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Feel Like a Fraud? You’re Not Alone: Career Coach Damali Harding Shares Tips on Beating Impostor Syndrome

Whether you’re in year one of your career or close to retirement, many of us — at some point in our lives — have felt like an impostor or fraud. Known as impostor syndrome, these feelings have been experienced by even the most successful among us. The good news is there are ways to combat this sense of unworthiness.

Career coach Damali Harding recently spoke with The Consortium to shed some light on this phenomenon and share tips for overcoming it. Harding has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and an MBA from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. Since graduating from Tuck in 2006 as a Consortium fellow, she’s worked in the energy industry in strategy and operations and is currently a business development director at Oracle Utilities|Opower. She has also led her own career coaching practice for the last 12 years and was recently elected to the board of directors of the American Association of Blacks in Energy.

Q: It’s natural for people, especially young people just starting their career, to doubt their abilities, but when does that doubting go too far?

It is normal, regardless of where you are in your career, to feel doubt and apprehension. Even your favorite performer feels nervous before taking the stage. However, there is a distinctive difference between nervousness and impostor syndrome. In particular, impostor syndrome is defined by a sense of feeling fraudulent and not deserving of your accomplishments because you got there by “luck” and not by merit. Its full definition is below:

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome) is a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.”

In fact, one of the most common phrases I hear from my clients is that they feel like they are “going to be found out.” This thinking that you “don’t belong” further reinforces the feeling of  “I just got lucky” and “I’m not here because I deserve to be.” The ramifications can range from an unwillingness to speak up in study groups or meetings to more pervasive impacts, such as increased anxiety, low self-esteem and getting “stuck” in one job long past your time despite performing well and/or wanting to gain additional responsibilities.

Q: What often causes impostor syndrome, and how does it manifest differently in different people?

There is no singular cause of impostor syndrome. You can have high self-esteem in other areas of your life and feel like an impostor at work. It can start by comparing yourself — your education, your experience, your age, etc. — to others and thinking, “This person has had such an illustrious career. How am I here?” This is one reason why the sense of feeling like a fraud can magnify when starting in a new place, such as business school, or a new company, or when you receive a promotion.

Impostor syndrome can also magnify itself when you are “the only,” such as the only person of color, the only woman, the youngest, etc. In these situations, it becomes easier to think that you are there only because of your “representation” rather than your worthiness. Ironically, impostor syndrome manifests itself more in high-performing individuals.

Impostor syndrome affects your career by preventing you from aiming for promotions, not speaking up in meetings or letting others speak on your behalf. In some people, it may manifest as an impossible work ethic, as they work harder to “prove” they belong. The cycle then begins again as they advance up the ladder, furthering the feeling of “waiting to be found out they are a fraud.”

Another area to pay attention to is your body. Many people experience an increase in physical feelings of anxiety including tension, headaches or stomach knots from worrying about what others will think about them and their performance. Impostor syndrome often leads to “should-ing”; you may lay awake thinking “I should be doing this” or “I should have answered that question differently.” Anxiety often coincides with other conditions, such as depression, and can lead to burnout.

Q: How have you experienced and dealt with impostor syndrome in your own life and career?

I was first aware of the experience of feeling like an impostor on my first day at Tuck. I thought, “I haven’t had a glamorous career in consulting or finance — what am I doing here?” A long-time dean at Tuck walked into the room and said the words I have repeated to myself and others since: “You are not a mistake.” After hearing her, I realized that Tuck isn’t a charity. They don’t just accept applicants because they think that they would be good candidates or because they are nice. They let people in because they are absolutely deserving. Since then, I have repeated that mantra over and over again: “You are not a mistake. You are not here by charity.”

I have had many instances, such as career promotions or new leadership roles, where I have questioned my ability to be in the “room where it happens.” To continue to push forward, I use a multi-pronged approach that includes many tips, which I outline below. I also have a personal “board of directors” with whom I can safely discuss my feelings of being a fraud. This board consists of several individuals, including peers, mentors and sponsors. I also have a career coach I consult with once or twice a year to help keep me focused.

Q: How can people overcome impostor syndrome?

First, acknowledge that you are experiencing impostor syndrome, and then you can work from there. Sometimes the relief that comes from acknowledging that you are experiencing it is enough.

Second, acknowledge that you are not alone. I list some books at the end of this article, but there are countless blogs, videos and presentations where people discuss their experience with impostor syndrome. Find someone — a friend from school, an executive coach, a therapist — and begin to talk about these feelings.

Below are specific action steps I often recommend to my clients. I recommend that clients pick one to three and then modify them to suit their situation and habits.

  • Check in with yourself weekly for 10 minutes.
    • Schedule it on your calendar now.
    • Outline the specific actions you will take during those 10 minutes, such as journaling, reading a book or speaking with a friend.
  • Create a cognitive association, or affirmation, for the voice in your head to combat negative thoughts or comparisons.
    • This may be a nonsense phrase such as “coconut biscuits.”
    • Keep a list of your accomplishments and reference it from time to time.
  • Find a support group (e.g., personal board of directors, therapist, etc.).
  • Create a list of positive reinforcements (e.g., emails from clients, comments from peers, etc.)
  • Start a journal.
    • Focus on why you are going to school, why you’ve chosen the career you have, etc.
    • A journal doesn’t have to be written. It can be visual or voice recordings.

Q: Researchers have noted that impostor syndrome is often more prevalent among minorities, women and individuals embarking on a new endeavor. Why do you think this is, and how can these individuals begin to see what makes them different in a new light?

One study at The University of Texas at Austin found that up to 70 percent of minorities will experience feelings of being an impostor. Some studies place that number even higher; however, studies have found little difference between men and women.

Although there’s been a lot of talk of diversity recently, in many cases, we are still the only people like us in the room. Below are a few tips to help reframe this paradigm:

  • Own your feelings and know that they are valid. There is nothing wrong with you.
  • Comparison is the thief of joy. Stop comparing your experiences, your background and your purpose to others. You are exactly where you are supposed to be.
  • Do not fear your mistakes or failures. We will all make mistakes — every single one of us. [Focus on] progress over perfection.
  • Practice achieving small wins, such as saying you will speak up once in a meeting for three weeks.
  • Use social pressure to help change habits (e.g., find an accountability partner and send a weekly update, or publicly post a challenge for yourself).

Q: Why is it important for people to be aware of and sensitive to impostor syndrome in others?

A critical skill for leading effective teams is recognizing that performance is impacted  by multiple factors. Someone who is underperforming may lack the skills required or could have macro factors that are impacting their performance, such as anxiety. A colleague or subordinate who is quiet or not taking on additional responsibilities may not be underperforming because the work is too difficult. That person may be suffering from impostor syndrome, and to others, they may appear to be disinterested or aloof. As a leader, it is critical to discuss what other factors may be impacting their job performance. If you don’t feel comfortable leading the discussion yourself, it may be helpful to bring in an outside party like an executive coach or HR to provide the person a safe space to discuss their feelings.

Additionally, sharing resources with your entire team may be a way to offer support to someone that doesn’t leave them feeling singled out. The ultimate goal is to make sure your colleagues feel supported and that they are not alone in their feelings.

Q: Are there any resources you recommend to help people deal with this issue?

As we learn more about impostor syndrome, we continue to see an increase in the number of books, articles and resources about overcoming it. Below are a few that I recommend:

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