Defeating Imposter Syndrome

If you're secretly afraid that you're unqualified for your job, you're not alone.

When I walked into the room at my first marketing conference, my inner monologue was, “OK. Maybe now I can figure out all the things that everyone else knows that I don’t.” 

My path to marketing was nontraditional, to say the least. I went to school for music education, and after several twists and turns, ended up in marketing. I had a knack for it from the start, but I felt utterly unqualified, afraid I was missing some foundational, fundamentally important things, and fearful that eventually everyone else would figure out that I was a complete fraud.

Of course, I didn’t talk about it with anyone, because I was cloaked in shame about my limited experience. Instead, I felt like I needed to frame my successes as bigger wins than they were, to convince those around me that I could do the job, even if I didn’t fully believe it myself. I swept failure under the rug, defensive if anyone suggested as much as a misstep, desperate to uphold the charade that I was qualified to be there and hopeful that eventually I would be.

It took me years to realize that this harmful narrative that I believed was not only untrue, but was in fact, something pretty common: I was suffering from impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome is a psychological pattern in which people doubt their successes and maintain a belief that their accomplishments are due to luck, fearing being discovered as a fraud. 

Over the first year in my current job role, I struggled mightily with impostor syndrome. I had never been in an agency before, never in a for-profit business, never in a role like I was in, and I was certain that eventually, my boss would figure out that he’d made a huge mistake in hiring me. Every error I made shattered me, every mistake sent me into a whirlwind of anxiety. Despite the express permission from my boss to fail and make mistakes, I had no grace for myself.

Gratefully, I work with people who encourage each other relentlessly. I was on the receiving end of daily encouragement, and gradually, a strong sense of belonging emerged in my spirit. I allowed myself to be vulnerable enough to share what I was feeling with trusted friends, and dared to believe them when they told me that I was believing lies when I doubted my abilities. I started a list in my journal of every single professional victory - big or small - and kept adding to it each day. 

Then, one day, I made another mistake. Then, I noticed that I was OK with the mistake, and I wasn’t terrified or fraught with shame. I felt safe, and I knew that I could learn from that error and do better next time. I no longer felt like an impostor. I felt like a valuable asset to the team.

The wild thing about impostor syndrome is that it is pervasive in our culture. I’m surrounded by friends and colleagues who are utterly blind to their strengths and superpowers. As a recovering impostor, I am compelled to encourage them repeatedly and applaud their victories daily in hopes that they too will recognize their greatness and forgive themselves for being a work in progress. 

Even in this moment, I feel vulnerable saying this: no one has it all figured out. My inner dialogue battles against me and thinks, “Someone probably does and they’re going to think I’m dumb for saying that.” Deep down, though, I’m certain that we’re all on a journey and some people are simply further down the path. 

We’re all learning how to best live into our roles, whatever they may be. We’re all learning how to do our jobs well, and we are allowed to learn on the job. In fact, we must if we ever want to do anything great. It is critical that we take credit for our wins, and that we allow the amplitude of those victories to drown out the failures. Only then can we get over ourselves and pour into each other fully, the way we were created to do. 

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Colleen Cook works full-time as the Director of Operations at Vinyl Marketing in Ashland, where she resides with her husband Mike and three young daughters. She's an insatiable extrovert who enjoys finding reasons to gather people.