How to overcome Imposter Syndrome
How self-doubt reveals itself, can hold you back, and actionable advice on how to work through it
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I've been really looking forward to writing on this topic for sometime, as it's something that I experienced frequently in the beginning of my formal PM career, and still sporadically to this day. It's also something I know so many other PMs have felt at some point in their career — even senior and accomplished ones say they've felt like an imposter, often in the face of big promotions and achievements.
Before getting into it – let's start by saying that everyone has doubts sometimes. And as a PM – you're in a role that's particularly ripe for the feeling of being an imposter. But why?
For starters – take a quick look at how you got to wherever you are today? What's your origin story? Whatever it is — you'll see you have no formal training or degree (because it doesn't exist) to “validate” your skills, and that there is no set path to becoming a PM. Because of that, it's an extremely challenging role to break it.
And once you do figure out how to break into the role — you're in a role where success is hard to measure. PM's are responsible for making hard, nuanced decisions, with limited and imperfect information and in a space of ambiguity, that most of the time don't have a right answer. With these hard decisions, the feedback loop to validate them takes time, and praise from your boss or peers is something that only comes further down the line when there is a material impact.
Given all of that – it would seemingly be crazy to not have some doubt about your abilities.
Meet, Imposter Syndrome.
Imposter Syndrome is self critique and doubt. It's that inner voice that tells you things like, “You're not good enough, you don't deserve to be here and got here by luck, and you're a fraud and someone's going to catch you any minute for it!”.
Especially in the first year of my first real PM gig where I was working with a lot of smart and experienced people — I felt like I'd say something wrong in a meeting, ask a stupid question, or make much such a silly mistake that it would become clear to people I had no idea what I was doing, and everything would tumble down. This sucked, and definitely affected how confident I was to work in the headspace I needed to be effective product leader.
Clearly, that's not a healthy and productive way to think and to talk to yourself — and this “feeling like a phony” has shown to cause anxiety and depression at both work and home. Still, the chances are that you will feel that way at some point.
Besides directly critiquing yourself with self-talk, there are other ways that Imposter Syndrome reveals itself more subtly — so watch out for these situations:
Inability to realistically assess your competence and skills
Only attributing your success to external factors
Downplaying your skills and expertise
Overly critiquing your performance
Fear that you won't live up to expectations
Sabotaging your own success (in order to avoid taking responsibilities for your “expected” failures)
Not asking questions because you fear looking stupid
Lack of confidence to make quick decisions
Agonizing over the smallest critiques of your work, or mistakes
Not advocating for yourself for promotions
So we know Imposter Syndrome is real and that it's very normal – and in fact, it's actually an indication of success and sign that (1) you're in a role that's challenging enough to warrant it, and (2) that you're not completely arrogant. Acceptance is an underrated treatment, and accepting Imposter Syndrome is the first step in any real change.
With that, let's jump into some tips to compact Imposter Syndrome:
Know that feeling like an imposter doesn't make you one.
This is such an important takeaway. And while it might seem obvious reading it here, for me it wasn't until I heard it explicitly. So take it in, and let it sink in. This mindfulness and awareness about what you're feeling, so you can correctly train your perspectives and reactions, is one of the most handy tools you can develop to tackle it effectively.
Don't underestimate your skills.
You're in this role because you deserve to be. You were hired by smart people, and they hired you because you're good enough. These are important things to remind yourself of, and can help you overcome that dragging down self-doubt and raise your confidence to move again. If you feel incompetence in social and performance situations, make a realistic assessment of your abilities. Write down your accomplishments and what you are good at.
Take small, incremental steps.
Don't focus on doing things perfectly, but rather, do things reasonably well and reward yourself for taking action and on the “process” over the “outcome”.
Be honest with people to reduce pressure.
Honesty is always the best policy. Don't be afraid to say you don't know something, or that you lack enough information to make a decision right now. Nobody knows everything. And being honest and vulnerable shows humility, and reduces pressure on you.
Don't be afraid to try something new.
Self-doubt can stop you from stepping outside of your comfort zone, and the more you stay where you are are and fail to push yourself, experiment, and be prepared to make mistakes — the less likely you will be to ever grow. Fear and insecurity to challenge yourself because you don't have confidence in your abilities can quickly compound, increasing the risk that you continue to stay put. Take on challenges — you most likely are working in a team culture where making mistakes and learning from there are okay.
Stop comparing yourself to others.
People tend to compare themselves to others who are most similar to them — it's just human nature. When I was a founder going to networking and pitch events — I didn't care about how larger startups where doing — but I couldn't help comparing how we were doing compared to other early stage founders/companies who were in the same boat as us.
And as a PM, you'll find you don't compare yourself to the engineer who just got promoted to Tech Lead — but you definitely might compare yourself to your fellow PM who just got bumped to Senior PM. When feeling Imposter Syndrome — you'll find you may be comparing yourself a lot more frequently to your peer PMs — finding some fault with yourself that fuels the feeling of not being good enough or not belonging. Instead, during meetings and conversations, focus on listening to what the other PMs are saying, and be genuinely interested in learning more.
Speak to someone about what you're feeling.
Finding a mentor, coach, or even a peer PM to talk to about what you're feeling can be an extremely helpful way to work through Imposter Syndrome. You'll find that you're not alone in self-doubt and validate that what your feeling is real – and that indeed, feeling that way doesn't mean you are a phony.
Learn to see when things are going well.
The best way to prove to yourself that you're indeed deserving of where you are, is to see that you're doing a good job. While there is no real standard definition of success as a PM – there are definitely signals to look out for that can show you what it looks and feels like to be doing a good job. Some high level examples are – (1) Is your team delivering business impact?, (2) Are you personally contributing to the team’s success?, (3) Do stakeholders regard you highly?
Do a fair self-assessment across those areas, and get performance feedback from your manager to see where you land. If you're doing well – do you think you're really faking this whole thing? If you're not doing well, this still doesn't mean you're an imposter, and work to figure out and action plan with your manager to improve.
Imposter Syndrome is real, it's a form of anxiety, and it's definitely not helpful to your career. If you experience it, which I'm willing to bet you will if you haven't already — take a second to realize that it's a signal that you're probably achieving something by moving into a role with more responsibilities and challenges.
At the same time, know that you can work through and overcome those feelings of self-doubt with combination of the tips above. Overtime, as you have more experiences — be those wins or mistakes that you learn from, you'll have more confidence in your abilities and feel more like you belong. With this, you'll feel lighter, can move quicker, and be a better product leader for your team.
If you have any additional advice or thoughts around this, I’d love to hear in the comments below!
I hope you enjoy the rest of your week, and thanks for reading! 🙏
The Product Slice is the free weekly newsletter for PMs and founders about product and startups.
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