Three Ways to Dispel Imposter Syndrome

Be open to learning, build a support system, and create a positive narrative to overcome feeling like a fraud

Illustration of a man with a mask in front of his face.
Illustration: iStockphoto
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THE INSTITUTEMany engineers have written about their experiences in dealing with imposter syndrome. They include Emilee Urbanek, a software engineer at Uber, who said in a post on the Uber Engineering blog that her feelings of being a fraud started when she made the transition from college student to full-time employee.

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when individuals doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent feeling that someone will notice that they’re frauds. Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes of Georgia State University introduced the term in 1978. They studied high-achieving women who, despite evidence of success and competence, felt like imposters in their respective fields.

According to research on the characteristics of imposter syndrome published by the International Journal of Behavioral Science, nearly 70 percent of individuals experience signs and symptoms of the phenomenon at least once in their life.

Here are three ways to help overcome imposter syndrome.

BUILD A SUPPORT SYSTEM

Cultivating strong professional relationships can help alleviate the feeling of being an imposter. “In my experience, confidence is not found but built, both on our own fearlessness and the people who support us when we make mistakes,” Urbanek wrote.

A supportive manager and team, for example, can help an employee build and maintain confidence. It’s advantageous to surround yourself with colleagues and managers who remain positive and encouraging, even when something with a project goes wrong.

Fay Shaw, a researcher at the Tufts University Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, in Medford, Mass., also found that peer support is important. She told the website ThinkSaveRetire that she experienced imposter syndrome while pursuing her doctorate in mechanical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle. While there, Shaw and another doctoral student in mechanical engineering created a group called Ladies in Engineering Graduate Studies. That group of women helped her face her fears.

“We met once a week and talked about classes, relationships with advisors and partners, taking qualifiers, and hurdles we faced in graduate school,” Shaw says.

 That kind of support system can help you with a problem and can supply someone to talk to when you’re feeling insecure. Having a support system can decrease stress and make you feel more connected, especially when others around you feel the same way you do, according to research on the consequences of poor social support published in Psychiatry.

Mentors are a great resource because they have more experience and can reassure you if what you’re feeling is normal. Knowing others have been in your position can make it less scary.

CREATING A POSITIVE NARRATIVE

It’s important to remember your successes instead of focusing only on your missteps. Everyone makes mistakes, which can help you grow both personally and professionally.

 “One thing that helps me is keeping a ‘hero’ file,” Florencia Rios Nicolas, president of the Ryerson Aerospace Course Union in Toronto, said in an article she wrote for Medium. Keeping prizes, certificates, and letters as mementos can be useful visual reminders, she said.

Shaw had a similar approach to creating a positive narrative. She would write down on paper such statements as “You have been studying as hard as you can” and “You are taking this seriously, and you will do the best you can.” Because those concrete affirmations were grounded in truth, looking at them helped her feel more confident before tests and presentations, she says.

BE OPEN TO LEARNING

Working with experienced professionals is an opportunity to learn. Technology is constantly changing, and new ideas are introduced every year. As you move along in your career, there is always room for growth. You can gain confidence as you learn from others, and that can help decrease your feelings of inadequacy.

“I realized that there will always be people who are better than me at anything,” Shaw says. “It means that I can learn from them.”

Asking questions and brainstorming with a manager or more experienced peers can help you gain knowledge. You get to see others’ perspectives on how to solve issues, and you can learn to think outside the box.

It’s easy to get pulled into the imposter-syndrome cycle, especially in a field as competitive as engineering. Many people forget that everyone was once a rookie. With more knowledge and experience, you can feel less like an imposter and be more confident in your abilities.

Have you ever felt like an imposter? How did you overcome the feeling?

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