Success is sweet, but for many of us, it's also uneasy.
From the outside looking in, when we observe highly accomplished people, we automatically assume that they are confident, comfortable in their skin, and have made peace with demons such as self-doubt and fear of being an impostor.
But it's not always the case, and I am a perfect example. I was in the corporate world for 25 years, serving as COO and president of Carson Products Company, now part of L'Oreal, and serving as Avon's first African American female vice president, first African American vice president of marketing, and the company's first vice president of global marketing. During the early years of my career, I suffered from "impostor syndrome," the feeling that I was a fraud and less deserving of success than my peers.
Impostor syndrome is common among highly successful people--particularly women, minority groups, and people from cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds that are different from their peers.
To be clear, impostor syndrome is distinctly different from being insecure. Those who experience impostor syndrome tend to be very successful, while those who are highly insecure are likely to be less accomplished. The impostor syndrome, which is at heart a social anxiety, drives those who suffer from it forward; insecurity, on the other hand, tends to make people shy away from taking risks. An insecure person may stay in a job she has outgrown because she lacks confidence in her abilities. A person who has impostor feelings will work harder and harder to show others that she can compete at a higher level and prove that she deserves new levels of responsibility.
Some Common Symptoms of Impostor Syndrome--and Solutions
If some of this is starting to sound familiar, here are five ways impostor syndrome rears its ugly head--and what you can do to conquer it.
Symptom: You don't accept praise easily.
Solution: You can learn to accept and "metabolize" external validation. It just takes practice. It helps to talk to a trusted colleague or a coach and ask them to give you an objective assessment of your positive qualities in business. You are more likely to believe them, and they can help you when you have the urge to protest. Take it in.
Symptom: You attribute your success to luck.
Solution: Develop a written inventory of your skills, accomplishments, and experiences. Revisit and revise that list often. Think about it: You got good grades in school, beat out many competitors to land this job, and may have even received raises, promotions, and public recognition. Where's the luck?
Symptom: You feel the need to constantly prove yourself.
Solution: Look around you at some of the people you most admire. Are they working 12 hours a day and all weekend, like you are? Probably not. Working longer and harder than everyone else and being a self-judging perfectionist are not requirements of this job. Nor are they making you feel great about yourself. Relax. Learn to laugh at yourself. If you merely excel at your job, no one will think you're a slacker, which is your secret fear.
Symptom: You always have a secret backup plan.
Solution: Listen carefully to your internal monologue, which probably goes something like this, "If this job doesn't work out, I can always teach/start a business/go back to school." In other words, you can't really believe that this good situation can last, because you might be "discovered." Face your fears head-on. You may realize that you're experiencing normal stress associated with higher levels of responsibility. Deal with that stress, and don't confuse it with the conditioned response of impostor fears.
Symptom: You believe others are more qualified than you.
Solution: To start with, don't compare yourself to others. If you weren't qualified, you wouldn't have gotten this job--or done so well at it. And when you do look at successful peers, be sure to notice their flaws, mistakes, and foibles. We all have them. As a leader, it's essential that you be as objective about yourself as you are about the talents and abilities of colleagues and those you manage.
Bottom line, impostor syndrome is something you can conquer. I did, and so did all the well-known, successful people I interviewed for my book. Embrace your power and your success. You deserve it.
If you'd like to find out whether you have impostor syndrome, take a free quiz here.
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Joyce Roché has been a trailblazer in the corporate world for 25 years, as Avon's first African American female vice president; COO of Carson Products Company, now part of L'Oreal; the former CEO of the national nonprofit Girls Inc.; and a board member on four Fortune 500 companies. Her new book is The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success (Berrerr-Koehler Publishers). Learn more atwww.empresshasnoclothes.com.