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5 Steps Toward Believing in Yourself

The impostor syndrome can turn you against yourself. Don't let it.

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

A common fear I hear from new coaches and leaders is that they will never be good at their jobs and people they work with will eventually discover the truth. I call this the Fraud Factor. It is prevalent with many new professionals and seasoned ones as well.

Leadership studies call this the Impostor Syndrome. It was first identified in 1978 by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes.1 When people are unable to accept an increasing ability to succeed, they feel they are impostors. They feel they are failing and are convinced that those they work with will see through them and discover their incompetence. When someone shows them evidence of their development, they dismiss the occurrence as luck or an intermittent victory based on a rudimentary level of skills and experience.

This does not mean the person is not confident about his or her skills. In doing the research for the book, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction, I found that many women are confident about their skills and abilities to achieve but see every misstep they make as a failure. This gives them a tough outer shell covering a fragile ego, and they dwell on their mistakes more than their triumphs.

Here are some typical scenarios that could make you feel as if you are a failure or disappointed in yourself:

  1. You believe you have to be the best at what you do. If you don’t stand out, you are not good enough. You will work hard at gaining this recognition but if it doesn’t happen or you lose ground after a few years or even months, you lose your drive to succeed.
  2. You fear not making enough money at what you do. You actually might have enough money to be content, but if it doesn’t match your expectation, you will still judge yourself as a failure. You also feel vulnerable and sad that your big dreams will not be fulfilled.
  3. You thought you would create something or step into a new job or role and it would be easier than it is. The more past successes you have had, the more these difficulties may weigh into your judgment of yourself and your life.
  4. You promised outcomes to yourself, your colleagues, your friends, or your family that you now fear you can’t deliver. Even if these promises were unrealistic, or affected by circumstances you couldn’t predict, you are embarrassed that you didn’t live up to what you declared would happen.
  5. You took on a project because you were the only one who could do it right, but then you resented the time it took, or the people you had to work with, so much that you made mistakes. The end result was not your best work and definitely not something you are proud of.

The problem starts when you don’t differentiate yourself from your mistakes, disappointments, or less-than-hoped-for results. You call yourself a failure. Your plan didn’t work, your venture yielded weak results, or your work didn’t get you the attention or outcome you expected. Maybe you made silly mistakes or didn’t think through all the possibilities. This doesn’t make you a failure, even though you feel like one.

I am not going to preach to you about how you should see mistakes and missteps as "learning opportunities." You’ve been told that for years. What I want you to do is to catch yourself feeling like a failure and explore the truth from there.

  • Step 1: Articulate what you expected to happen. Be honest about what you had hoped for, even if you now know it was not possible.
  • Step 2: Describe what you have today without comparing it to what you had hoped for. Be clear about what you still have, including your knowledge, experience, and insights. Notice all the things you can be grateful for, including people willing to offer you emotional support. If you have not lost everything, you are not a failure. Remember: Plans and businesses might fail, or not fulfill your dreams, but you still have valuable assets that will help you move forward.
  • Step 3: Declare what you did that you thought was a good idea or effort at the time. When you made your decision, you probably did what you thought was best. Give yourself credit for what you were trying to create. Then write down what you didn’t realize at the time that derailed your plans. This hindsight will give you wisdom.
  • Step 4: Look to see what is possible going forward. What will make you feel relevant now? What possible achievements can you look forward to? You can’t force yourself to love your current life but you can recognize the value of today and the possibility for fulfillment tomorrow.
  • Step 5: Shift your daydreaming to the future. Envision what a great day will look like, one year from today. Every time you catch yourself thinking of the past, shift your thoughts to that vision you created—then make plans to make that dream come true.

Keep moving forward. As you do, recognize your successes. You will still experience disappointments in the future, but hopefully, you will quit calling yourself a failure and stop fearing others will think you are a fraud.

1 Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne A. (1978). "The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention" (PDF). Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice 15 (3): 241–247. Clance and Imes pursued their study after observing how high-achieving women tended to believe they were not intelligent and that they were overly judged by others.