5 ways women lead powerfully even while experiencing Impostor Syndrome.

Impostor Syndrome has been discussed since the 1970’s when psychologists first discovered this psychological pattern in high-achieving women. Since then studies have revealed that Imposter Syndrome impacts both men and women, making it a relevant leadership issue that needs to be discussed and addressed openly, across genders.

The decades of research done on this phenomenon provides a thorough understanding of how Impostor Syndrome develops, the 5 common types we experience, and the prevalence among women leaders, which is estimated to be at 70% or higher. With this awareness comes a sense of relief that we are not alone, and that we are not crazy when we experience this type of self-doubt.

Yet, although the studies, analyses, and explanations help solve the mystery of the origination of Impostor Syndrome, all the information in the cosmos does not stop it from happening to each of us.

In fact, we may be in danger of being more at risk for Impostor Syndrome than ever before, particularly with the rampant comparisons of our own successes and capabilities to those of others on our never-ending social media feeds.

Like Tiara International’s Dr. Alison Miller says:

“The source of suffering is often comparing our internal experience to others’ external appearance.”

Dr. Alison Miller, Tiara International Managing Partner

It seems like on the day we are feeling the least confident -- perhaps we overslept, snapped at our spouse, ran late getting to work, or realized we have a coffee stain on our jacket -- that is the very day we are inundated by announcements of our friends' and colleagues' achievements through our social media feeds. Work anniversaries. Book launches. Awards won. Promotions. TED Talks. And more.

This can leave us asking questions like these more often than we’d like to admit:

  • Who am I to take on this project? To speak at this conference? To lead this team?

  • What if they find out I’m not ready? I’m not smart enough? I don’t have what it takes?

  • What do I need to do to prove that I’m the right person? That I fit in? That I’m credible?

You can feel the impact of these questions in the churning in your gut, the tightness in your shoulders, and the frenetic mental energy that doesn’t stop.

In addition to the main course of constant anxiety, Impostor Syndrome often comes with side dish of guilt or shame that may look like this:

  • I should be further along.

  • I need to work harder.

  • I’m embarrassed I don’t know the answers.

  • I’m lying or misrepresenting myself in some way.

  • They are right about me.

In researching and talking with woman leaders, who are undeniably competent, talented, intelligent, successful, accomplished women from around the world, this is a daily experience to be managed to a varying degree, and here’s what they say:


1. Accept this as part of growth and development.  

Tiara Certified Leadership Coach Melissa Thornley says that when she starts to feel that self-doubt creep in, she fondly calls this Little Miss Impostor. She says, “When Little Miss Imposter shows up, I consider it data. What’s happening that would have me start to feel less confident or guilty? Are these normal nerves that come with taking a new project, or is it something deeper?” 

When we accept these doubts as a normal part of growth and development, we can witness, observe, and learn from them, without feeling like the feelings represent the truth.


2. Remember that confidence doesn’t come from knowing the answer.

Tiara Certified Leadership Coach Jennifer Connelly credits our Ellen Burton for reminding her that it’s important to expand your comfort level in "not knowing" and "staying in the question." When we take on leadership roles, we often feel like we need to rush toward knowing the answers and becoming an expert.

Lingering in the exploration, dialogue, conversation, and inquiry is an important leadership skill, particularly in this time of constant change.


3. Reconnect to your values.

Tiara Global Leader Dr. Alison Miller leans on a clear set of core values to regain a sense of confidence. She says, “It’s common to feel insecure, out of your element, and even fraudulent in many different circumstances, particularly in the dissertation world.

However, whenever I am acting from my core values, I am not a fraud. I am in integrity what is most true about myself, and I can access that in every situation."


4. Be present. 

Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy shared in her illuminating work that being in the present moment can slice through the anxieties and fears associated with Impostor Syndrome, saying, “Presence and impostorism are opposing sides of the same coin – and we are the coin.”

When you are present you are not overanalyzing the past or excessively worried about the future, which are both attributes of Impostor Syndrome.

One way to access the present moment is to pause, take a break, perhaps even take a quick walk around the block. Even deep breathing or stretching can get you out of your head and into the present moment.


5. Give yourself permission.

Tiara Global Leader Andrea Henning shares how important it is to continuously be supporting ourselves with our internal dialogue.

She says, “It’s easy to be hard on ourselves internally, brutal even. It’s necessary that we make it a practice of giving ourselves permission: Permission to fail, to be imperfect, to be a beginner, to ask the question, or to make a mistake; Permission to succeed, impress, be relevant, and be enough.”