How to Use Impostor Syndrome to Your Advantage

How to Use Impostor Syndrome to Your Advantage

When I was 19, I decided I would start a photography business to pay my way through college. I enjoyed photography and I took a photography class in high school to fill a gap in my schedule.  Based on all that experience, I began photographing friends and family, and when someone suggested I should be getting paid for my efforts, I decided to go into business.

Photography wasn’t my first business venture. As a tween I had a business making and selling macramé pot hangers, and then spent my high school years putting my swimming skills to work as a private swim instructor. This time, though, it was a “real” business. I filed the appropriate legal paperwork, and I even attended a workshop called “The Business of Wedding Photography” that I’d seen advertised in a local photography magazine.  Clearly, I was all set.

I had no idea how much I didn’t know. Did I mention that I can only remember attending one wedding before I photographed my first wedding as a professional? I really had no idea how unqualified I was to do what I was doing. When someone would call and offer me a gig, I would readily accept and then race off to the library to check out a book that would give me further instruction in that type of photography. And then I would go do it.

I never heard the phrase “Impostor Syndrome” until many years later. Interestingly, I never suffered from Impostor Syndrome as a photographer until I actually got serious about studying photography and improving both my photography skills and my business skills. When I restarted my business from zero, opening a retail studio in a new state, I suddenly found myself afflicted with a lack of confidence. I wondered when people would figure out that I’d had no formal photography training (just workshops, practice and experience) and that I really wasn’t qualified to be a professional photographer, though I’d already been in business 15 years.

Impostor Syndrome is not uncommon, nor is it new. While it most notably affects those in creative professions, and the self-employed, it can happen to anyone in any profession.

What is Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor Syndrome is feeling like you are a fraud, that you are pretending to be someone or something you are not. It’s feeling like you aren’t good enough and aren’t qualified.

As actor Michelle Pfeifer once said, “I still think people will find out that I’m really not very talented.  I’m really not very good.  It’s all been a big sham.”

It isn’t just creatives who suffer though. Dr. Margaret Chan, former Chief of the World Health Organization once remarked, “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert.  How do these people believe all this about me?  I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.”

don't give impostor syndrome the upper hand

Many years ago, I went to work for a large corporation, recommended by a former boss who had recently gone to work for the same company in another city. Based on her referral, they offered me the job at my first interview. I started work only to quickly feel overwhelmed as I realized how little I really knew about the industry I’d just gone into. I was terrified someone would figure out they made a mistake and I’d be laid off before I’d really gotten started.

At the end of my first week, my manager called me into his office and I knew the jig was up. He’d figured it out. He made some small talk, asked how I liked the company and I prepared myself for the inevitable. When instead of firing me, he told me I was doing a great job and gave me a raise, I nearly fell off my chair.

Don’t Give Impostor Syndrome the Upper Hand

Much has been written about how to overcome Impostor Syndrome.  If you allow it, it can become a crippling problem. Overcoming it, however, is much easier said than done. For most people, I don’t think it ever really goes away. Just when you think you have things under control, something new comes up—and there it is, rearing its ugly head. But—you don’t have to give in to Impostor Syndrome. You can learn to use Impostor Syndrome to your advantage. Here are a few steps you can follow to first control your Impostor Syndrome (instead of it controlling you), and then to  use Impostor Syndrome to your advantage.

Acknowledge Impostor Syndrome For What It Is

Call it out. Recognize the feelings you’re having: feeling like a fraud, feeling unqualified, feeling less than. The first step in changing ourselves is to accept that we need to change. Until you say it out loud and put the name on it, you will continue to be held back by it.

Acknowledge the fear. Acknowledge that you aren’t perfect. And finally, acknowledge you’re not the only one who feels this way (pretty much everyone does). And finally, acknowledge that nobody really knows what they’re doing when they start a new venture. If we waited until we knew everything we needed to know to succeed, we’d never begin.

build a support network

Acknowledge Your Qualities and Your Success

Look at what you’ve accomplished already. Own it and celebrate it. Start a “success” file. Make a list of all your skills and achievements. Write down all your wins and put them in a file. Include all the good things people have said about you: testimonials, feedback, praise, etc. Take it out and read it as often as necessary to remind yourself of your worth.

