Diversity Dialogue Broadening Business Perspectives

How You Can Overcome Impostor Syndrome

Many people have two narratives. There’s the narrative we tell others, and there’s our impostor syndrome narrative — the one we tell ourselves. This story is about the second.

Michelle Silverthorn

I speak a lot for my job, and I tell a similar story in my introduction — my success in school; my practice in BigLaw; my diversity work; the launch of my own business; and my upcoming book on diversity, authenticity and belonging.

But there’s the narrative that you don’t hear, the one I tell myself — the one that tells me that no matter how hard I try, or how much I work, I never really belonged in any space I was in. Maybe it was the high-stress nature of my job. Maybe it was the loud whispers of “affirmative action candidate.” Maybe it was the reality that no one who I worked for ever looked like me. And maybe it was the self-belief that the others were right — I wasn’t good enough to be there.

That’s impostor syndrome. It’s the feeling that no matter how successful you are, you are really a fraud, you are not skilled enough for the career that you have chosen, and you will one day be found out and exposed as the impostor that everyone knows you are.


The tricky truth about impostor syndrome is that it manifests itself in different ways. The expert who has to know all the answers to all the things because they don’t believe they’re ever good enough. The perfectionist who sets impossible goals for themselves to reach and when they don’t reach them, they start thinking that maybe they just can’t do anything.

Then there’s the natural genius who is always good at what they do and who never really has to try because it’s easy to do — until the first day it isn’t and then they give up. The rugged individualist who doesn’t want to ask for help because they’re scared that when they do, people will find out that they don’t know what they’re doing. Finally, we have the superhero, who measures their success in doing as many things as they possibly can do. They have to keep working and ignoring that voice inside that’s telling them to stop. When they stop, they fail, and then everyone will find out that they weren’t good enough to be there in the first place.


The stats say that 70% of Americans suffer from impostor syndrome, and that’s certainly true, but there are situations where it’s even more likely to occur. For example, the percentage is even higher for women and minorities, like me, especially in workplaces where we are the first and the only. The first in our family to go to college. The first woman to work in this department. The only Latino on the floor. The only black person in this meeting. And when we find ourselves not considered for the “good work,” socially isolated in the workplace and our competence implicitly — and explicitly — questioned, we start to believe that false narrative about ourselves.

We often get validation from showing how perfect we are. If I’m scrolling through social media and looking at the person who seems to have it all, I must be a screwup because I cannot get any of it together like that.

Another trigger? Working in a win-lose competitive field. It’s having to be perfect all the time where we can’t second guess our decisions. It’s made even worse because the one thing we can’t do is make it look hard. Let me post on Instagram how easy it is to manage my four children, my full-time job, get three meals on the table, and still have nights out with my spouse. We often get validation from showing how perfect we are. If I’m scrolling through social media and looking at the person who seems to have it all, I must be a screwup because I cannot get any of it together like that.

Many of us work in solitude, despite our many emails and phone calls. We don’t have our people to listen to our ideas, to help us with our decisions, to shoot the breeze with us, to tell us we did great, and to pull us out of our rut when something does go wrong. That’s how professional isolation feels. That’s how impostor syndrome keeps cutting us down.


Are any of those impostors you? Do any of those impostor syndrome feelings resonate with you? Are you ready to change? If you’ve answered “yes” to those questions, here are five new rules to follow to overcome impostor syndrome in your workplace.


Impostor syndrome, like many challenges when it comes to our mental health and well-being, comes with a stigma attached. Try to remember that you are not the only person to feel like a fraud in your workplace. It’s a brave and vulnerable thing to do, but if you can, try opening up to someone. Chances are, they’re struggling with the same thing. So, find your person. Have them be your cushion, to embrace you when you’re struggling, your trampoline, to bounce you back up to try again, and your barometer, to tell you the truth about what you have achieved and what you still need to do to get there.


When people come up to you and say, “You did a great job,” so many of us reply with, “Oh it was nothing.” Why is it a form of pride to look like it took you nothing to achieve this? Take the credit and simply say this: “Thank you.”


Impostors are mostly critical of themselves. When you succeed, write it down. Acknowledge the work it took to get you there. It’ll be great for your résumé, too. Plus, when your impostor syndrome is threatening to overcome you, keeping this list will help you remember that you do deserve the praise you receive.


Just. Only. Yeah, but. I guess. I think — these qualifiers minimize your authority when you talk yourself and others into believing you are less experienced than you are. Here’s an easy fix — look at your emails. If you use the word “just,” delete that word and start again. Stop disqualifying your own expertise. Stop apologizing for your presence there.


If you know me, you know I talk about authenticity and belonging every single day. Belonging matters because knowing that you belong in a place where they welcome your authentic self — in both the person you bring to the table and the work that you do there — will go a very long way to making you feel like less of a fraud.

Part of the way to cure impostor syndrome is to hold on to your values, the ones that matter the most to you. Answer this question for me: When you think of the times in your life when you’ve been the happiest, the proudest or the most satisfied at work, which values come to mind and why? Take some time to think about your answer. Keep coming back to your answer over and over again in your career. It’ll help you remember that you are here, that you are a success, and that most of all, you absolutely do belong here.