When I was growing up, I was a really creative child. I let my Polly Pockets ride on my Jurassic Park dinosaurs; I had Rajah from Aladdin riding the horses from my Barbie horse stable. I was always asking my mom where electricity came from or if Jimmy Dean (as in, Jimmy Dean sausage) was a real person.
This randomness and creativity seemed natural to me, probably because my mother fostered it, as she had a background in early childhood education. However, as I started my journey through public elementary school, the shocking revelation that I was “a weird kid” hit me. Teachers were crinkling their faces in confusion when I asked my random questions; playground monitors asked me why “I couldn’t just use the swings like a normal kid” instead of twisting them into some type of artistic sculpture.
This was the start of questioning myself and the tendencies that came naturally to me, which is something that continues to haunt me in my adulthood.
I eventually learned that this insecurity had a fancy name: Imposter Syndrome. As I got more visible in my industry through conferences and leadership roles, my creative questions turned into ridiculous ones:
When is the bad stuff going to happen?
How can they tell me I did great when I know that was terrible?
And probably the biggest one, Why did they choose me?
This, of course, generated a great deal of anxiety for me. I was too afraid to own my accomplishments for fear that I’d be subject to another wrinkled, confused face of disapproval staring back at me. Self-sabotage is such a nasty thing, and I knew something had to give.
Since I’ve started working through my doubts and anxiety, I am nowhere near “cured” of imposter syndrome. Instead, it still lives inside me, but I’ve at least managed to push it into a deep corner, instead of letting it hog center stage in my brain. These are the things that made the biggest impact for me.
I Cut Down on Personal Social Media Time
Even though I do social media marketing for clients, I don’t keep my own social media open all the time. I’ve found that social media can often lead me to procrastinate, which then blooms into all different sorts of negative thoughts about myself. In a way, I think I used it help self-sabotage myself: it caused me to still be working until 11pm at night, cursing myself for wasting the day reading about my former college neighbor’s wedding or what Khloe Kardashian eats for breakfast.
For me, social media also goes beyond procrastination and feeds my imposter syndrome in a lot of ways. For example, if my co-worker travels to Bali: I’ll never be able to be ahead in work long enough to take a 2-week vacation to Bali. Or an industry colleague bought a Tesla: Wow, I will never be successful enough to buy a Tesla.
I did some research and according to The Atlantic, studies have found that there is a correlation between Facebook use and symptoms of depression. No wonder scrolling my Facebook feed never made me feel good! It’s the junk food of the internet.
In order to cut down on social media use, I set a reminder on my phone that alerted me to my “evening social media time” that was usually after my workout and dinner. I set a timer for 20 minutes and let myself scroll to my heart’s content. When the timer was done, I closed the window. I also let myself check Facebook once in the morning, but notifications only (to see if anyone had tagged me, for example).
This was a major decrease from my regular checking of probably 15-20 times a day. At even 10 minutes each time (and that’s being generous), I was likely spending 2 to 3 HOURS on social media a day! I have since dedicated that time to reading more books, calling my friends and family, or experimenting with dinner recipes. This not only helped me cut down on my negative comparison thoughts, but it helped me grow my confidence because I was learning more and feeling more in sync with my family, who all live about 120 miles away.
I Got in Front of a Crowd
A few years ago, I got a promotion that was totally terrifying to me. Not only would I be interacting with our contributors more, I’d be “the face” of Search Engine Journal. This lead to speaking engagements at conferences and dozens of requests for interviews. My initial reaction was to shrink away back into a corner (because when you’re out of sight, I figured, people can’t judge your true character).
However, this job simply wouldn’t let me do that. So I did what some therapists call “immersion therapy” — I knew I had to face it head on. I pitched to speak at one of the biggest industry conferences of the year and I was accepted. Before that, I had only spoken at a few small local events. Now I had to co-lead a session and present on my own for over 20 minutes.
