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Conquering Imposter Syndrome

By DTCC Staff | October 4, 2022

If you've experienced anxiety as you were heading to a meeting, panicked that you're underprepared or don't even belong, you've experienced "imposter syndrome."

Imposter syndrome is a type of anxiety that results in an almost catastrophic thinking style about your abilities, a fear that you'll be exposed as a fraud at any moment. It often manifests in group situations like meetings but can affect an individual's overall work experience, even slowing career advancement.

But there are strategies to combat and overcome those feelings.

Those strategies were the focus of a virtual talk marking International Women's Day and Women's History Month, sponsored by DTCC's Employee Resource Group (ERG), Women's Initiative for Networking and Success (WINS), and hosted by its global co-chairs Gemma Balasingam, a Client Services Administration Director and Chelsea Bardhan, Associate Director and Organizational Change Management Lead.

WINS Executive Sponsor Valentino Wotton, Managing Director, Institutional Trade Processing, President & CEO, DTCC ITP LLC, kicked off by admitting he was among the 70% of workers who have experienced impostor syndrome. The first in his family to attend University, he had a determination to succeed. "But it also filled me at times with a sense of a fear of failure." Conquering these feelings, he realized, was essential to developing his career.

Talking about these experiences is essential, said keynote speaker Kim Meninger because it normalizes them. "And unfortunately, despite the fact that there's a lot more conversation about imposter syndrome these days, when we feel like this, we still often feel like we're the only one," she said.

Meninger, a certified development leadership coach and founder of the Massachusetts-based coaching firm 'Your Career Success,' explored what's behind these feelings and offered practical strategies for managing them in everyday life.

Identifying imposter syndrome

While anyone can experience imposter syndrome, it's common for someone who feels like an outsider – perhaps the only woman or person of color in the room or a new team member. "I can remember thinking to myself; I'm one question away from this whole house of cards collapsing," Meninger said, recounting her own experience early in her career. "It's only a matter of time before everyone realizes I have no business being in this room."

These internal statements of self-doubt are characteristic of imposter syndrome, she said, a phenomenon first researched in the 1970s in studies involving female graduate students. But, while initially identified as a problem for women, further study has shown that anyone can experience it.

It's common for high achievers to feel overwhelmed and underprepared, particularly during career transitions like joining a new company or getting a promotion. For instance, they imagine that their success is the result of luck and timing rather than their skills and hard work, Meninger said. The dread that they will be "exposed as a fraud" can be overwhelming.

"When we step outside of our comfort zone into a new space, we are more aware of what we don't know," Meninger said.

At a telling moment during the discussion, Meninger asked participants to post "Yes" in the chat if they've ever experienced these feelings. The result was a cascade of "Yeses."

"We always think that everybody around us has it all figured out. Everybody around us is so much more confident and more competent than we are," Meninger said. "But if you look at that chat, it's a great reminder that we are not alone. You're in excellent company even beyond this chat."

The fallout from these feelings

Problems come when self-doubt does more than producing a moment of panic at the threshold of a conference room. Among the ways that imposter syndrome can manifest are:

  • Hiding behaviors. The anxiety can leave women unwilling or even a temporary inability to speak up or share their ideas. It might show a reluctance to take risks, like not asking for a new challenge or promotion for fear of being unqualified. "We sit on the sidelines because we're second-guessing ourselves and constantly questioning whether what we have to share has any value," Meninger said.
  • Perfectionism. Meninger noted that women often joke about their efforts to make everything perfect. "But perfectionism is exhausting," she said. "And it's a standard that's not achievable." Even when we recognize that there's no such thing as perfect, she continued, "We often behave as though we should be perfect. And that undermines our confidence and keeps us from engaging in more productive activities."
  • Micromanagement. This is a problem, particularly for first-time managers who are often more comfortable performing tasks than supervising them. "When you're experiencing self-doubt, you're questioning whether you're adding any value, you want to retreat to that comfort zone of doing those things that got you here, and what you're doing is inadvertently stepping on the toes of your team that should now be empowered to take on those tasks instead," Meninger said. "And if you've ever worked for a micromanager, you know how demoralizing that is."
  • Overcompensating behaviors. Colleagues who demonstrate the need always to be the strongest person in the room or engage in bullying behaviors may be overcompensating for feelings of inadequacy. "True confidence, true belief in ourselves in our capabilities is quiet," Meninger said. "So often, what we see as potentially a sign of strength, in actuality, is insecurity."

Moreover, imposter syndrome can result in physical and emotional stress, overwork, burnout, anxiety, and depression on an individual level. It can also hamper professional relationships, which can be career-limiting and reduce personal and professional satisfaction and motivation.

It can impact an organization, from higher health care costs to greater absenteeism, higher turnover, and lower productivity. Most importantly, especially for businesses that depend on knowledge workers, it can limit the creative power of a team when its members are afraid to speak up and share their ideas.

How to fight back

Meninger acknowledged that factors like systemic bias and racism, and other structural barriers create barriers for women in the workplace that can contribute to the feelings related to imposter syndrome. But while those environmental issues are essential to address, she said, individuals also need tools to navigate the experience.

"I hope that we will continue to make progress and that someday we will have psychologically safe, inclusive environments for everybody that will minimize the experience of imposter syndrome," she said.

"But until then, we need support. We need to understand that this is what's happening, that we are not crazy, and that there are tools and resources we can access to more competently navigate our work environments."

She offered several strategies that women can put to work immediately.

  • Internalize positive feedback. Women often downplay or even dismiss praise for their work, focusing on the mistakes made in the process rather than positive outcomes.
  • Recognize internal factors. Not feeling well or simply not getting enough sleep the night before can amplify imposter syndrome feelings.
  • Don’t discount environmental influences. Certain situations or personality types may trigger negative feelings. Once identified, it's possible to focus on managing the triggers and controlling the situation.
  • Manage disruptive thoughts. Meninger advised a shift "from anxiety into analysis." Once you recognize the things that trigger the feelings of self-doubt, it's possible to manage those feelings. Deep breathing exercises can address the physical response, and positive self-talk can help counter the negative thoughts.
  • Keep close track of your own success. Women across cultures are often taught to attribute their success to the collective rather than individual effort. Meninger urged the participants to keep an "accomplishments journal." Having a list of completed projects, solved problems, and celebrated wins can help counter feelings that your success is due to luck or that you don't contribute value. She added that such a record could also have practical benefits when it's time for self-evaluation or updating a resume.

A growth mindset

Meninger encouraged the participants to adopt a "growth mindset" that promotes lifelong learning, including learning from mistakes.

"When you have a growth mindset, you're less likely to experience imposter syndrome," she said. It enables women to identify skills they might learn or areas where they can build their expertise, rather than seeing inadequacies.

Simply adding the word "yet" to the end of a negative thought can be powerful, she said. Rather than "I don't know anything about this topic," the thought becomes, "I don't know anything about this topic yet."

Finally, she said everyone can contribute to creating an environment that minimizes the threat of imposter syndrome by fostering psychological safety. That can mean making more inclusive meetings by providing materials ahead of time so participants can prepare, recognizing those who don't speak up and asking for their contributions, and heading off those who interrupt or try to dominate.

"Meetings are where so much of the action happens and where so much insecurity comes up," Meninger said. "These are things we can all do to show up for one another." Managers likewise can make sure that new hires have the materials they need to get up to speed. She also suggested "celebrating mistakes" by having team members regularly share their missteps and what they learned from them.

"What that does is it normalizes that we're human, we all make mistakes, we don't need to hide it," she said. "And we can learn from each other's mistakes as well.”

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