Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

Don’t let self-doubt stand in the way of your success.

Atiya Abdelmalik remembers the offer all too well. As the director of community programs and employee volunteerism for Highmark Health in Pittsburgh, Abdelmalik was asked to be the chief medical officer’s special assistant on healthcare reform. “Inside I was thinking, ‘Who, me? Why me? I don’t know anything about healthcare reform,’” she remembers. “I was faced with something new, and fear — instead of confidence — took over.” Abdelmalik’s feelings are common symptoms of what is known as impostor syndrome, says Valerie Young, Ed.D. This constant nagging of self-doubt typically occurs among high achievers who can’t accept their success and attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than ability. “Nobody likes to fail, but people with impostor syndrome experience shame with their failures, and that’s the big difference,” Young explains.

The author of “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It,” Young says women are particularly vulnerable. “Mistakes, failures and criticism are harder on women because women are more likely to internalize,” she says. For example, often when men are criticized, they simply dismiss the critic. Women, on the other hand, often allow criticism to make them feel inadequate.

Women pay a high price for these self-defeating beliefs, says Christy Uffelman, a partner with Align Leadership in Pittsburgh. “It keeps us from volunteering for those stretch assignments that could boost our careers and from asking for the raise or the promotion that we’ve earned,” Uffelman says.

Impostor syndrome can feel debilitating, but it doesn’t have to control your life. Young offers a three-step process to reclaim your self-confidence.

1. Normalize:
Realize you’re not the only person who has these feelings — countless other people have impostor thoughts. By acknowledging the prevalence of impostor syndrome, you take the shame out of it, says Young.

2. Reframe:
Turn discouraging messages into positive ones. For example, if you are offered a new project at work, your immediate reaction may be, “Oh no, I don’t know how to do this.” Change that thought into, “This is a great learning opportunity that will strengthen my skill set.” When you change how you think, you will eventually change how you feel.

3. Recognize:
Understand what your pattern is, what coping mechanisms you use to mask your self-doubt, and consider the price you pay for them. “Ask yourself, ‘What will happen if this doesn’t change?’” Young says. “Then you can make a conscious decision to keep this lousy pattern in your life or to begin chipping away at it.”

And that’s exactly what Abdelmalik did. She turned the negative voices in her head into a personal challenge and became an expert on healthcare reform. “What I wasn’t going to do was fail,” she says. “If I am invited to that challenge, I have to give it my all.”


This post originally appeared in PNC Insights for Women in Business.