Welcome to Refinery29’s new career column Advice From A Nice Girl. Each month, readers will be asking Fran Hauser, bonafide boss and author of the book The Myth Of The Nice Girl, their hardest career quandaries, from managing your overly emotional boss to overcoming your biggest work fear. But this advice column comes with a twist — the reader has to take Fran’s advice and report back.
This month, a 28-year-old communications specialist from Baltimore writes in about the problem most women face: imposter syndrome.
Question: I've been fairly successful in my career thus far, but I feel like I'm a child wearing adult clothes. I definitely worked really hard to get to where I am, and I’m capable, but I do find myself being nervous that one day my boss will look at me, proclaim my uselessness, and fire me on the spot. I know how ridiculous that may sound, and I know it's just my own confidence that needs a change. Any advice on how to escape that feeling or things I can do in moments of doubt to shake away feeling like an impostor?
Answer: You know what? We all feel like that sometimes. Even your boss! Recognising that you’re not alone in feeling this way should release some of your anxiety. As does understanding that true confidence is not something that you are simply born with. It’s a skill you can develop by paying close attention to your successes in life and how you accomplished them.
To this day, when I’m struggling with a decision or feeling insecure, I go back to the evidence. It’s really hard to argue with facts. Not long ago, I was giving a big speech to 300 managers, and I was quite nervous. A close friend told me, “Think back and remember a time when you gave a good speech.” It was simple but solid advice. Before delivering that big presentation, I thought back to a speech I’d given a few years before that my team said really resonated with them. I visualised that speech in as much detail as I could possibly remember — what I’d said, how I said it, and what it had felt like to succeed. This made me feel far more confident.
This purposeful self-reflection will result in what I call evidence-based confidence. To develop your own, start keeping a list of your successes to look back on whenever those feelings of self-doubt creep up. Ask yourself the following questions:
When have I done something difficult . . . and survived?
When have I made wise choices?
When have I done something that has created value for the company I work for, and how did I feel after that happened?
When was the last time I felt really good about my contribution to a project?
True confidence is not something that you are simply born with — it’s a skill you can develop
When you are in those moments of doubt, look at this list and remind yourself of the great work you've done and how much value you have already added. Think about specific details and how you felt during those successes. Confidence is cumulative — it’s based on both positive and negative situations. Think about the failures that you’ve had or mistakes you’ve made (which we all have): what have you learned from them? What have you done better since then?
You have the power to change the conversation in your head.
One trick I like to use is reframing your thinking. It’s a glass half-full approach where you flip the script of your internal narrative. First, write down your imposter thought; then write the opposite way to look at about the same scenario. For instance, If you were invited to a meeting with all the highest level execs, your natural inclination might be to think, “I’m going to be surrounded by all these brilliant people, and they’re going to figure me out.” Instead, write down, “I’m going to be surrounded by all these brilliant people, and I will learn so much!” Research shows by reframing the thought in a positive way, your brain and body will begin to believe it.
In the end, what we show and tell ourselves is the most powerful tool we have to finding true confidence.
Follow-Up: I found Fran’s advice was incredibly helpful. It is powerful to write down the answers to the questions she posed, and read them in times of feeling like an “imposter.” It reinforces that I deserve to be in certain positions based on real facts and accomplishments. It also reminds that, “Hey, I’ve done this before, I’ve faced a tough or uncertain situation before, and I am still here to tell the tale!” It is powerful to remind yourself of your resilience, it has definitely helped boost my confidence in new ways.
My manager asked me to lead a new effort on how to innovate our team’s client delivery. This new role intimidated me because it was brand new so there was no precedent for success or how it should look, and I know how important innovation is to our overall portfolio, so it would be all eyes on this effort. At first I didn’t feel qualified to take on such a visible responsibility, but I read through my list of accomplishments and realised that while this opportunity may have a different end goal, I have built success from scratch before. I have lead teams before. I was asked to do this because I know how, have good ideas, and will pull the right people in to help. It is not narcissistic to show yourself the tangible evidence that you can do it, and embrace potential teachable moments.