Your manager hands you a stretch assignment or even better, gives you a promotion. But all you feel is a nagging sense of doubt about your own ability — like a Greek chorus warning: “You’re not ready for this!”
Getting a vote of confidence from our leaders should leave us feeling more confident and powerful than ever, shouldn’t it? For many women, it actually does just the opposite, giving us intense pangs of self-doubt. We criticize our own performance, convinced we’re not measuring up, even when we’re getting good feedback.
Why is this happening?
Meet Your Inner Critic
Some self-doubt is natural when we take on new responsibilities. After all, we may not have 100% of the skills and experience we need going in. A little fear can even be useful when it motivates us to assess our gaps and make a plan to fill them.
But sometimes the voice of self-doubt can feel more like an unruly backseat driver. Researchers tend to call that negative, critical voice our “inner critic.” Everyone has one.
But, bottom line: if self-doubt leaves you anxious at the end of the day, or second-guessing what you (or colleagues) say in meetings, then you’ll want to learn to turn the volume down on that inner noise.
Sometimes the inner critic is strong enough that it begins to undermine our confidence. Known as Imposter Syndrome, it’s characterized by strong feelings that we’re a fraud, and that others will eventually find out the “truth” about our abilities. And it can start to impact our performance at work.
This was the case for my client Erin*, who secured a coveted promotion to the executive VP ranks of her firm. On the surface, it was a crowning achievement of her decade of success in a heavily male-dominated field. But her smile felt forced. She felt like all eyes were on her, waiting to see if she measured up to her new title.
Instead of relaxing and enjoying her upgraded role and salary bump, Erin was feeling more pressure than ever. In meetings, she scoured the faces of her new peers for signs they might be doubting her performance. She resisted sharing her own ideas, worried that she might say the thing that would expose her as woefully unprepared for her new duties. Ironically, she was probably the most prepared person in the room; the constant self-doubt led her to double-down on the amount of time she spent shoring up her knowledge and double-checking presentations. But the extra time at work also meant less time with her five-year-old daughter, and an embarrassingly short fuse when she was at home.
She started to wonder if the promotion had even been worth it. In her old role, she knew her stuff, and hadn’t needed to work this hard. She even considered trying to get her old job back.
We worked together to quiet her inner critic, so that she could begin to see herself as the trailblazing leader that others saw.
The Role of Bias
Imposter syndrome is regularly “diagnosed” in women in leadership roles. Even high achieving women who have collected prestigious degrees and titles aren’t immune from feeling it.
Early psychological research led many leadership scholars to conclude that imposter syndrome was some sort of pathology. If they could just “fix” their imposter syndrome, the thinking went, these people could stop doubting themselves and start feeling happy, confident, and fulfilled.
But new research suggests that imposter syndrome is not some sort of failing. If anything, it’s a sign of how finely tuned our internal radar is. If you’ve been socialized as a woman, you’ve likely absorbed big and small cultural messages about who belongs in leadership and who doesn’t. This can be as subtle as the holiday newsletter picturing the all-white, all-male executive team. Or it can be a pattern of how women are treated in meetings.
In the Harvard Business Review, Ruchika Tulsyan and Jodi-Ann Burey assert, “Many of us across the world are implicitly, if not explicitly, told we don’t belong in white- and male-dominated workplaces.”
In cultures that routinely insinuate that female leaders are less capable, and that working mothers are more expendable, it’s not surprising that we end up questioning whether we really measure up.
So, it’s helpful to understand that feeling like an imposter often has roots in real biases. And yet, that doesn’t mean we’re stuck feeling this way.
Taming the Inner Critic
The most common advice for dealing with your inner critic is “fake it til you make it.” Or maybe you’ve been encouraged to recite affirmations of how amazing and smart you are. The trouble with this advice is that it doesn’t do much to address the real anxieties and pressures that come up when we’re working outside our comfort zone.
So, what can you do to regain your mojo?
1) Learn to identify the voice of your inner critic
Listen in and learn to identify the voice of your inner critic. You’ll probably realize that the voice of the imposter typically offers a predictable monologue of a few doubt-inducing phrases. Maybe it says, “you have no idea what you’re doing,” or “they probably think you’re clueless.”
You might even give that voice a name. One colleague of mine calls hers Frank. She’ll then tell herself, “Oh, there goes Frank again, telling me my work isn’t good enough.” Calling out your imposter voice can remind you that it isn’t the voice of truth. It’s just good old Frank, like the reliably cranky uncle at your holiday dinners.
2) Question internalized messages about your capabilities
Once you understand how your inner critic speaks to you, consider where it got its script. When you notice the critic in your ear, ask yourself, “What is it that I’ve heard or experienced that’s making me want to believe that voice?”
Question whether you truly believe those outside messages. Chances are, you don’t.
3) Seek out diverse role models and mentors
Part of what can make our inner critic so pernicious is feeling like we don’t have a place to share our doubts or any help navigating them. Imposter feelings aren’t something we can easily discuss with our colleagues or friends… and certainly not our bosses.
Tulsyan and Burey posit that those socialized as men often benefit from a built-in network of colleagues who look like them. Those networks can offer encouragement and advice at critical moments. Having that support and camaraderie may help men to view doubt as a normal phase of growth, and allow them to move through it more easily.
Women may have to work harder to build those support systems, but they’re no less important. If your workplace isn’t teeming with a diverse set of successful role models — and let’s be honest, few places are — then it’s time to expand your circle. Women’s leadership groups, a trusted mentor, an experienced coach, or even a supportive alumni organization can provide steadfast support to help you move through challenging circumstances.
4) Recall your options and resources
Even in a recession, your current gig is probably not the only game in town. If your imposter is right — unlikely, but let’s go there — and you’re not cut out for your work, remind yourself of the skills and abilities you have to fall back on, the things that got you this far in your life and career. When clients do this exercise, they often discover that they have options — usually a lot of options. Seeing how resilient, resourceful, and capable you are can take the pressure off and get you back into the zone of enjoying your current opportunity to learn and grow.
If you start hearing your own inner critic, these steps can help you successfully manage it. In fact, learning to silence that negative voice can shore up your confidence to take on even bigger challenges down the road.
Shawna Samuel, MBA is the founder of The Mental Offload, an executive coaching firm focused on the unique needs of women balancing leadership and family responsibilities. She is also the host of The Mental Offload podcast.
*Name has been changed