidence in your abilities and feeling like everything will fall apart because of your fear of being exposed. The fear then puts you into a cycle of procrastination and avoidance, affecting your mental health.

If you feel like an impostor, you're not alone; it's a more common problem than you think. How you respond to your feelings of insecurity is the differentiator in how you move onward and upward.

Here are some insights on impostor syndrome and simple strategies to take you out of the negative cycle and have you crushing it in your career.

Why Impostor Syndrome Sets In

Impostor Syndrome was discovered in 1978 by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. Although the long-time belief has been that women suffer from it more than men, recent studies discuss the prevalence, predictors, and treatment of Imposter Syndrome and found it's just as rampant in men and spans all age groups.

Studies estimate that 70% of people will suffer from at least one episode of impostor syndrome at some point in their life.

High achievers and people of color are more likely to suffer due to family upbringing with pressure to succeed or coming from an environment with high conflict and low support.

The Triggers

One trigger for impostor syndrome is a significant change like a move or a new job/school. These experiences can make you question whether you can handle the change or new responsibilities.

Memories from childhood experiences can come into play as well. Perhaps as a young student, a teacher criticized your work, or your parents constantly compared you with your siblings.

The impostor syndrome phenomenon is not an official diagnosis or considered a disorder but typically coexists with anxiety, depression, social anxiety disorder, and low self-esteem.

The Race Factor

For those of us from communities of color, growing up, we often heard things like, "you will have to work twice as hard to prove yourself because of your skin color" or "you will see less of us and more of them the higher your rise."

Statements like these are meant as words of wisdom but ultimately create limiting beliefs ingrained in our subconscious and generational behavior patterns.

We're also more likely to feel the added pressure because we may lack financial resources and emotional support to attend college or pursue a passion, or perhaps we're the first to graduate.

Combine these experiences with those in the workplace where we may be the minority and regularly deal with microaggressions or racism. We now have the perfect recipe for Impostor Syndrome Kool-Aid.

The Masks: Five Types of Imposter Syndrome

#1 The Perfectionist has exceptionally high standards, and anything less than perfect is a failure. The fear of failure is a primary driver of their achievement process.

#2 The Natural Genius believe they can do everything with ease and grace. They've failed if they struggle to figure something out or can't do it quickly.

#3 The Expert never feels qualified or experienced enough and will over-prepare for the task at hand.

#4 The Soloist believes they should be able to do everything alone, and the word help is another word for failure. In their mind, turning down support defines their self-worth.

#5 The Superwoman, Superman, Superperson is about juggling and excelling at as many roles as humanly possible and then beating themselves up if they fall short in any capacity. They have a hard time saying no, are often considered people-pleasers, and take care of everyone else but themselves.

Do you have imposter syndrome? Take this quiz to learn which type you are.

The Self-Sabotage Pattern

If you suffer from imposter syndrome, it will inevitably rear its ugly head in the form of self-sabotage (also known as self-handicapping). Your brain exaggerates the risk in an attempt to protect your ego and self-esteem at any cost to avoid responsibility for your failures.

Here are some ways it will show up and hold you back from success in your career.

  • You may perceive constructive criticism from a boss or colleague as an attack causing you to be defensive or avoidant of meaningful conversations that can help you grow. Coupled with your own self-criticism, it will lead you down the rabbit hole of negative self-talk.

  • Constant overpreparation for a new job, promotion, or project will keep you from other important things that need your time and attention.

  • Not stepping into vulnerability and asking for help when needed may come off as you are not a team player or cause you to feel overwhelmed and anxious by taking on more workload than necessary.

  • Self-doubt, procrastination, and fear of success will hold you back from applying for jobs or promotions.

  • You will attribute your success to luck or timing versus your abilities because you constantly believe other people are more qualified or deserving than you which will prevent you from celebrating your accomplishments.

  • Not believing in your abilities and feeling like you don't deserve to be where you are will put you in a never-ending cycle of feeling like you always have to prove yourself.

What to Do When You Feel Like a Fraud

There is no official treatment, but the good news is you CAN overcome impostor syndrome. It will take self-awareness, self-evaluation, bravery, and patience. Try mindful leadership coaching or any of these mindfulness strategies to help you rewire your brain and get out of your own way.

Feel the feelings and take notes.

There is valuable data available for you when you're all up in your feelings. Pay attention when procrastinating, avoiding, or feeling like a fraud. Do you see any patterns in your triggers or behavior?

For example, in my early days of entrepreneurship, I noticed every time we were coming up on a significant milestone that would advance the company, I procrastinated or avoided the tasks I needed to do to get us there. The conversations in my head had a common theme around the fear of failure. What if no one tries the product? What if we don't get any customers? The intense fear of failure caused panic attacks.

