This Week in Leadership
Purpose is Powering Through the Pandemic
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Her boss thought she could do no wrong, but inside, Leila always felt she wasn’t quite up to the task. As the pandemic stretched on, he gave her 30 more additional direct reports. That only increased her doubts. Isolated at home with no one to speak to, Leila began to self-destruct, avoiding tasks as her anxieties grew dramatically.
Career experts would say that Leila was suffering from “imposter syndrome,” a very real ailment where people feel that they aren’t as capable as others think they are, despite evidence to the contrary. Researchers estimate as many as 70% of people suffer from imposter syndrome at one point or another, and say that the anxieties, uncertainties, and isolation of the pandemic have brought on a new wave of people experiencing it. “It can really diminish one’s confidence and sense of purpose,” says Terri Bacow, PhD, a clinical instructor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
Imposter syndrome can afflict anyone, but career coaches say the phenomenon is particularly prevalent among female leaders. (The 1978 study that first explained imposter syndrome studied 150 highly successful women.) But experts say those feelings do not have to derail a career. Here are some tips to help reframe those nagging negative thoughts so that they don’t become a roadblock to success.
Acknowledge your feelings.
The first step to overcoming imposter syndrome is admitting that you’re struggling with it—and that you aren’t the only one who has this issue. “Those feelings aren’t something to be ashamed of or a personal failure,” says Mark Royal, senior director of Korn Ferry Advisory.
And be mindful of the seismic impact the pandemic may have had on your working life. “It has required many people to engage in unfamiliar tasks and ways of being,” says Bacow. “When we engage in tasks that are completely novel to us, we typically feel like imposters.”
For instance, you may feel like you’re failing at networking in this new virtual reality. Or perhaps you feel intimidated to chime in during Zoom meetings. Experts say try to get to the root of what’s causing your self-doubt so that you can address it.
Check in with friends or colleagues.
If imposter syndrome is dragging you down, share your feelings with people you trust. “When self-doubt shows up, tell a confidante about it,” says Val Olson, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. “Get their feedback, and have them help you set your mind straight.” Ask your confidante whether he or she has dealt with imposter syndrome. Based on research, the odds are that they have. Realizing that you aren’t alone can alleviate some of the shame and stigma that can lead to negative thoughts.
Examine the evidence.
The day-to-day challenges of the pandemic can be especially difficult for people who strive to be perfectionists. “It’s hard to be a perfectionist in this environment,” says Royal. “It might lead someone to feel like, ‘I don’t even deserve to be here because I’m not performing at the level that I’m used to or I want to.’”
Experts say that means it’s important to take an honest look at yourself and your circumstances. “Do you have any proof that you are bad at something?” says Bacow. “If you examine yourself objectively and check the facts, you will often find that your negative ideas about yourself do not hold up.”
Work on what’s in your power to change.
Opportunities for growth can make you feel better about yourself. If you’ve been laid off, use the time to learn a new skill or take an online class. Even if you’ve survived a round of pandemic-related layoffs, imposter syndrome can still creep in. “There may be a sense that perhaps you are where you are based on luck rather than personal skill or achievement,” says Royal. “It’s a particular type of survivor guilt.”
The best advice is to recognize that your new circumstances (an increased workload, for instance) may make you feel like you’re working suboptimally. Identify things that you can work on, individually or with your manager.
Take a chance on yourself.
If you have imposter syndrome, you may be hesitant to pursue an opportunity that seems out of your reach. But taking chances—even though they take you out of your comfort zone—can be powerful for your self-image. “Most people I coach say their greatest fulfillment came from tackling a big challenge and overcoming obstacles,” Olson says. Give yourself—and other people—the opportunity to see all the skills and talents you possess. The more you do it, the easier it will be to chip away at imposter syndrome.
Focus on your strengths.
Zeroing in on what you do well inevitably can make you feel more confident. “This brings on a sense of positive reinforcement,” says Bacow. “Imposter syndrome is driven by negative thinking; focusing on one’s strengths achieves the opposite.”
Start by making a list of your recent or past accomplishments. If you’re having a hard time identifying your talents, ask others what they think your top three strengths are. “If you ask enough people, you should get some overlap, and this can give you a boost when self-doubt rears its head,” Olson says.