Content marketers are often intuitive, intelligent, talented, and successful. But many are reluctant to admit that to themselves.
They feel like they’re faking it and think others will soon realize their incompetence. They feel like they’re not good enough to succeed despite all evidence to the contrary. They let these feelings stall their careers.
While imposter syndrome may be experienced by an individual, the impact on the content marketing team and the program can be big.
Who has imposter syndrome?
As many as 82% of the population could have imposter syndrome, according to a review of the data published in 2019. That analysis also shows that impostor syndrome “is associated with impaired job performance, job satisfaction, and burnout among various employee populations.”
Imposter syndrome can affect anyone, from any work of life (as you’ll see in the myth-busting section below). Doctors have it. Famous film stars have it. Entrepreneurs have it. Serena Williams, Tom Hanks, and Sheryl Sandberg have it. Even Einstein suffered from it. People from all religions, ethnicities, countries, and sexual orientations have reported experiencing it.
But its effects vary among demographics. Clare Josa, researcher and author of Ditching Imposter Syndrome, says men with imposter syndrome are more likely to push through it, which potentially leads to mental health issues in the future. She says women are more likely to let imposter syndrome stop them from taking opportunities to shine or going for promotions.
Clare’s research reveals that people with imposter syndrome may:
- Not speak up even when they have the answers or ideas
- Turn down opportunities they secretly want
- Not put themselves forward for promotions or awards
- Not complete important projects because their fear of being “found out as a fraud” leads them to avoid doing the work that they feel would expose them
- Not take credit for their success
- Not ask for a pay raise they’ve earned
- Feel worried or anxious
- Get stuck in negative thinking loops thanks to their inner critic
Imposter syndrome impacts team performance, team dynamics, productivity, and business. For example, according to Clare’s landmark research study, imposter syndrome is a driving factor behind why star performers leave a company. It can lead to addictions, mental health issues, subconscious self-sabotage, and a toxic work environment.
Busting imposter syndrome myths
But before I talk about how to deal with imposter syndrome, I’ll dispel a few common myths.
Myth 1: Imposter syndrome is the same as self-doubt
Imposter syndrome is not a lack of confidence; Clare says it’s an identify-level, “who am I?” problem. “Imposter syndrome isn’t just self-doubt in a spiky suit. It’s the gap between who you see yourself as being and who you think you need to be to succeed and lead. Self-doubt is what you can do. Imposter syndrome is about who you think you are.”
Myth 2: Imposter syndrome is a superpower
Some suggest imposter syndrome is a superpower. Alison Shamir, a respected coach, speaker, and authority on the subject, vehemently disagrees. “It’s not something you need to be successful, and you shouldn’t keep it or live with it. The goal should be to stop feeling this way – to eliminate imposter syndrome feelings or identify and intercept them quickly so you can move forward despite them.”
Myth 3: Imposter syndrome will probably just go away
The longer someone is stuck in imposter syndrome behavior, the longer it can take to break. Alison says everyone has an origin story. For most, that story includes the plant of a limiting-belief seed, leading people to tell themselves stories that reinforce imposter syndrome. It creates an identity-level fear.
How to deal with imposter syndrome as a leader at work
Imposter syndrome can be triggered by adverse environmental factors such as discrimination. But it can also be triggered by supposedly positive aspects, like a promotion, a reward, or even praise.
As Alison Shamir explains, “Removing negative triggers will help people who are triggered by those things but removing negative triggers will not eliminate imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome sufferers have to rewrite their internal narratives so they can change their behavior to stop self-sabotaging, take confident action, accept praise, and internalize success.”
Can you fight imposter syndrome on your team and prevent those feelings from hindering the content careers of those you manage? The answer is yes. Managers and organizations can provide safe and nurturing workplaces that help those with imposter syndrome. But overcoming the imposter syndrome impact also requires individuals to take action to help themselves.
Considering imposter syndrome’s prevalence, start at the top. Alison says, “If you are a leader, you must address your own imposter syndrome so you can shine as your authentic self.”
Leaders should create nurturing, supportive workplaces where people feel more comfortable about making mistakes. It also helps to conduct regular check-ins and give feedback to provide psychologically safe environments.
Managers also should watch for signs and triggers indicating that imposter syndrome could become a problem. Clare Josa shares the four P indicators of imposter syndrome – perfectionism, paralysis, people-pleasing, and procrastination.
Perfectionism may create micro-managing nit-pickers. Paralysis may lead people who avoid a task, blame others, or freeze like a rabbit in the headlights to blame others. People-pleasing can lead to issues with work-life balance. And procrastination often shows up as doing busy work to avoid real action or feeling like small actions must happen before things can move forward.
