Fighting off the affliction of imposter syndrome

The term imposter syndrome was first coined by two American psychologists in the late 1970s. It’s a feeling that you’re not good enough or that you don’t belong when in fact you are good enough and you do belong. Participants in the study were found to have generalized anxiety, depression, a lack of self-confidence, and a general frustration with their inability to meet their own self-imposed standards of achievement. Seventy percent of people will at some time suffer from imposter syndrome. 

Have you ever walked into a meeting and thought, “I have no business being here?” Have you ever hesitated to raise your hand thinking someone’s gonna think that’s dumb? Have you felt like a little bit of a fraud when something goes well for you? Do you say it’s because of good luck being in the right place at the right time? 

I serve as general counsel and chief risk officer for one of South Dakota’s largest family-owned banks. I’ve served as chair of the South Dakota Bankers Association. I’m one of seven bankers in the country that serve on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Community Bank Advisory Council. 

Despite my professional success, I still feel like an imposter. There are still meetings I walk into and I think, “I have no business being there.” And there are still times when I hesitate to raise my hand. 

At one point, I’d served on the SDBA trust, credit card and legislative committees. I loved it, the work and the people. And I got a call one day and was asked to chair that committee. I was ecstatic, but the first words out of my mouth were, “Are you sure?” The person who asked me to chair that committee wasn’t looking for the worst possible candidate. He asked me because he thought I could do it. So why was I so hesitant to say yes? 

While we don’t know exactly what causes imposter syndrome, I do have some advice on how to fight it. My first tip is to realize that you’re not perfect, and that’s okay. I think about my mistakes all the time, often at 2:00 a.m. What I’ve come to do is learn the art of thoughtful reflection. When I do something, I ask myself a couple of questions: Were you as prepared as you could have been? Did you try your hardest? Was there anything you could have done differently? And if I was prepared, tried my hardest, and wouldn’t have done anything differently, then I need to let it go.

When you have imposter syndrome, one of two things usually happens. Either you’re so overwhelmed that you can’t start or you can’t stop working on a project. I’m a perfectionist, and I fall in the latter category. I have to set tangible goals: I will review this contract three times, and then I will let it go. 

My second tip for overcoming imposter syndrome comes from my daughter. She’s learned that her anxiety isn’t who she is, but just a voice in her head telling her, “You’re not good enough; you’re probably going to fail.” She’s named her voice Gordon, after a rather loud, harsh celebrity chef. When she’s struggling with her anxiety, she says, “Sit down Gordon; I am enough.” What a remarkably powerful tool. If you feel like an imposter, know that you are enough. 

If you’ve never felt like an imposter, I think you’ve got an obligation to help the 70 percent of us who have. The best way for you to do that is to be a deliberate encourager. When you see someone do something good, drop them a note. Better yet, drop their boss a note. If you see an opportunity for someone and you think they’d be fantastic for it, ask them when — not if, but when — they’re going to apply for it. Be that positive voice in their head until they can tell their Gordon to sit down. 

How do you know someone has imposter syndrome? You hear it in their words, when they speak dismissively of themselves or their ideas. Or you hear them further qualify their responses. You need to stop them in their tracks and correct that narrative. When they say, “That might be a silly idea,” you say, “That was a great idea. We appreciate your perspective.” And most importantly, when they try to tell you that their success isn’t earned or try to deflect a compliment, stop them. Tell them how much you notice their hard work and how hard they tried. Be that voice until they can silence their inner Gordon.

Kristina Schaefer is general counsel and chief risk officer of First Bank & Trust, Sioux Falls, S.D., and a 2015 Outstanding Women in Banking honoree.