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  • Writer's pictureDeb Zahn

Succeeding in Consulting Even If You Have Imposter Syndrome

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

Do you sometimes (or often) think that your accomplishments, knowledge, skills, or talents aren’t real or good enough? Do you feel incompetent regardless of evidence to the contrary? Do you feel like a fraud and worry that you might “get found out” by people around you? Do you think your success was because of luck instead of your abilities?

If any of this sounds familiar, you may be feeling that dreaded imposter syndrome.

But don’t feel bad about it. It’s extraordinarily common. I’ve had it. Most consultants I know, including the wildly successful ones, have had it at some point.

And, fortunately, there are ways to get past it.

The sad thing is that imposter syndrome is what often stops people who want to be consultants from taking the leap. It also gets in the way of getting clients and creating a sustainable business. Let’s face it, it’s tough to sell your services if you don’t believe that what you do is real and worth it. It’s even tougher to price your services to match your value when you don’t believe that you are the real deal.

This issue comes up a lot when I coach consultants. And I tell them what I’m going to tell you: it is essential to your consulting business to find a way to prevent it if you can and manage it when you can’t.

How on earth do you do that? I know there are a lot of ways to address imposter syndrome. I’m going to share what I have found works for me.

Set Your Expectations

Having realistic expectations for what imposter syndrome is and how it operates is critical for preventing and managing it.

First of all, it is not a permanent state, and it is not who you are. Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that comes and goes. But it can stick around too long if you allow it to become an ingrained habit of thinking about yourself and the world. If you are around people who are negative toward you and diminish you, it can stick around even longer. The good news is that it is temporary and can be banished, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.

On the other side of the coin, even if you do a great job of ridding yourself of imposter syndrome, it can often come back, especially if it gets triggered. This means that addressing it is rarely a one-and-done exercise. You need to develop habits that prevent it from popping up, but then, if it does sneak back in, you need to have techniques at the ready to vanquish it again.

But it can get easier over time. My experience is that once I worked on what was underlying and fueling the imposter syndrome, it became less frequent and much easier to get rid of. Why? Because I learned the techniques for identifying it early, not letting it get a firm hold of me, and showing it the door as quickly as possible.

Know Thy Triggers

One of the most helpful things I have found is to pay attention to what is happening when your feelings of being an imposter arise. Is it when you have to do something you have never done before? Is it when you are in unfamiliar situations or venturing into unfamiliar markets? Is it when you have to verbalize your value to someone? If it when you make a mistake? Is it when you are around certain people or in a toxic environment?

Whatever it is, it helps to identify what is triggering it so you can address the specifics of why it’s emerging. I have found that more helpful than just saying “Oh, I just need to think positively!” That may help in the short term, but it often just temporarily conceals what’s really going on. Plus, it feeds into toxic positivity, which is harmful.

For example, if the syndrome gets triggered when you make mistakes, then you need to work on reducing the fear or embarrassment you feel when you make mistakes. That’s a different solution to it showing up when you're in an unfamiliar situation or a toxic environment. For me, internal work is great for dealing with the unfamiliar but, when I've been in a toxic environment, my internal solutions may help me cope but don't solve what is really the problem, the toxicity in the environment.

The other thing to understand about imposter syndrome is that it will not likely go away once you have succeeded at something in the future. Looking forward and saying, “I’ll feel like a success once I do X or achieve Y” is a trap. The problem with imposter syndrome is not that you haven’t succeeded. It’s that you don’t fully or always embrace that you did. Success is not elusive or some future event. It’s what you tell yourself about your successes. So it’s more helpful to work on your mindset—your thoughts, beliefs, and habits of thinking—than to hope that some external event will change how you feel.

Don’t Buy the Hype

Once imposter syndrome is triggered, it is easy to believe that you are an imposter and then spiral deeper into it because you go looking for evidence—no matter how flimsy—to create a case against yourself to back up that initial feeling. That’s what I call the hype behind the syndrome. My experience is that the syndrome feels bigger than it is, and it wants you to think it’s bigger than it is. And here’s is the kicker: it will try to enlist you to be its PR person. That’s right. It will get you to promote it to yourself and spin false stories so it can stick around as long as possible.

The best way to deal with the hype is to not sign on for the PR job. Recognize it as a temporary feeling and that the narratives or stories that arise from it are, at best, suspect and, at worst, outright lies. In other words, don’t give any credence to the negative things your imposter syndrome is trying to get you to believe about yourself.

For example, I was recently talking to someone in the gripes of imposter syndrome, and she was lamenting that she had lost all her ability to be creative. She was, as she said, devoid of all creativity, and she wasn’t convinced that it would ever come back. This comment came after about 15 minutes of her trying to sell me on all the elaborate ways that she knows for certain that she is really an imposter. My answer to her was this, “Not creative?! It’s pretty obvious that you’ve been using your creativity nonstop. You’re just using it against yourself by trying to convince yourself that you are something you aren’t, which is a fraud. Imagine what you could do if you used your creativity for yourself.”

Reveal It; Don’t Conceal It

One of the ways that imposter syndrome flourishes is when it is a secret. You feel it, but you feel like too much of an imposter to tell anyone. That only allows it to fester and play a bigger role than it deserves.

So, step one: tell someone you trust. I would pick someone who isn’t in the throes of it and someone who has good self-reflection skills. Pick a person who has your best interest at heart, has a good understanding of your accomplishments, and will tell you the truth. Verbalize it to them.

Most times I have done that, I have heard some version of, “What? How could you feel like that?" or "I thought I was the only one who felt that way." I’ve been amazed at how many people have told me that they have or have had imposter syndrome. Even people I would never imagine would have it. (Keep in mind that you—with all our accomplishments—are also someone that someone else likely would never imagine would have it.)

Second, when you tell them, be willing to hear what they tell you, including (and especially) when they tell you that you are not an imposter and what they admire about you. Do your best to trust them and take it in. Try not to litigate on behalf of imposter syndrome. You aren’t imposter syndrome’s lawyer or PR person! Just listen and trust that you are hearing something true even if it is difficult to believe it.

Gather the Truth

One of the most powerful ways to get rid of imposter syndrome is to gather evidence that it is wrong. And, if you think about it, that’s the exact opposite of what it wants you to do! It feeds on false evidence. It shrinks when faced with reality.

So look back at your accomplishments and assess who you did to contribute to those accomplishments. You aren’t looking for broad brush strokes or platitudes. There would not be a reason to believe those enough to displace the negative stories, especially if you’ve used your creativity to construct detailed narratives against yourself. Dig into the details so you can tease out the specifics of what your role was. The more detailed it is, the more you will believe it. If you have a difficult time doing that, go back to those people you trust and ask for their help to identify what you did to make good things happen.

Then start to work on creating a habit of thinking those things. Repeat them. Use them to create your value proposition for your consulting. Say them to peers and prospective clients and note when they agree. When you get accolades or complements or when you are treated like an expert, say “thank you” and don’t argue against yourself. If imposter syndrome pokes its head out, just say, “No thanks. I’ve got this!”

Hang Out with the Right Crowd

Preventing and managing imposter syndrome isn’t easy. I personally don’t try to handle it alone. The negativity is too seductive. Falling into my old habits is too alluring.

So find your people. Find the people who understand what it’s like to grapple with imposter syndrome and are actively working on it themselves. These are the folks who will be honest with you and be your PR people when imposter syndrome gets too loud and bullish. These will also be people who you can talk to about imposter syndrome as a thing to solve, bring humor to the struggle against it, and share solutions that work for them. You also get to role model for each other what it’s like to truly let yourself experience your successes for what they are and celebrate together.

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