Studies have shown that immersion therapy (also sometimes known as exposure therapy) works. According to the Psychiatric Times, study patients who received this type of treatment reported that “at posttreatment follow-up (after an average of 4 years), 90% of these patients still had a significant reduction in fear, avoidance, and overall level of impairment and 65% no longer had a specific phobia.” I knew that avoiding my fears wouldn’t help me conquer them.
When it was my time to speak at that industry conference, my heart pounded and my hands shook. But I kept remembering two things: they chose me for a reason and it’s only 20 minutes.
Once I was introduced and I started talking, I was too busy actually giving the presentation to think about how badly I could be failing at it. While I was so glad when it was done, I was also proud of myself for making it through. I didn’t faint! No one booed me or left the session early!
Now, I’ve spoken in front of crowds of almost 200 people, and while I still get those butterflies, I think about the terror I’ve overcome and focus on the fact that it gets a little easier each time.
I Was Vulnerable With Others
Part of being on a stage with all eyes on you is terrifying enough, but my core fear that I’ve discovered in therapy is my aversion to being vulnerable. I will do everything in my power to feel like I’m safe and not judged or in “danger.”
However, as my visibility in the industry grew and I met more people, I realized that many people had the same doubts I did. An analytics expert that I’d revered for years confessed to me that she was so nervous before her sold-out presentation. A revered industry leader who people hang on to every word of told me he didn’t know if he could cut it as a CEO of 50 employees.
As we discussed our fears, our doubts, and the sameness of everyday life that connects us all, I learned that I wasn’t so weird after all. Sure, I asked some random questions sometimes, but I learned that asking is better than a roomful of silence where nothing is getting done.
Learning that I wasn’t alone in my inner doubts has helped me work more on my vulnerability. I’ve learned that vulnerability can be something powerful when it’s used for good. I wanted to bring others into my “vulnerability bubble,” so I started organizing “women in digital” breakfasts at every conference I attended. At each one, we’d all enjoy a meal and talk about the worlds we wanted to conquer. Introductions were made; bonds were formed.
The last breakfast I did in 2016 was at the State of Search conference, which takes place in Dallas every year. This was the first breakfast where both men and women were invited, and I was part of a panel that answered questions from the moderator and crowd about women in tech.
I can honestly say that sitting there, sandwiched between someone from Google (Maile Ohye) and another from Microsoft (Purna Virji), I felt completely vulnerable and yes, a little undeserving. (It took everything I had to force myself to remember that these breakfasts were my idea in the first place!)
Being on stage answering questions from the crowd on how to better communicate, advocate, and grow their careers was scary and exhilarating for me, almost like riding a roller coaster. I could feel the energy of everyone in the room who had ever doubted themselves. I nodded in agreement to the stories and questions many people asked. I finally felt like I not only belonged but that my experience in forcing myself out of my comfort zone to have more ownership over my accomplishments was a strength in itself.
I Listened to Myself
This might have been both the simplest and hardest thing that has helped me with imposter syndrome. I had to learn to listen inner voice that asked all the questions and had all the hare-brained ideas. I had to realize that it was an asset, not something to hide. I’m a curious, creative person, and that is part of what makes me great. When I finally accepted that about myself, the doubts and anxieties that kept circling around in my head just didn’t seem as important.
When I had a great idea and immediately started doubting myself, I repeated a phrase that my therapist taught me:
That client might not like your presentation and they are going to fire you.
Well, then you’d be fired.
Well, I guess you’d have to get another client.
Thinking “so what?” forced me out of my anxious, repetitive patterns and forced me to play out the scenario I was so worried about. I was flabbergasted at the fact that when I played my doomsday thoughts through…nothing ended up that bad. If I got fired, I’d get a new job. If my presentation bombed, I’d have another chance to do it better somewhere else. If my client was happy with my work, I’d redo it.
Not so bad.
Nobody dies from losing a client or struggling in a new role at work. So what I’ve learned is, the next time I trip on stage or feel like a client is going to hate my work, I’ll ask myself, “So what?” and keep on truckin’.