Authored by Jillian Ho-Lung, Senior Content Marketing Manager, Syncro. Syncro were shortlisted in the Best SaaS Product for Small Business / SMEs category at the 2023 SaaS Awards

I spoke with Maureen Zappala, former NASA Engineer and Author, about the very common yet often misunderstood experience of imposter syndrome. Maureen, a literal rocket scientist, struggled with imposter syndrome for much of her early career, but now has mastered traversing and overcoming these difficult feelings.

Understanding Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a condition where you feel underqualified, self-doubt, and anxious about experiencing success. It is incredibly common with studies showing that 70% of people suffer from it at some point in their career. Unlike a medical syndrome, imposter syndrome is not grounded in reality; it’s the distortion of one’s perception of success in their professional expertise. Qualified and accomplished individuals often find themselves questioning their achievements, attributing their success to luck or connections, rather than acknowledging their true capabilities.

There are pockets within the professional world of work that often experience imposter syndrome more than others. For example, those in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields frequently suffer from imposter syndrome due to the constant demand for knowledge and performance. Similarly, individuals in creative roles face the pressure of consistently delivering innovative solutions to clients. For instance, in web design, professionals can experience a double dose of imposter syndrome as they navigate the technical and creative aspects of their work.

Even entrepreneurs and C-level executives, who typically make high-level decisions and thus have limited peer interaction and feedback, frequently experience imposter syndrome. It seems that the higher up an individual climbs within an organization, the more pronounced imposter syndrome tends to become, underscoring the importance of addressing and mitigating its effects – especially within the technology sector.

Identifying and Addressing Imposter Syndrome Symptoms

Imposter syndrome screams loudest in times of change. Most people experience it when they graduate from college, move from one company to another, or to a new level at a company. Because the technology industry is always changing, it makes sense why the affliction is so prevalent here. These ever-changing environments may cause the trigger to never go away, but this doesn’t mean imposter thoughts have to be in control for the rest of your life.

It is important to recognize symptoms that trigger your imposter syndrome in order to overcome it. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Overworking and over preparing for tasks you know how to do but are nervous about doing poorly.
  • Procrastinating because you aren’t confident about how to start.
  • Deflection with charm or humor to deflect perceived stupidity in conversation. This is Maureen’s default because she feels like if she could keep someone laughing, they wouldn’t notice she was “stupid,” even though she isn’t.
  • Choosing to not delegate, not because there is no one to do it for you, but rather because you believe if you are smart enough, you can do it yourself.
  • Failure avoidance, meaning, willfully choosing to not go down a road that may end up in catastrophic failure you’ve built up in your mind.
  • Fear of, or overthinking, success by worrying about how it might change you, whether people will still like you, or if you truly deserve it. This can include concerns about success affecting your income and your relationship with money.

Reclaiming Your Worth

Once you learn the symptoms, then you can focus on the thought processes that accompany the symptoms to retrain your thoughts. This is a very disciplined, intentional, targeted, and focused exercise that can really help.

Maureen suggests an effective exercise where you document your skills, abilities, and accomplishments to truly understand and recognize your value. The metaphor she uses to describe these unique traits in this exercise is “your dot.” You want to be able to walk into a room or situation with confidence in your own abilities, so use this dot to represent your unique strengths.

People’s lists of gifts, qualifications, and successes are going to be different. This dot represents evidence of your expertise and the valuable contributions you bring to the table. Even though there are a lot of dots around, each dot is different. Remember that you can’t let anybody else’s dot diminish yours.

By retraining your thought processes, you can give yourself confidence in what you know and recognize that others may have valuable insights to share, just as you have knowledge to impart. This exchange of information is a two-way street and is not indicative of one’s worth, rather, it simply reflects the extent of one’s knowledge.

It’s okay to admit when you may not be as well-versed in a particular topic as someone else and to ask, “What can you tell me? What can you show me? What can you teach me?” Embracing this mindset fosters a healthy and constructive exchange of ideas and knowledge.

Doing this gives the opportunity to understand one’s core identity. This concept may seem a bit abstract or spiritual, but it holds significance because our beliefs about ourselves, our perspective on the world, and our fundamental valuing of people strongly influence our actions. It’s essential to have a deep understanding of one’s principles, values, mission, and non-negotiable priorities, as these elements serve as the bedrock of one’s resilience and growth moving forward.

Core Values and Pushing Your Envelope

Maureen worked for NASA in jet engine military engines where she learned that the phrase “pushing the envelope” comes from fighter pilots. It’s about the practice of flying an aircraft to its maximum safe operational limits and then gently pushing it slightly beyond those boundaries to explore the consequences.

Pushing your envelope as a professional is essentially the same thing. Each professional has a comfortable operating zone where they excel, similar to an aircraft’s safe envelope. Pushing the envelope in your career occurs when you venture to the edges of your capabilities, just like fighter pilots when flying.

People think that imposter syndrome is a lack of confidence when it is actually a limit of confidence. It is limiting because it takes confidence to get you to the edge of change. Pushing your envelope is about pushing past that limiting mentality.

When a fighter pilot pushes an envelope they’re forever changed. And the same is true when it comes to pushing your envelope professionally. When you’re scared of failure, you stay small and confined in your comfort zone, rarely achieving new goals or ascending to the next level. Once you accomplish something beyond what you think is your safe limit, you’re irrevocably changed – and for the better.

Imposter Syndrome is Normal – and Manageable

Unfortunately, more people struggle with imposter syndrome than one might think. But the good news is that it’s completely manageable with consistent hard work and effort. You may not completely extinguish it, but you can alleviate it by understanding, identifying, and using these strategies to focus on your thought processes. Tweaking these thoughts can make an impact on your career, confidence, and overall well-being.