“Why am I here? I am not properly qualified for this. I’m in over my head. I think [Insert Name here] could do this better than me.” Does any of this sound familiar? You are not alone. But feeling fraudulent after a promotion to a new leadership position affects most careers. It’s a phenomenon known as Impostorism. So how can you overcome impostor syndrome?

Self-doubt and feelings of incompetence can and may hinder your ability to lead if left to run wild. And it’s a state of mind that disproportionately affects high-achieving women. However, you can manage and overcome impostor syndrome(IS) through a set of proven strategies. But that can only happen after properly identifying you suffer from perceived fraudulence.

This piece examines strategies on how to overcome impostor syndrome in leadership roles. But first, an overview of this common syndrome and how it affects high-achievers. 

What Is Impostorism—Exactly?

Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon, not a diagnosed mental health condition. But it resides in the mind, and it does carry consequences. An inner voice whispers you are going to make a mess of it all, that any success is a fluke, and when you do succeed that you don’t deserve the praise. You may feel inferior to your peers, even though you never let on. These pent-up feelings can cause stress and anxiety, lower confidence, and even trigger feelings of guilt and shame.

What Studies Reveal About IS

Many people try to bottle up and deny their Impostorism exists, but denial is half the problem. Studies published by the Impostor Syndrome Institute (ISI) surprised many experts. If nothing else, these findings show how widespread the problem is [1].

  • 70% of successful people encounter imposter feelings at some point
  • 75% of executive women surveyed experienced IS
  • 80% of CEOs felt out-of-depth in their position
  • 84% of SBOs and entrepreneurs report feelings of Impostorism

A 2020 study suggested that 82% of all people may experience the condition at some point in their lives. That includes those who have achieved outstanding academic and professional success [2].

Factors that Cause Perceived Fraudulence

Everyone can potentially experience feelings of perceived fraudulence, but high-achieving women seem to be most at risk. And impostorism doesn’t usually just happen because of a single incident; it’s more likely to develop as you grow.

Common increased risk factors for developing imposter syndrome are:

  • Family environment growing up
  • Promotion or new challenges
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Those from marginalized groups

There may be more, but the ones above have the most influence.

Those Most at Risk of Impostor Syndrome

IS tends to be particularly intense among high-achieving women. Researchers think several factors contribute to this. Most studied is working women’s internalizing of values projected by family and friends to media, peers, and authorities in the workplace through a process called introjection [3].

Introjection Explained
For a more complete explanation of introjection, how it happens, and its positive and negative effects on a person, take a look at this article from GoodTherapy.org.

How Impostor Syndrome Affects Professional Performance

Impostorism and Professional Performance - EWF International

Feelings of self-doubt can hinder your career. You may already be in an executive or senior leadership position. But you could get stuck in a rut if you’re suffering from impostor syndrome and don’t do anything to address those feelings.

When Impostorism surfaces, you may no longer feel competent to apply for new and exciting roles in which you could otherwise thrive. It’s a twisted reality that often makes women also believe they’re unqualified to ask for promotions and raises.

The irony is that this perceived self-preservation becomes self-sabotage. Feeling unworthy and that others may catch you out has other consequences. You find it hard to excel in a new leadership position and enjoy the new opportunities the role presents as exciting challenges, instead viewing them as additional points of stress.

Exacerbated by “Only” and “Double-Only” Status

A lack of diversity in the workplace—particularly at senior leadership levels—can exacerbate imposter syndrome. Likewise, women who are “Onlys” or “Double-Onlys” feel judged or pre-occupied with their status as a de facto diversity representative rather than as a competent and productive team member. Thus, being the only woman and the only person of ethnicity or race can intensify these experiences of Impostorism. And the consistent absence of corporate leadership diversity compounds these issues further for women in leadership [4]. 

The Solution to Break Out of Impostorism

You don’t have to accept and suffer from impostor syndrome. The remaining sections look at proven mental strategies that help reduce cognitive distortions. These tools will help you address and break through your Impostorism, whatever its source, and help guide the shift from feeling fake to feeling empowered in your position.  

4 Proven Strategies to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

To begin to overcome impostor syndrome, women must find and accept the need for a change in mindset. The way to initiate that process is to take the thoughts repeating inside your head and get them down on paper. This process helps take those ephemeral thoughts and turn them into something tangible and permanent.
Instead of writing, you can type these thoughts out. However, researchers found that people who use longhand can process content better than those who type. They also saw that longhand enhances long-term recall [5]. 

