Imposter Alert! How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

imposter syndromeWhat are the best tips and tricks to overcome imposter syndrome, boost your confidence, and generally “fake it til you make it”? Reader C wonders:

I am very young for my position, and although I know full well I have the competencies for my job, I am also a bit socially awkward/insecure. When I am introduced as *My Title*, I recoil a little and get nervous about what people must be thinking to the point that I can’t concentrate or I get flustered. My rational side tells me I have gotten to where I am because I am a skilled and competent person, but I definitely suffer from blinding Imposter syndrome and general insecurity. I know my “young woman” appearance, and my nervous composure and speech in some situations ruins others’ perception of me, especially older colleagues that hold junior positions. How can I calm my nerves and appear more confident and competent?

Great question, C — like I’ve said many times before, I definitely suffer from imposter syndrome myself and think a lot of intelligent, overachieving chicks do — and we just talked about women’s low confidence yesterday.  (This comic is awesome and on point, btw.) We’ve talked about how to avoid acting young, and how to dress professionally without looking like you think you’re in charge, but not in a few years — and how to act more confident is a bit of a different ball of wax.  In terms of actual, practical tips for overcoming this:

  • Improve your body language.  As the Confidence Code authors noted in their video interview with Hanna Rosin, adopting better body language is actually more helpful to women at feeling more confident than trying to address the mental issues — so sit up straight, deepen your voice, and generally try to be aware of your body language.  You may want to have a friend videotape you, so you can further pick out things that need work.  This TED talk from Amy Cuddy on body language may be helpful — particularly around the 14-minute mark she talks about how practicing “high power poses” can help you before you head into stressful situations.
  • Practice, practice, practice.  If you’re uncomfortable speaking, join Toastmasters, or consider taking improv classes. If you’re uncomfortable networking, force yourself to go to EVERY networking opportunity that comes up — go to every alumni event, join Meet Up groups for your hobbies as well as your careers, and generally say “yes” to every invitation you get for a while.  A great place for Reader C to start is with her reaction to her Title — practice saying it over and over (Hi, I’m C,  _[insert title here]_”) until you stop recoiling.  Now practice saying it with a confident, friendly smile.
  • Look the part.  Wear enough makeup to look awake and alive — it does affect how people perceive your competence!  Jean at ExtraPetite has some killer posts on this, including dressing for confidence and looking older in casual clothes.
  • Finally: read up on women’s executive news.  As someone who’s been following this beat for 6+ years, it’s stunning how often women and confidence and the imposter syndrome and more come up — and it makes it feel like less of a deep, dark, horrible secret of yours, and more like an overachieving chick’s cross to bear.

Readers, do you identify with imposter syndrome? What concrete steps have you taken to overcome it? Has learning about imposter syndrome helped you overcome it?

Pictured: Shutterstock / Marcin Sylwia Ciesielski


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Imposter Alert! How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome


  1. This could have been ME, as littel as 3 year’s ago! You just have to have CONFIEDENCE, and move forward in your job. Think of the peeople listening to you as all sitting there in their underwear. That will make you bold b/c none of them want to stand up b/c they are embarased about their tucheses!

  2. Two things help me.

    1. If I am nervous, I give myself a little acting pep talk. If Denise Richards can be a nuclear scientist in a Bond movie, I can be an awesome lawyer in the AIMS movie. If you’re feeling out of sorts in a situation, creating a little back story for yourself as to why you’re going to be great right now can be helpful.

    2. I try to remind myself that everyone else is just faking it, too. I don’t mean that literally, but I do think in a lot of situations no one really knows what the h*ll they are doing and they’re just pretending, hoping no one will notice (e.g., hello, residential mortgage backed securities!) — somehow reminding myself that other people are “faking it” too makes me feel much more able to handle what I otherwise feel overwhelmed handling.

    • As for your point #2, I think that especially applies for attorneys that are going to argue in court. When I first started out as an attorney, I would arrive early for my hearings to watch the hearings/trials before mine. I realized that even the best courtroom attorneys can fumble their words, get flustered, have to look at their notes, and the like. That really took the pressure off that I had put on myself to have a “flawless” performance.

      • Anne Shirley :

        Once I realized that the judge wasn’t there to critique my performance, but to get the info needed to reach a decision I was able to relax at argument. I felt like I was faking “being perfect awesome lawyer” but I can easily be “person in the room who knows the most about this motion” even if my presentation isn’t TV worthy.

        • Anonymous :

          I really, really love this and am going to adopt that attitude. It’s not a moot court argument.

    • Magdeline :

      I love your #1! I’ve had the same thoughts.

  3. I do think that news of other women executives is really helpful. Even when it’s difficult, like the Jill Abramson events, it’s now out in the open.

  4. Great timing for this post as I just read this article

    I agree with this sentence: “Rather than advocating that an entire class of people start faking it ’til they make it, maybe we should be coaching voters, students, bosses and viewers at home how to be a bit more skeptical of the loudest guy (or gal) in the room.”

