5 Tips for steering through Imposter Syndrome

Small feet in big shoes

Do you have moments when you wonder if someone is going to discover you’re not really up for the job? If you’re like most successful people, your answer is Yes and it’s called Imposter Syndrome.

The other day a client stumbled across this TED talk by Atlassian Founder, Mike Cannon-Brookes and it really struck a cord.To support them, and you, here’s my 5 tips for making sure Imposter Syndrome doesn’t get in your way.

  1. As Mike explains in his TED talk the first tip is about not freezing when the feeling hits but using this hit of cortisol (your stress hormone) for good. From a neuroscience perspective what he’s describing is recognising that you need enough cortisol that you’re motivated to act, but not so much that you get the amygdala hijack that we know creates the ‘flight/fight/freeze’ response. We may not like it, but without a little shot of cortisol, we don’t tend to pay attention to things, especially if we’re busy and running between multiple priorities. That shot of fear helps us focus. So, ask yourself, when you feel like a fraud, what specifically am I afraid of? Usually it’s appearing stupid, unprepared or inadequate. The next useful question is, what information or consultation do I need to address this logically? It’s Mike’s example where he quickly swatted up on the topic; if you’re squirming, you’ll do some fast, focused learning. So say, Thanks cortisol!, put your prefrontal cortex (logical brain) back on, and go expend the energy usefully.
  2. Find a balanced place between backing yourself and humbleness. Our ego has an important job which is to make sure we belong to the herd. If it senses we might threaten our sense of belonging (sticking too far out or messing up), then shame kicks in to stop us in our tracks. When we feel shame, we either blame (that’s the fight mechanism) or we flock (quick, blend in!) or we freeze (what just happened to my brain functioning?!). All normal animal responses. To counter this, my second tip is to pay attention to ‘right sizing’ yourself. Think ‘how can I be not too big, and not too small?’
  3. Purpose is a big one. When Imposter Syndrome starts its corrosive work, pause and remember who you’re doing this work for. Your good motivation is a wonderful compass. What are you trying to give, share or make accessible for others? Who would you like to benefit? The wellspring of our courage more often comes from our commitment not to ourselves but to others. Reconnecting to this is grounding.
  4. My dad used to say you can become a world expert in pretty much anything in 5 years. Technical knowledge is important, but the ability to ask questions, listen deeply, coordinate diverse perspectives, understand and synthesise information… these are the meta-skills that count. Don’t get knocked off your perch because someone knows more than you do. Instead, lean into your meta-skills with curiosity. Chances are they’re your genius anyway.
  5. Finally, if you find yourself feeling beset by worry, self-doubt and fear, a therapist is a great thing to consider, especially in these times. If you have just taken in a big new job then my experience is it’ll take about 2 years to move thru the most intense part of the imposter phase, and coaching makes a big difference. Whichever way you approach it, add some personal reflection, sharing and growth to the mix. Not only will it normalise it, but the oxytocin and dopamine that come with these experiences is a handy antidote for that cortisol.

If you’ve just started a new leadership position, take a moment and reach out. We’re here for this phase with loads of resources and options.  Drop me a line at elise@leadershipspace.com.au.


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