Learn From Your Failures

We all make mistakes. I do all the time. And you do too. It’s not a secret but Impostor Syndrome will tell you not to let anyone know. That’s bullpucky. Failure is a necessary part of the road to success. You can either wallow in Impostor Syndrome and your failures or you can use them as learning tools to propel you forward. Remember, EVERYONE makes mistakes. EVERYONE has failures and setbacks. It’s only Impostor Syndrome that wants you to think you’re the only one. Making a mistake doesn’t make you unqualified and it doesn’t make you a fake. It makes you human. So embrace your human-ness and put that Impostor Syndrome to work for you.

Build a Support Network

Find your other friends and colleagues who suffer from bouts of Impostor Syndrome and join forces to turn it from a liability to an asset. Life is better when you don’t have to go it alone. So don’t.

find a mentor

Find A Mentor

It’s well known that the most successful people use mentors to increase their skills and advance their careers. Having a mentor to keep you focused and moving forward can help put those feelings of inadequacy at bay.

Take Action

Instead of using your impostor syndrome as an excuse to wallow and hide under the covers, let it spur you on to action. You aren’t good enough? What do you need to do to become better? Take those negatives in your head and turn them into positive plans of action. You don’t have to make big elaborate plans. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. Read on.

Set Easily Achievable Goals

One way to use impostor syndrome to your advantage is to take that action and set some small goals that you can easily achieve that you can use to boost your confidence. A little shot of “Yes, I Can” and “Yes, I Did” never hurt anyone.

Do It Anyway

And, finally, in case you’re not sure, there’s no shame in “faking it.” For the record, back when I first started that photography business, “Fake it ‘til you make it” was my mantra. That’s what all those trips to the library were about. I photographed my first wedding without having attended one since I was 10. And I successfully navigated my first real estate photography gig after reading how to do it in a book. I knew I had the skills; I just hadn’t gained the experience. And I got paid for both jobs. And I got hired again and again, going on to build a successful business.

What I learned about “faking it” is that most often we aren’t really faking anything. Projecting more confidence than you actually feel isn’t faking it, and it isn’t somehow deceptive. Claiming that you have the skills to complete a job when you know you don’t can be deceptive. But acting more confident than you feel is not. If we only ever did anything that we were already expert at, not much would happen in this world.

Learn from your failures

Use Impostor Syndrome to Your Advantage

If you follow these steps, you’ll soon find that you’re succeeding despite your brain’s attempts to protect you from the possibility of failure and humiliation by telling you you’re an impostor. As you recognize this, and press forward anyway, you can use impostor syndrome to actually spur your success instead of halting it.

All those years ago, when I got a raise instead of losing my job, I used that as rationale to redouble my efforts to learn all I needed to know for not only the required industry certifications, but to make sure my position was secure. And even though it wasn’t a field I decided to stay in, I eventually achieved all I wanted to in that job.

And did you know—people who suffer from Impostor Syndrome are often more qualified for whatever it is they’re insecure about than those who don’t? I’ve been told It’s because you’re aware of what you don’t know, and you care enough to want to do better. And that’s certainly been my experience.

Impostor Syndrome doesn’t have to be an impediment to your success.  You can learn how to use Impostor Syndrome to your advantage, to propel you to the success you’re seeking instead of letting it hold you back.

Have you struggled with Impostor Syndrome? I’d like to hear what you’re struggling with or how you’re using Impostor Syndrome to your advantage. Leave me a comment below, message me here or let’s chat on LinkedIn or Facebook.

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  1. Hi Marie,

    This post really hits this nail right on the head. Fortunately, I’ve only struggled a bit with this syndrome – even though I’ve often worked in jobs that were over my head.

    At age 27, I was given the reins of a radio station owned by a large broadcasting company; that meant responsibility for what went out over the air, our business success (profit/loss) and, ultimately, making sure we behaved in a way that would allow us to keep our license from the FCC. Whew!

    That first time taught me that I had seriously underestimated my ability to learn very, very fast, sometimes pivot on a dime or change directions, and get ‘er done. I think to stay in touch with feedback from all stakeholder groups is always critical. Being open to suggestions.

    Thanks for a great post. I’m living proof that if you actually get up to bat – in whatever endeavor – you have a real opportunity to hit the ball out of the park.

    All the best – Edgar

    1. Marie Leslie says:

      Thanks for your comments, Edgar. And you are so right. If we don’t give in and push forward, we do have that real opportunity to hit the ball out of the park.