  5. Diana Barry :

    I found my speech to get better and less nervous-sounding if there is more oomph behind it. Don’t um and ah, and don’t use up talk or a tiny nervous voice, just slow down and take large breaths so there is FORCE behind your words. I wouldn’t suggest deepening your voice if it feels bad because it may be damaging. You could also use a voice coach or Alexander technique practitioner to help you develop a more authoritative sound in your speech.

    • I had watched a video from Roger Love about how your voice sounds and ever since, I make sure I am more articulate and that my voice resonates.
      +1 on avoiding the uhm and ah etc. You have to deliver whatever you are talking about as though you are are the expert.

  6. I’m dealing with imposter syndrome outside of my professional life, and one thing I’ve learned so far from my therapist is to roll with it. Let’s say you are COO. Explore how a COO would act, would dress, etc. then act the part. When you catch yourself falling into the “this isn’t me/I can’t do this” pattern, challenge it, by reaffirming the experiences that have gotten you to this point. Literally, I keep a little list of positive wins, so when I have an imposter moment and need a pick me up, I have it right there. At some point, your mind catches up and you realize you’re the person behind the curtain and it’s really weird, but very gratifying. Good luck!

    • anonymama :

      Yes, I find it helps if you sort of role-play the situation out in your head how you want it to go, with you as the confident, in-control person you would like to be, then when you are in the actual situation it sort of echoes. Also, try not to dwell at all on the negatives of how you did it wrong a previous time, it will just make you more nervous; instead, focus on, and replay in your head, how you want it to go.

  7. Anonattorney :

    I’m not sure if Reader C really has imposter syndrome, or if she just has general social anxiety. You have to treat networking and public speaking like any other part of your job. Read up on tips for improving your skills, take classes (or join Toastmasters), and practice practice practice. That’s the only way you’re going to get better at it.

    Start going to as many networking events as you can. Take a friend or colleague with you so you have a wingperson. Even better if you can find someone who’s particularly good at networking so you can see how it’s done. Have a couple of stock conversation topics that are relevant and interesting to the people you will be talking to (read news, be somewhat invested in pop culture). Listen intently to what people have to say and ask them lots of questions. Practice some canned phrases about your job and what you do so that you have something quick and easy to say if asked.

    Stand up straight, use a firm handshake, wear clothes that make you feel comfortable and confident, and keep your hair in a style that doesn’t make you touch it. Make eye contact and speak clearly. You don’t have to talk a lot. If you get nervous, answer questions directed to you briefly and then turn the conversation back on the other person.

  8. Clementine :

    Advice that has really helped me:

    Given in a Very Important Meeting type of a situation. You’re just as intelligent as the other people in this room, they’ve just been around longer and talk louder.

    The longer I’m around… the more accurate it seems.

  9. Somewhat related, in what I think contributes to imposter syndrome…what do you do when the office culture norm is that people are just not very nice?

    People are routinely snarky over email/in meetings, etc. and it makes me nervous to ask questions and give input. If you don’t take initiative, others act annoyed that they handle the workload. But as soon as you do take it, you’re reminded if your place on the totem pole. Damned if you do/damned if you don’t. It is a very high-pressure burn out job, so I’m sure that contributes to it. But sheesh.

    Has anyone ever worked in an environment like that? If it’s good for a resume…how long did you stick it out for?

    • LadyLawyer :

      I’ve been in this situation, unfortunately. I did my best to just to rise above and ignore the snark, but it wasn’t always effective. One thing that did help was defending others when they were the butt of the snark. So if A belittled B for asking a stupid question or for offering insight, I would say “actually, B has a good question. I would like to know as well.” This would usually turn B into my friend because it made B feel more accepted. Turns out that most people have bad self-esteem in these environments and many contribute to the snark out of their own need to feel better about themselves. All we can do is to try to change the culture into one that values insight and self-improvement.

      If that doesn’t work, then get out. Take your talent to a place that values it. IMO that 2 years (3 if you’re really learning) is the max amount of time you should spend in a crummy environment for the purpose of building your resume.

      • Thank you! This was helpful. I’ve been here a year, and I think I have plateau’d in how much I’m learning (it’s not a substance-heavy position, more operational). Lately I’ve realized I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to work in an environment that’s NOT like this, so I’d like to move on before I’m completely lost to this mentality.

        I will also try your strategy when others are the snarky recipient, and I will just continue biting the bullet when I’m on the receiving end of the nastiness.

  10. I thought this recent article about who graduates from college is relevant to a discussion about imposter syndrome.

    Basically, it said that people who are poor don’t finish degrees at the same rate as those who are rich because the poor students internalize the bumps along the way as meaning that they’re not good enough. The interventions that worked are really amazingly small.

    Maybe reading this will encourage all of us to pass on a story about a time we felt like we didn’t belong to someone who might be in that situation today.