Observing and acknowledging my feelings and behavior patterns allowed me to put some of my self-care practices ( i.e., mantras, meditation, breathing exercises) into action and pushed me through moments I felt paralyzed by self-doubt.

Examine and reframe your thoughts.

A positive mindset is everything! A great exercise to help you examine and reframe your thoughts is to practice doing "The Work" created by Byron Katie. The next time you have a negative critical thought process, ask yourself these four liberating questions:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it's true?
  3. How do you react when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?

Get an accountability partner or life coach.

Imposter syndrome makes it difficult to be accountable because the blame is on outside forces for your mistakes or failures.

An accountability partner or coach can help you stay on track in completing action items tied to your goals and talk you through the mindset obstacles.

Another personal example, I was invited to apply for a board of directors position with a non-profit business organization. I procrastinated on the application process because I felt I wasn't qualified enough to have a board seat. The day before the application was due, I decided not to apply. I thought, "They won't choose me because I have no previous board experience, so what's the point?"

At the time, I was working with a life coach who had me commit to writing out a weekly action item list. We agreed that anything on the list HAD TO get done for me to clearly see the best version of myself. If I didn't follow through on my commitment, I was out of integrity. I looked over my action item list. The application was on there. Breaking my promise to my coach bothered me more than anything. This means my shame of disappointing her was GREATER than the desire to not follow through on the action. This is a moment where my people-pleaser tendency was a good thing.

Here's the wild outcome that resulted from my actions. I was so afraid I wasn't qualified enough. But not only was I selected because of my career experience and successes, the organization asked me to be the President-elect! I was fast-tracked into the President role in less than a year, which allowed me incredible life-changing leadership experiences, including breaking through my fear of public speaking and going to Washington DC to meet President Obama's staff. Things I never imagined possible because I was stuck in the imposter syndrome loop.

If you have any questions about how a life or career coach can help you in your life, check out our Life and career coaching: FAQs. Or check out our post on 15 Types of Coaching Inside and Outside The Workplace.

Get comfortable winning and failing.

If you want to rewire your brain, you must get comfortable with success and, more importantly, know that you DESERVE IT, so celebrate every win, no matter how small. All of this will boost your confidence and self-worth.

This also means getting comfortable with failing. The key is to fail fast and fail forward. Look at the word FAIL as an acronym, First Attempt In Learning. DO NOT let the fear of failure or the failed incident take you out. Learn from your mistakes. Reiterate. Keep moving forward. Remember failing is where resilience and growth happen. And most importantly, learn to love yourself first!

Recommended Reads

For working women, check out The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It by Valerie Young.

Own Your Greatness by Dr. Lisa Orbé Johnson is full of therapy-backed exercises and activities.

The Takeaways

Many capable people from all walks of life suffer from impostor syndrome, so you're not alone. Continue educating yourself to understand how pervasive impostor syndrome can be, especially for people of color. It is well worth examining your thoughts and actions to see if imposter syndrome may be impacting your life in other ways. Reframe your thoughts and feelings about imposter syndrome and develop a daily self-care routine to help maintain good mental health hygiene. Seek professional help if you're experiencing anxiety or depression.

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About the Author: Remy Meraz is the Co-Founder and CEO of Zella Life, a life and career coaching platform bridging the diversity gap in workforce development. Her unique insight comes from a career where she was often the only woman or person of color in the corporate room. After an adult diagnosis of ADHD, chronic anxiety, and being told she would have to be on medication for the rest of her life, she was able to eliminate medication by transforming her life through therapy and coaching. It’s these experiences and a passion for connecting diversity to equity for the BIPOC community that has moved her to dedicate her life to democratizing coaching in an affordable and accessible way to underserved communities.

Read more about: Life Coaching

About Julian Lewis

Julian Lewis is a driven and accomplished professional with a passion for driving positive change in the business world. As the co-founder and COO at Zella Life, a coaching on-demand platform, he is working to bridge the diversity gap between diverse talent and internal team leaders. His own experience as a professional of color in a Fortune 500 company led him to discover the limitations for advancement that many professionals like himself face. Determined to reach his full potential, Julian became an established business coach and entrepreneur, committed to supporting others who have been culturally conditioned to remain silent in their pursuit of personal and professional growth.

Today, Julian is a recognized corporate trainer, coach, and leader, known for his ability to leverage real-life experiences and evidence-based methodologies to affect positive change within individuals and organizations. As the leader of Zella Life's coaching division, he is dedicated to empowering individuals and businesses to achieve their full potential. Julian's unique perspective and passion for coaching make him a valuable asset to any organization.