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6 Ways to Understand and Squash Imposter Syndrome

Rachel Serwetz
Rachel Serwetz
July 17, 2023
Understanding Imposter Syndrome

In my experience providing career coaching to hundreds of professionals, imposter syndrome can be quite common. I define imposter syndrome as feeling a low sense of confidence or even a sense of uncertainty about one’s fit, capabilities, or potential as it relates to thriving in a certain role, job, or project. In this blog, we’re going to take a holistic view to analyze, understand, and reframe imposter syndrome so you can identify a few specific next steps that you can take to improve your readiness, assurance, and success moving forward.

1. Understanding Imposter Syndrome & Make Sense of the Variety of your Skills

Think about a spectrum, where on one side you have overconfidence, on the flip side you have underconfidence, and in the middle you have a sweet spot of “objectivity.” That sweet spot is difficult to attain but is exactly what we want to strive for: aim to understand your skillset objectively, as others would view it. 

It is possible that your lack of confidence is justified or not. There will most definitely be a variety of skills that you’re great at and a few that you’re seeking to improve, so your first goal is to be resourceful in order to understand yourself fairly. It is possible there is a skill you do need to improve at, or it is possible that you’re being hard on yourself. How might you leverage other people, online information, job postings, coaching, or other resources to get to this place of “objective understanding”? We’ll dive deeper below to give you more ideas on how exactly to do this.

Tip: You may want to seek out a past colleague or manager to solicit feedback from so you can get a true sense of what you’re great at and where you need to develop. 

It is expected that any individual will have a wide range of skill levels, affinities, and propensities. Sometimes, when feeling imposter syndrome, we assume a general inability to achieve something, rather than dividing up which elements we are natural at and which elements we need to improve at. 

Consider first that there are both “hard” skills (i.e. more functional or tactical like using Excel or data analysis) and “soft” skills (i.e. being a strong presenter or being very organized). 

Next, realize that there are a variety of ways of making sense of your skillset, such as what you’re excellent at, what you’re great at, what you’re good at, what you’re not great at. 

We can take it a step further to classify what you think you would be great at (with training), or what you think you would not be great or. 

We can take it another step further to classify what skills or activities you’d be interested in developing versus those that you would not be interested in.

Tip: Use a document to separate, articulate, and visualize the variety of these skill classifications.

Tip: Look at a target job posting, or even your current job’s expectations, and for each expectation or requirement, rank yourself according to the various skill classifications listed above. Aim to differentiate, understand, and narrow in on the skills you can, need to, or want to improve in.

2. Identify the Root Cause, Outside Influences, & Contextual Factors

Like anything else, knowing where, when, and why your feelings have arisen in the first place is a great place to start. Sometimes, feelings of inadequacy can come from a very early age, or perhaps there was a work situation that didn’t go well that is making you feel that you’d encounter something similar in other settings. I often see people have one difficult experience where they then assume that all others may be similar. You want to contextualize to understand when this feeling arose, what was hard about the situation, and if you did indeed fail in that experience, then what can you learn or do differently next time, or was there something in particular about that situation that made it more difficult than usual? 

Tip: Look back on situations that triggered your feelings, and separate what was in your control and what was out of your control. Identify what you can learn, improve, or do differently next time, and also document external factors of influence that affected your actions.

Tip: Based on how, when, where, and why your feelings came to be, aim to find a peer, mentor, coach, or another person to provide a listening ear. When you can make sense of the origination, you can better identify effective next steps.

3. Break any Misguided Assumptions

Oftentimes we have stories in our head that may be coming from an uninformed place. Be sure to reflect on how and why you’re approaching career decisions. Sometimes we’re making decisions for reasons that are subconscious to us. If you chat with a mentor, peer, or coach, they may be able to listen in to understand what your reasoning is and ensure that you’re making decisions about your path and your potential from a place of information, rather than a limiting belief. 

For example, sometimes people assume that they have to pursue a path that is in line with their college degree. I would want someone to feel open minded to their many options and never limit themselves solely based on past training, especially since it is common that one’s education or previous roles may not always feel aligned with what you are best at, natural at, or interested in pursuing moving forward. 

Know that many professionals make pivots and have an organic, evolving, zig-and-zag type of career, so this limiting belief is just one example of an approach to determining a career path that may not be necessary to hold onto and one that may not serve you.

Tip: Review this common list of limiting beliefs. Be sure to get support to unravel any hesitations, so that important career choices are grounded in information rather than letting a limiting mindset drive you.

