The following is a theme from my book You’re Absolutely Worth It: Release Self-Doubt, Embrace Confidence, and Own Your Yes.

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The term imposter syndrome has been long discussed across sectors, along with its impact on men and women. The syndrome, first defined by Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes is, “the crippling feeling of self-doubt, intellectual inadequacy, and anticipated failure that haunts people who attribute their success to luck or help from others rather than their own abilities.”1

Often associated with lack of confidence, much of the research done has suggested that women are more prone to imposter syndrome regardless of their levels of success and is often due to differences in gender norms, cultural expectations, along with social economic status and ethnicity.

The KPMG 2020 Women’s Leadership Summit Report focused on imposter syndrome and revealed that approximately seventy-five percent of female executives reported having personally experienced imposter syndrome at certain points in their career.2

What is important to note is that imposter syndrome is distinctly associated with feelings of inadequacy or doubting oneself – despite being successful, or pursuing success, in one way or another. The syndrome is not associated with lack of movement or growth, but rather someone who is pursuing success or what’s next for their life.

So for the woman who is pursuing new goals or opportunities and struggles with feeling as if she’s an imposter, it might be worthwhile to give imposter syndrome another name: growing pains.

Sure there are moments when self-doubt is legitimate or even imposed on the most confident woman in the workplace (that’s for another article). But there are also times when the doubt or fear is self-imposed, and it can immobilize women who have tremendous potential and past accomplishments. 

“Growing pains” may be a more appropriate name for many ambitious women for this reason:

When facing new tasks or opportunities, it’s highly likely to cause discomfort or feelings of uncertainty – and that’s when imposter syndrome can rear its ugly head. Research shows that imposter syndrome is often triggered when taking on a new project, during times of transition, or rising to a greater level of success.

Ambitious women are often high achievers, seeking growth and new challenges – and that’s where the vicious cycle of imposter occurs. How? Because the new challenge or opportunity brings doubt about their ability to be successful in the unfamiliar situation and the fear of failure sets in (aka imposter syndrome). This cycle repeats itself over and over. So when they decide to change, grow, or stretch themselves, guess what? It’s an invitation for imposter syndrome to rise up again.

Shifting how they view the new challenge, and their ability to overcome it, can help them power forward to reach their next level of success. 

So whether they’re changing jobs, going after a promotion, stepping into a leadership role, or negotiating salary requirements, seeing the uncomfortable situation as a growing pain and pathway to learning a skill not yet developed – and not an indication of their inadequacy – can be effective at helping them process their ability to be effective.

How can women adopt the growing pains mindset and release self-doubt?

1. Recognize that it’s normal to feel unequipped when facing new opportunities and challenges

In situations that require developing new, or refining existing, skills the stretching process doesn’t feel good and it’s easy to feel inadequate. The desire to be great immediately and skip the uncomfortable messy middle is ideal but often can’t be avoided.

Anyone who remembers learning to ride a bike can recall the terror of taking the training wheels off. It was scary at first because it was new and required a different level of skill – but after awhile it was the new norm. The same principle applies here, what was once terrifying will become the new norm – just realize it will take time to get there.

2. Lean Into Strengths and Past Wins

In the pursuit of the next opportunity, it’s easy to forget the past wins – but bringing the “brag bag” along is critical to affirm their ability to succeed. Truth is, often it’s the past wins that have helped them get to the next level, so even if new skills are required for the next opportunity, the previous skills are the reasons new doors are opening!

Leverage what they’ve learned and use those skills and expertise as a point of reference – it’s their foundation to continue building upon. When faced with feelings of doubt, pull the brag book out to remind themselves that they will get through this challenge, just like they did the last one.

3.    Strive for Progress Over Perfection

Expecting perfection in a new role, task, or project is a setup for disappointment. Learning curves should be accounted for and giving space and time for growth is important to do. And as scary as it might sound, some skills or knowledge will not be gained any other way than through experience.

During the learning curve, it is a good idea to get a trusted friend, mentor, or coach to help focus on areas needing development and to create realistic timelines for getting ramped up. The goal is to take what may seem like an overwhelming sense of inadequacy and turn into bite-size steps towards progress. This can help to maintain confidence while learning the new skill, project, or role.

As women continue to grow, it’s inevitable to experience the discomfort associated with change.It’s important that they do not let the uncomfortable, unfamiliar stages cause them to question their adequacy for the assignment or task in front of them.

When they start to wonder whether they’re enough, they should rest this thought: where they are is a result of their skill and ability – so whatever they don’t know they can, and will, learn.

Article Sources:

1 Nelson, J. (2011, Nov 07). What’s behind the impostor syndrome. Canadian Business, 84, 129-129.

2 2020, Advancing the Future of Women in Business: A KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit Report

3 Medical News Today, How to Handle Imposter Syndrome.