To address these issues and other work-related imposter syndrome factors, Alison says organizations can:
- Create psychologically safe environments
- Encourage open conversation
- Normalize sharing
- Help people identify clear success metrics
- Fail fast and help people avoid beating themselves up about it
- Watch for overworking or avoidance behavior
- Discourage negative self-talk
- Encourage celebrating wins and successes
How to control your imposter syndrome
Although the experts might not agree with all these approaches, the real-life stories of imposter syndrome sufferers illustrate how they have found a way forward. Here are their recommendations.
Recognize and respect you have imposter syndrome
Recognizing you experience imposter syndrome can be a massive release. Dean Delaney, a director at Platinum Recruitment in New Zealand, says, “For me, it was like unlocking a door in my brain to realize that there isn’t something deep and wrong with me … I’m not the only one who has this challenge.”
Dean embarked later in life to obtain a university degree because he had discomfort over not having that credential. Two years into his degree, he realized the problem wasn’t his lack of paperwork; it was what was going on in his head. “I’d spent just under 30 years not fixing that problem,” he says. Going back to school was an expensive way to realize taking small steps and doing something small that scares you every day will help fight imposter syndrome.
Accept compliments and believe them
Bust imposter syndrome by telling the negative person in your head to shut up. Celebrate your success, never dismiss compliments, and keep a list of nice things people say about you and your work.
Sarah Panus, a brand storytelling and content marketing consultant and podcaster near Minneapolis, says really hearing a compliment helped her. When a director said, “Sarah, you are actually the most knowledgeable person about social media at this entire company,” she realized she would be doing a disservice to herself and the organization if she didn’t share her ideas. She also advises you to stop comparing your middle or beginning to someone else’s end and build a network of cheerleaders to support you.
Make a compliment list
Catrina Clulow, director at B2B Consulting Global Ltd. in the United Kingdom, says: “Have a document with the compliments in it so when imposter syndrome rears, it can be read through. It’s not yourself thinking ‘unbelievable’ things but others you trust and believe.”
Do the thing you’re afraid of
Sarah also says fear is just the stealer of dreams. “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” she asks. This understanding helped her step out in her career and “speak up, share ideas, and advocate for new programs.” As a result, she advanced her career and became a top performer. As Sarah says, “You’ll never know if you don’t try.”
Katie Atherton, an independent freelance writer, based near Sacramento, Calif., says she often felt wrong about what she knew – despite having good qualifications – because senior leaders kept making changes to her content. “I know now that I didn’t have a good set of boundaries or the right editing process in place,” she explains.
Ask for help
In an article in Personal Excellence by HR.com, Susanne Tedrick writes, “Asking for help is actually a sign of strength, not weakness. No one is totally self-sufficient so admit you don’t know something, address it, and then move on. Acknowledging you don’t know everything also opens up new opportunities for learning.”
Paul Adler, a content writer and brand strategist, agrees. “Always, always remember that there are people to reach out to.”
Asking for and accepting help in the form of counseling or psychotherapy has shown to be particularly powerful in helping people deal with imposter syndrome. Research shows that “while coaching will not eliminate impostor feelings, it reduces them and provides clients with the knowledge, awareness, and tools to manage them effectively when they return.”
Switch from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset
Research by Zanchetta, et al. in 2020 hypothesized that imposter syndrome sufferers believe their intelligence is fixed and static. They suggest that switching to a growth mindset – the belief that intelligence and talents can be improved through effort and learning – could be key to addressing imposter feelings.
Rajesh Parashar, a freelance marketer in India, says he has found self-learning a valuable tool. His preferred approach is to “prepare your skills as a toolbox to solve any problem” and “build a small community to become a volunteer to work with them to get the assignment done.” He says he found the energy to help him build his self-belief system by constantly embracing learning through a growth mindset and learning from others. “I can do it,” he reminds himself often.
Mike Essex, founder of Devise Marketing in Southampton, England, believes even latent imposter syndrome can raise its head when you expose yourself to new ideas. “Professional training and qualifications can help dispel imposter syndrome by showing what you do know and filling in any gaps, he says.
Cultivate a workplace that recognizes and mitigates imposter syndrome
The more you understand about imposter syndrome, the easier to cope with it, work around it, or even overcome it. Whether you experience imposter syndrome personally or see its effect on your content marketing team, you shouldn’t ignore it. You can’t fix it with positive thinking or resolving discrimination issues.
You should open up the conversation, help people realize they’re not alone, provide accurate information and training, and reduce stress levels and toxic work environments. And individuals need to acknowledge that their fear of never being good enough is not a reality.
Only then can the autonomic fight-flight-freeze-fawn response and negative self-talk subside, and content marketers can start taking up the positions of power and authority they deserve.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute