At Work

How to Manage Imposter Syndrome

A psychologist offers tips to help you change your mind about yourself

By Raylene Lung, '18 BA

June 20, 2022 •

You think you’re a fraud. You think you don’t belong. You think that every success you’ve had is because of circumstance or chance. But it isn’t any of that. You’re experiencing imposter syndrome, a phenomenon in which people believe their successes are flukes, and that at any moment someone is going to find out. Imposter syndrome can appear when you’re starting a new job, working in an area outside of your expertise, or anytime you try hard to succeed. In a special episode of the What the Job? podcast, psychologist Rebecca Ponting, ’04 MEd, from Counselling & Clinical Services at the University of Alberta shares advice for recognizing imposter syndrome, changing the way you look at it and weeding it out before it takes root. Here are some of her tips:

Seek Feedback

For many people, imposter syndrome is mild and can be managed with support from friends or family, says Ponting. But for others, it’s not as easy. “Some people will find that their imposter syndrome is so severe that they’re limiting themselves,” she says. In these instances, someone might not apply for jobs or might dismiss opportunities for advancement because they feel inadequate. If this sounds like you, Ponting suggests asking questions about your performance. It can be scary but effective. “So many times, it’ll turn out that somebody who’s convinced that they’re on the verge of being fired finds out that their performance is perfectly fine,” she says. With honesty on the table, you get all the information you need to make decisions or take action. “Sometimes we get told that we’re not performing up to standard,” she says. But knowing that allows us to take steps to improve or make decisions to seek a different role. Ponting says that’s better than “wondering if we’re disappointing people and never knowing.”

Look at the Whole Picture

“If somebody that we know seems to have a distorted view of their own abilities, or achievements, sometimes we can gently lead them to think about evidence for what they’re seeing,” she says. Before jumping to the conclusion that your job is on the chopping block, consider all the facts. Perhaps your supervisor praised your work just the other day. Maybe you recently had a great brainstorm and shared some new ideas. Try not to automatically jump to negative conclusions. When you look at the whole picture, you might find you’re being more self-critical than necessary.

Tell Yourself a Different Story

Ponting specializes in cognitive-behavioural therapy, a psychological treatment in which patients consider how their thoughts affect their behaviours, and how those can ultimately affect their emotions. This is at the core of treating imposter syndrome, she says. “I help people become more aware of what they’re telling themselves — and what they’re doing in terms of behaviours,” she says. “Then we can start to use those things to create feelings we would prefer to have.” The “fake it ’til you make it” strategy is a good example of this. While she doesn’t suggest feigning competence, she says acting confident can help you learn to acknowledge your own abilities — and the more you tell yourself you can do it, the more you will believe it. In time, this can help to bring your feelings about yourself up to the level at which you’re performing.

Accept That You Can’t Control Everything

While imposter syndrome will find its way into many people’s lives at one point or another, Ponting points out that success is not always simply a matter of believing in yourself or recognizing your own competence. Sometimes external biases, whether based on race, gender or other factors, can masquerade as imposter syndrome. For example, someone may be overlooked for a raise because of their gender, but may be made to believe it’s because they lack confidence. Ponting says that awareness is important in understanding all types of imposter syndrome. Talking more openly about potential biases is helpful, but ultimately, some things are out of your control. “Imposter syndrome is valid and worth discussing and worth being aware of,” she says. “And it's not always the whole story.”

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