4. Learn, Reflect, and Clarify your Best Career Path with Confidence

I find that many people feel a sense of imposter syndrome if and when they’re simply not sure which role or career path is a strong fit for them (which is common). If that’s the case, perform a process of career path exploration so that you can learn about yourself, identify viable role options, pursue research and networking with professionals, and deeply reflect, in order to confidently narrow in on which role is the best fit for you. If you are still debating two or more role options, this means you have more learning and/or reflection to do. 

No two roles are the same, which means that there will be a way for you to prioritize the order of which role is the best fit, or second best fit. Compare the suite of activities that each role entails and which best aligns with your strengths and affinities. 

Know that with a few weeks of learning and reflection, you will be able to better understand, compare, and prioritize the roles you’re considering, more confidently understand your fit and interests, and also specify the skills you want or need to develop further to pursue your intended career path. 

The beauty of careers is that there are hundreds of thousands of role options, so if you’re not feeling sure about your fit with a certain role or path, it is possible and likely that you can still explore and find a role that you do feel is a strong fit for you. With learning and reflection, you absolutely can and will reach a point of certainty on a fitting career path. You’ll know when you’ve reached that point of certainty because you’ll feel excited and relieved about your path forward -- if you’re still unsure, figure out what questions are lingering for you and continue on your exploratory search.

There are certain skills that take a lot of time and focus to reach competence in, but there are others that may not come naturally to you. If you’ve been pursuing a certain role or a certain area of skill development and either received a lot of constructive feedback, feel that it is misaligned, or feel that it is not natural for you, this could be a great sign to revisit career path exploration.

Tip: Instead of fighting to pursue something that feels misaligned, notice the misalignment and then utilize that as an opportunity to reflect and pivot closer towards a professional path that is more suitable for you.

5. Get a Growth Mindset & Get Active

Personally, I find that if there’s an area I’m not feeling confident in, that taking some action towards improving it makes me feel better. 

Figure out how you learn best, whether its by listening (i.e. Youtube), reading (books, blogs, etc), receiving training from other people (i.e. mentors or other professionals), through a course (certification, bootcamp, degree, diploma, etc), or whether you learn by doing (i.e. in a hands-on, project-oriented fashion).  

Networking with professionals is another great way to understand reputable, worthwhile resources or skill development options that are relevant to your roles of interest. 

Consider your personal learning preferences as well as which experiences a hiring manager may prefer to hear about or see on your resume, and then pick one format or method of skill development that you can dive into, and dive in! 

Be open-minded to the fact that you can and will improve if you put in time and effort towards skill development. If you embrace a growth mindset, you will recognize that by committing and investing time to your development, you can and will improve in the areas you hope to.

6. Gain Perspective, Go Deeper & Continue

Don’t forget where you started. Think back to many years ago and identify a few skills you had never understood or even been aware of before. Remember the trajectory you have already pursued, and know that you can reach the next level, the same way you got to the place you’re in today - through effort, hard work, time, and commitment.

Imposter syndrome may require going deeper during coaching or therapy to truly understand and unravel. It may not be resolved in one session or one day, so if and when the feeling re-arises, aim to understand what you feel and why, get support to talk through it, and identify practical next steps that will help you move forward. Remain both patient and persistent to reach your sense of “objective” self understanding.

Tip: Checkout this meditation for navigating imposter syndrome.

While careers often involve making big, important choices, this can also mean there is a risk in terms of what is driving your mindset, your decisions, and your outcomes. Get the right support to ensure that you reframe limiting beliefs and that you only make definitive career choices when you are finally feeling informed and confident. There are absolutely a slew of practical steps you can take, and a ton of supportive people and resources to ensure that you get there. 

6 Ways to Understand and Squash Imposter Syndrome

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Rachel Serwetz’ early professional experience was at Goldman Sachs in Operations and at Bridgewater Associates in HR. From there, she was trained as a coach at NYU and became a certified coach through the International Coach Federation. After this, she worked in HR Research at Aon Hewitt and attained her Technology MBA at NYU Stern. Throughout her career, she has helped hundreds of professionals with career exploration and for the past 4.5+ years she has been building her company, WOKEN, which is an online career exploration platform to coach professionals through the process of clarifying their ideal job and career path. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at Binghamton University and has served as a Career Coach through the Flatiron School, Columbia University, WeWork, and Project Activate.

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