Feel Like a Fraud? 3 Steps to Break the Imposter Cycle

Resilience hinges on being able to think differently about stress.

Posted Mar 25, 2016

Resilience is a critical skill set to possess in our fast-paced, always on culture, and building your resilience requires that you become skilled at understanding how you perceive stress.  How you think about an adversity or a challenge can mean wildly different outcomes for how successful you are at moving through it or bouncing back from it.  There is one problematic thinking style in particular that silently threatens how resilient you are at work:  imposter syndrome

Imposterism (often called the imposter syndrome or the imposter phenomenon) (“IP”) is a deeply held belief of intellectual phoniness and sounds like this:  “Man, I got lucky this time.  Pretty soon I will be found out and people will realize that I don’t have a clue as to what I’m doing or talking about.”  Despite lots of evidence to the contrary, like degrees, promotions, or a string of career successes, people who experience IP are unable to internalize and accept their success. 

In addition, chronic self-doubt can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  People who are stuck in the IP cycle attribute the cause of their success to something external, like luck.  For example, if you prepare for a presentation thinking that you don’t belong on this particular team, you may overestimate the number of mistakes you’ll make or spin your cognitive wheels as you prepare.  This leads to loads of self-criticism, disengagement and choking at the wrong moment, all of which make it hard to perform well.  When you don’t perform to the best of your abilities, it only reinforces your original thinking – “I’m not good enough to be here.”

Research now shows that strong IP tendencies can also have work-related consequences.  Specifically, employees with strong IP tendencies are more dissatisfied with their jobs, report less organizational citizenship behavior (defined as on the job behavior that is discretionary and which promotes the efficient and effective functioning of the organization), and express a stronger intention to stay at their job only because the social and psychological cost of leaving is perceived as too high.

A number of different traits and cognitive features nourish IP, but the formula for IP is likely some combination of the following:  IP = low self-efficacy + maladaptive perfectionism +  a tendency to more easily experience unpleasant emotions such as anger, worry and fear.

Because IP can have negative work and life consequences, it’s important to tame this toxic thinking style.  Here are three strategies to help:

Get social at work.  Research shows that social support at work can act as a buffer between imposter tendencies and work outcomes.  Specifically, when social support is high, the negative relationships between IP and job satisfaction and organizational citizenship behavior disappear.  When thinking about the type of social support to develop at work, it’s important to make your relationships “high-quality.” High-quality relationships have four components:  trust, a sense of play, respectful engagement, and empowerment.

Build your self-efficacy.  Self-efficacy is your belief that you can produce results in your life by calling forth the necessary resources to successfully execute a goal or accomplish a task.  People who are highly self-efficacious do these five things well:  set high goals for themselves, welcome and thrive on challenge, are highly self-motivated, invest the necessary effort to accomplish their goals, and when faced with obstacles, they persevere.  You can build your self-efficacy in the following ways:

1.  Master tasks and experience success.  This is already happening, but if you have IP tendencies, you might not be tracking your successes.  Start a journal of success and note each time you do something well, but make sure to note the role that luck, timing, and your own contributions played.  It’s important for you to start to believe that your own accomplishments, more so than luck, drove your success;
2.  Observe others.  Identify a person or a few people you admire and watch how they handle and achieve success.  When they stumble, ask them about the strategies they used; and
3.  Hearing others urge you on.  Have a core team of colleagues who can become your personal cheerleaders.

Turn your inner critic into your inner coach.  In order to build your self-efficacy, you first need to dismantle the faulty thinking patterns that drive IP.  Try this four-step process to start to break the IP cognitive cycle:

1. Label the feelings and anxieties you have when they happen;
2.  Talk about them, which isn’t easy but is another reason why to have those good social connections at work I talked about above;
3.  Figure out the root causes – what situations, people or tasks bring about this thinking; and
4.  Have some self-compassion.  Lots of people have experienced IP in their career, so know that you’re not alone.  Rather than beat yourself up, know that this is a common thinking style that can be corrected with practice and self-awareness.

People tend not to talk about their struggle with IP because this style of thinking tricks you into believing that you must be the only one who experiences it.  In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.  The imposter phenomenon is so ubiquitous that everyone from Maya Angelou to Tina Fey and Seth Godin has talked about feeling its grip.  And as Dr. Amy Cuddy writes in her new book Presence, “the more we communicate about [our fears and anxieties], and the smarter we are about how they operate, the easier they’ll be to shrug off the next time they pop up.  It’s a game of whack-a-mole we can win.” 

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Paula Davis-Laack, JD, MAPP, is a lawyer turned stress and resilience expert.  Having burned out at the end of her law practice, she now works with organizations and individuals to build stress resilience.  You can connect with Paula and to learn more about her work here:

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** A version of this article originally appeared on Fast Company.com 

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