Imposter Syndrome (And How to Conquer It)

Kismet
7 min readJun 1, 2023

By Kristine Steinberg, CEO of Kismet

Imposter Syndrome — what is it?

When I was in 5th grade, I had my first encounter with imposter syndrome. Mrs. Bishop asked the class to go around the room, one by one, and read a paragraph from the book our class was reading. From my recollection, I was about 10th in line. When the assignment was given, my entire world became a blur, my face turned red, and the dread that poured over me opened a gateway to an out-of-body experience. I truly was no longer in the room.

Could I read? Yes. Could I pronounce the words in front of me with perfect articulation? No. I don’t remember reading those sentences, but I do remember the shame and sense of failure like it was yesterday. Once my turn had passed, I was relieved by the word-stumbling and mispronunciations I heard in the students that went after me, and I was struck by their sense of ease with those imperfections.

Imposter syndrome is a distorted and non-factual self-perception of incompetence, despite external evidence of high performance and success. Anxiety, feeling like a fraud, and self-doubt are typical results of this condition. Up to 70% of the population experiences imposter syndrome, and it is not gender-specific.

This phenomenon was first defined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. Distinct from humility, caution, or stage fright, imposter syndrome is an internal experience of self-sabotage and inadequacy that can keep some of the smartest and most capable among us from reaching their potential.

Causes:

The causes of imposter syndrome have been determined to be a combination of factors that have led one to believe that they are not good enough. These factors are repetitive experiences such as growing up in family systems that are overly focused on achievement and require certain conditions for affection, or caving into peer and social pressures to feel a sense of belonging to workplaces that focus on unrelenting weakness-based feedback.

Symptoms:

There is a natural and appropriate level of nerves or angst that can accompany new challenges or unpredictable situations. Imposter syndrome goes beyond normal concern and care for wanting to be successful and put our very best foot forward. To distinguish those normal moments from the deeper imposter-like feelings, consider the following symptoms of imposter syndrome:

  • Negative thought patterns: thoughts that seem to drag us into unhealthy, undesirable behaviors and non-behaviors. We can have negative thought patterns about others and about ourselves. These patterns keep us stuck and can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
  • Anxiety and overwhelm: intense worry, fear, and unease. A persistence of impending doom. Panic.
  • Avoidance of opportunities: when given the chance to take on challenges or new experiences, the impulse is to say, “no” in order to avoid discomfort with unknown outcomes.
  • Perfectionistic pursuits: setting unrealistically high expectations for yourself in an effort to experience inevitable failure to prove that you are not worthy of success.
  • Fear of failure and success: intense anticipation that success or failure would lead to ridicule or unmanageable responsibility.

How to Conquer Imposter Syndrome

Through 25 years of research and experience on the topic of imposter syndrome, these two tools have stood out to me as critical in overcoming it sustainably:

  1. MICRO ACTS OF COURAGE
  2. GETTING INTO THE FLOW

MICRO ACTS OF COURAGE

A recent client was recruited to an executive position at a new company. Out of the gate, she was invited into senior strategy meetings and had earned the right to have a seat at that table. Yet, each time the meeting commenced, she found herself paralyzed and unable to speak up. A thoughtful and intentional strategist, she thrived on having time to consider her statements before she spoke. But the culture of this team, fast-paced and full of ego, proved very hard to get a word in edgewise. By the time she considered what she wanted to say, the conversation was already on to a new topic. At the end of each meeting, she left feeling like an imposter, irrelevant, ashamed, and nervous that she was letting her boss down.

Through our coaching process, we determined simple tactics that she could begin to exercise to break down the walls of her fear — though simple, she would have to move out of her comfort zone. These tactics, or “micro acts of courage,” included: proactively determining a few talking points to make in each meeting, asking her boss to invite her into the conversation at relevant moments to showcase her expertise, and connecting with members of the team pre-meeting to socialize some of her ideas and build rapport.

These courageous acts began to illuminate for her the reality of her competence and capabilities. This illumination and clarity planted sustainable seeds of confidence. In Christie Hunter Arscott’s fantastic Harvard Business Review Article, “Choose Courage Over Confidence,” she writes, “Micro acts of courage — seemingly small-scale acts that have incremental impacts over time and long-term returns — are key to unlocking a courageous mindset. As Su-Mei Thompson, CEO of Media Trust, shared: ‘It is not just about taking a few big risks, but about pushing yourself each day to get outside of your comfort zone.’”

GETTING INTO THE FLOW

Once you are in a regular practice with micro acts of courage — and thereby increasing your confidence levels — you will experience more frequent moments of being in a “flow state.” Co-founder of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, studied artists when they were in a zone of creativity and defined this phenomenon as an “optimal” human experience that can lead to sustained happiness. “Flow is one of life’s highly enjoyable states of being, wrapping us entirely in the present, and helping us be more creative, productive, and happy,” says Csikszentmihalyi. In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he lays out the path to inducing flow, which hinges on finding the ideal balance of challenge and skill. This results in a sense of command that taps into our potential and evolves us towards a higher purpose.

When was the last time you were in a flow state? What were you doing? How did it feel? What can you learn from that experience to help induce increased flow towards a current challenge?

Unlocking our Full Potential

Overcoming imposter syndrome begins with awareness. When we pause our thoughts and actions (even briefly) and create some initial objectivity, clarity around our true capabilities emerges. Then, we are at choice to take on challenges or not.

When we lean into grounded courage — even (and especially) in small, everyday ways — we open ourselves up to opportunity and growth, proving to ourselves that we are capable of more than our self-perceived limitations tell us. It is through this process that we are able to find the ideal space between challenge and skill, and here is where we feel most alive and fulfilled. By incorporating these strategies into our life, imposter syndrome fades back and our full potential has the chance to come forward.

Note: Deeper work with a coach can be helpful in understanding and changing thought patterns and practicing behavioral change. If you would like to learn more about coaching with Kismet, please reach out to me.

Resources

BOOK: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

  • “Explore[s] a happy state of mind called flow, the feeling of complete engagement in a creative or playful activity.” — Time

ARTICLE: “Choose Courage Over Confidence” by Christie Hunter Arscott, Harvard Business Review

  • “As women, we often feel like we have to be 100% ready in order to move forward. But, if you are 50% or 75% there, jump. Just do it.” — Megan Costello, former executive director of the Boston Mayor’s Office for Women’s Advancement

TED TALK: “Thinking your way out of the imposter syndrome” by Valerie Young

  • “Your body doesn’t know the difference between fear and excitement, so as you’re walking up to the podium or into the meeting or any place where your confidence is shaky, you have to say to yourself, ‘I’m excited.’” — Valerie Young

Kristine Steinberg is the CEO of Kismet. She believes that your life should be deeply fulfilling — not tolerated. Partner with Kismet to dismantle fear, define your path, and lead with courage. Start your transformation today: www.thisiskismet.com.

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Kismet

Your life should be deeply fulfilling — not tolerated. Partner with Kismet to dismantle fear, define your path, and lead with courage.