5 Ways Female Executives Battle Imposter Syndrome

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You’ve made it. As a successful female leader, you’ve worked hard to get where you are, pushing yourself every step of the way to be the best you can be. And now that you’re finally in a position of power, you’re probably feeling more confident and self-assured than ever. At least, you think you should.

But why do you still hear a nagging whisper at the back of your mind? Why is that rude little voice that’s followed you around throughout your entire career still trying to convince you that you have no idea what you’re doing?

Imposter syndrome is rooted in fearful, unfounded beliefs that we might not always be conscious of. It may manifest as feeling like a fraud, fearing that any minute now, the world will realize that you actually have no idea what you’re doing, or the belief that someone else can do your job much better than you can. These insidious and incredibly damaging thoughts are fueled by the perception that everyone else has it all figured out (they don’t!) and our desire to always have it all together. We want to be experts before we even start. But, what if we focused on becoming experts along the way instead? 

What’s crazy about impostor syndrome is that it doesn’t go away once you’ve made it to the top of the corporate food chain. For many, it gets worse. Especially when you’ve recently taken on a new role or additional responsibilities. As an executive coach, I’ve worked with my share intelligent, driven, high-performing female leaders. And every single one of them, no matter their level of success, has wrestled with some form of impostor syndrome. Myself included! So, you’re in great company. And, the good news is, there are actionable ways to combat this negative thought pattern. Here’s how.

Five Ways to Stop Impostor Syndrome in Its Tracks

  1. Listen to Women Who’ve Been There Before
    I can personally assure you that you aren’t the first badass female executive to secretly struggle with imposter syndrome. Sometimes, simply knowing that you aren’t alone is enough to help you push through those negative thoughts. So, start by seeking out authentic accounts from successful leaders who are brave enough to admit that they didn’t know for sure what they were doing as they were doing it. You’ll come away less isolated and will probably pick up some great pointers, too!The Freakonomics Secret Life of CEOs series and Harvard Business Review’s Women at Work podcast are both fantastic places to start.

  1. Cultivate a Circle of Mentors
    Cultivating a circle of mentors at different stages in their careers will help you to feel supported – especially when someone you respect and admire admits to feeling the same way. Being open and vulnerable tends to inspire others to do the same, so you might have to start the conversation. And it doesn’t have to be scary! You can call up a former colleague or a longtime mentor and ask her something simple, like “do you ever feel like you’re just making it all up as you go?” If she’s honest, she’ll answer with a resounding “yep!”Sharing your advice and struggles with mentees who are still building their careers can be an excellent exercise as well. Reflecting on how far you’ve come and drawing from your experience to help others can help you build confidence, and serve as a reminder that you’re in your position for a reason: you’ve earned it.

  1. Partner with a Coach
    Working with a coach who will help you to better identify opportunities to stretch yourself and to avoid situations that aren’t conducive to your success. As an executive, there are constant competing demands on your time, your energy, and your sanity, so having someone to help you sift through the chaos can be a huge relief. Plus, it’s always nice to be able to call up your coach when you need to vent, brainstorm, or strategize.As an executive coach, I work with my clients to identify the root cause of their fears around failure, to own their power, and interrupt their counterproductive thought patterns. You don’t have to do any of this alone!

  1. Practice Interrupting Your Inner Critic
    Noticing your destructive, imposter syndrome-fueled thoughts in real time takes some practice, but the more aware you are of these negative thoughts, the better you’ll be at shutting them off. So, the next time you notice that your inner critic is running her mouth, challenge her! Ask yourself, who do I think could do this better? Why? What have they specifically demonstrated that indicates that they could do a better job with this? Digging deeper allows you to break through those negative perceptions and call them out for what they are: false.Taking time to think through the answers to these questions can help you to realize that imposter syndrome is causing you to think illogically about your actual abilities.

  1. Shift Your Approach to Complex Tasks
    As an executive, the scale of your responsibilities can sometimes be overwhelming. There’s so much that goes into large-scale initiatives like establishing an entirely new department, driving a mission-critical project, or re-launching a product, that you might feel understandably paralyzed at times. But, simple mindset shifts can keep imposter syndrome at bay.Remind yourself that every new task is an opportunity for you to grow as a leader. Adopting a mantra like, “doing this will add to my repertoire of skills” or “I’ve never done this before, so it’ll help me grow” can help you to vanquish unhelpful thoughts, so that you can focus on what’s most important. And remember, you don’t need to tackle everything all at once. Thinking of complex projects as a series of achievable steps will keep you from getting overwhelmed. And, if you know that you can complete each step of the process – no matter how monumental – you know you can tackle the whole thing, too!

At the root of impostor syndrome is a gap between your self-image and what you’re actually capable of. And if you let it, it’ll hold you back from going for the next big job, making a major ask, or taking a worthwhile risk. Redirecting the energy you spend worrying that you’re not enough and funneling it into being enough and focusing on your work will help you to be more efficient, productive and confident. Claim it. Own it. You’ve earned it.  

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