Addressing the Imposter in You

It seems only fitting that I address imposter syndrome after launching our new women’s focused podcast, Ask With Confidence- another step in my journey out of nursing. For months I have been plagued with the fears of “what if…” and feeling like how can I empower women to find confidence when I don’t have it fully figured out myself yet? And then it hit me. I don’t need to have it all figured out because no one else does. 


I was recently privy to be part of conversations amongst those who I admire and who, from the outside, appear to have it all together and discovered that even with success, there still comes fear. It’s a matter of what you do with that fear that will determine how you progress. Do you let that fear stop you? Or do you push forward and past it?


So what exactly is imposter syndrome?


Imposter syndrome is defined as the persistent inability to perceive success as deserved and as a direct result of your skills. Those who suffer with it often attribute their success to luck from a result of behaviors such as staying up all night to prepare, or just being in the right place at the right time. This view often results in a person continuously doing more work than is necessary to complete a task. For example, if you stayed up 6 hours one night to complete a task, the next time you might stay up all night, and then the time after that you might feel like you need to stay up two nights in a row, and it just becomes a slippery slope of overdoing behaviors.


Studies have shown that this goes hand in hand with perfectionism. I went through an entire phase in late high school and early college where I would rewrite my notes to make the handwriting “perfect.” Needless to say, I also felt A TON of pressure to succeed and was afraid of failing even though I got straight A’s.


There are two ways that perfectionism is shown in those with imposter syndrome: either spending more time than is necessary to complete a project, or avoiding a project all together because of the perceived risk of failing the task.  Both of these behaviors are a result of the perceived fear of failure and how it would be interpreted by other people. 


Imposter syndrome also has a lot to do with a lack of self confidence and can impact anyone. High achieving and successful people can still struggle with imposter syndrome. For example, when I was rewriting my notes, I was still getting straight A’s and graduated as valedictorian. From an outside perspective, I was extremely high achieving and very successful. It doesn’t mean that I felt it. 


The good news is that imposter syndrome is not a permanent state of being. Our minds have the ability to change, adapt, and learn-  it’s just more difficult as an adult because our neural pathways get more ingrained as we get older. 


The bad news is that unlearning this process takes time since the neural pathways are less flexible and it has taken you years to establish and develop the imposter syndrome mindset. Just like any other habit forming situation- such as going to the gym, establishing healthier eating patterns, or learning a new language- it takes time and effort to establish new behaviors and new thinking patterns. 


So what are some steps we can take to begin changing our mindset?


Find a mentor. Mentors are great resources to bounce ideas off of and get help when you are feeling stuck. Also, they may have already experienced many of the things you are currently going through and will be able to help you navigate those difficult situations. A good mentor is someone who will help guide you and be a resource to go to particularly if the skills are new. 


Challenge your thoughts.

  • Reframe failure as a learning opportunity. Humans are imperfect beings and we all make mistakes. Making a mistake gives you the ability to learn and do better the next time. Failing doesn’t mean the end. Think of riding a bike. Did you get it perfectly the first time you tried? Probably not, you would fall and then try again. By failing, you are providing yourself data on how to improve. 


When I was in high school, I studied abroad in England, had the time of my life, and met my best friends who I still keep in contact with today. However, before joining the program in England, I originally planned to study abroad in France and was rejected. I failed. There are two ways to look at this:


  1. If I had been accepted to France, I would’ve missed out on the opportunity I had in England and ultimately missed out on the connections I was able to make
  2. If I had accepted failure, I would have missed out on the opportunity and connections I made in England. 


Ultimately, my rejection of failure and pushing past it opened up a new and better opportunity for me.


  • Identify your skills, experiences, and what you do know. People wouldn’t ask you to complete a task if they didn’t think you were capable of doing it. It would be a waste of time and money for a company to assign work to someone they are expecting to fail. You were chosen for a reason. 


  • Remind yourself that it is normal to not know everything. We all have to start somewhere with a new task. Even those who are experts in their fields had to learn to get to where they are and have made many mistakes in the process.


  • Talk about what you are experiencing. Those with imposter syndrome tend to internalize the thoughts and feel as if they are on an island.We get stuck in our thoughts because our brains don’t have an alternative way of thinking about the problem yet. Allow others to validate and challenge your perceptions. Some of my biggest breakthroughs in how I think about things have occurred because of someone else’s input. It doesn’t always mean I agree with what is said, it just allows for a new perspective.


PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE! Eleanor Roosevelt said it best in her famous quote, “do something everyday that scares you.” New habits are uncomfortable because our brain isn’t familiar with them. The more we do an activity, the less of a shock it is to our system.


My first day as a practicing nurse I was made charge nurse and I was terrified. Not only did I not feel ready to be out of orientation, but I most certainly did not feel ready to be in a leadership position. But guess what? I survived that first day, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and eventually I thrived in that leadership position. The second day, I went back and it was still scary, but not as terrifying as that first day. Everyday I would do it again and feel more comfortable and more confident until the point that I did not even think about it anymore. 


Taking the steps to challenge your imposter syndrome will be difficult, uncomfortable, and maybe even scary because it goes against those habits your brain has already learned, but it does get better


Here are some more resources from the American Negotiation Institute:


Happy Negotiating!


Written by Katherine Knapke RN, BSN – communications & operations manager

Katherine Knapke is the newest addition to our American Negotiation Institute Team! As a nurse, mediator, and the Communications & Operations Manager at the American Negotiation Institute, Katherine is passionate about using her years of experience to address the psychological, emotional, and societal concerns that impact women in the workplace.

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