#1 Create a Brag Sheet

Fight Impostore Syndrome with a Brag Sheet - EWF International

Remember that you did not get to this point without many accomplishments and achievements. But it can be easy to downplay those as average feats. They’re not. Making a brag sheet is an excellent way to create a solid reminder of your successes for you to use as a foundation for overcoming Impostor syndrome and feelings of incompetence.

Why Lists Matter

Writing this stuff down serves three critical purposes in overcoming IS:

  1. You learn to better separate what is fact from fantasy
  2. You increase your perspective to see the bigger picture
  3. Reveal the truths behind your new position and its challenges

Your brag sheet needs to be comprehensive. It should include career and non-work-related achievements, lifetime accomplishments, and awards. Add every success you can remember, no matter how small or insignificant your mind may trick you into believing.

Add a Qualified List

At the end of your brag sheet, begin a new list of things that specifically qualify you for your new leadership role. You will find this task much easier after creating your brag sheet, and the discoveries may surprise you. There is every chance you will uncover evidence proving you are as capable—or even more qualified—as someone else you imagined filling the role.

#2 The Power of Positive Affirmations

Those with impostor syndrome can be trapped in a never-ending cycle of negative self-talk. However, you might not realize it, as destructive internal dialogues often masquerade at the subconscious level. The way to remove latent negativity is to replace it with short and powerful truths and positive affirmations.
Here are six tips for creating powerful positive affirmations:

  1. Write your affirmations in longhand and place them where you can see them
  2. Keep your statements in the present tense
  3. Use your first name in place of pronouns to strengthen the statements [6]
  4. Repeat them at least every morning and every night
  5. Say them out loud at least 10 times daily
  6. Rewrite them occasionally to reinforce or hone the statements

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

Positive self-talk can feel strange, phony even, for those who have never practiced it. If that’s you, don’t be put off by a sudden rise of embarrassment or self-consciousness, and “fake it ‘til you make it.” Through repetition and positive reinforcement the initial feeling of silliness will pass.

Practice by recalling your affirmations whenever you need a reminder of your worth. Before too long, regular positive self-talk should dominate how you perceive yourself. And over time, visualizing successful outcomes will focus your mind and become part of your natural state.

#3 Never Be Afraid to Fail

Anyone can make mistakes, and people do, but high-achievers experience more than most. The secret is to learn from failure and grow rather than allow it to hold you back. A negative mind says, I can’t see how I recover from this, while a positive one asks, How can I recover? It’s a subtle shift, but with opposite outcomes.

It’s vital to own one’s failures and look for solutions and learning opportunities as it is to acknowledge and celebrate accomplishments. So do not be afraid to fail. Especially when you are in the adjustment phase of a new position. There is an expectation for hiccups with someone learning a new role. Make the most of it by trying and failing early in your tenure. View the settling in process as a genuine opportunity to learn from the experience and grow your leadership abilities further.

#4 Set up a Support Network

Everyone needs people, but it’s critical to surround yourself with the right people. Those you interact with inside and outside your place of work as friends, confidants, and advisors are of utmost importance. These should be networks of individuals who help develop and achieve each other’s goals personally and professionally.

How to Build New Connections

Never be too busy to network. If you do need help improving your networking see our four-part, in-depth series: Building Your Network. Additionally, consider leveraging professional support services to help develop your support network. There are a wide range of valuable programs and groups focused on supporting personal leadership growth and career advancement. 

EWF Peer Advisory Forums for Women Executives

EWF Executive Peer Advisory Forums offer confidential professional support for women executives. Our safe, non-compete space is a place for women in senior leadership to share experiences, successes, and challenges. Learn how your peers overcame struggles with impostor syndrome. And discover ways to solve the other problems that drive individual and organizational results in this unique environment of accountability. 

Learn More About EWF Peer Advisory Forums

Making Peace with Impostor Syndrome

Impostorism affects most professionals, especially leaders, at some point in their careers. The best way to manage impostor syndrome is through acceptance and putting in place thoughtful counteractions to help rebalance the positive and exciting feelings that come with accepting a new position in leadership. 

And remember, feelings of Impostorism are often fleeting. Through time, experience, and accomplishment in your new position, the feeling of being an impostor will naturally recede.

  1. https://impostorsyndrome.com/infographics/youre-not-alone/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2020-study-impostor-syndrome/
  3. https://www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/ip_high_achieving_women.pdf
  4. https://hbr.org/2018/01/how-and-where-diversity-drives-financial-performance
  5. https://journals.sagepub.com/the-power-of-longhand/
  6. http://selfcontrol.psych.lsa.umich.edu/affirmations-and-first-names/