“Impostor syndrome is the mean girl at the party. And we hate her.” Blogger, author, and entrepreneur Ash Ambirge ought to know. After working a string of jobs she hated, she struck out on her own and had to push through periods of self-doubt by constantly reminding herself that she was capable of handling whatever came next. Several years and thousands of blog subscribers later, Ash now helps others triumph over impostor syndrome through private coaching and her new book, “The Middle Finger Project”.
If left unchecked, impostor syndrome – that nagging voice in your head telling you that you don’t deserve to be where you are – will sabotage your efforts to build a great career and making a meaningful impact. Self-doubt has a way of dissuading you from volunteering to lead important projects or reaching for the next rung on the ladder. And doubt really gets in the way of proving you’re the best person for the job.
So let’s kick impostor syndrome once and for all. But let’s not stop there. Let’s elevate ourselves and our unsung colleagues by promoting the amazing work we’re all doing so it actually gets noticed by the people who matter. Because, news flash, they’re not going to notice on their own.
Good work isn’t what we pay attention to, according to Meredith Fineman, author of “Brag Better”. “We reward whoever is speaking the loudest and often, their work isn’t as good,” she says. “We won’t get the loud people to be quiet, so we need the qualified but quiet people to be loud.”
The first step is convincing yourself you have the right to make some noise.
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Impostor syndrome vs. the real, brag-worthy you
When Ash started offering consulting services to people who are starting a new business, she figured she was being hired to help navigate the logistical aspects. “But I found they weren’t struggling with the paperwork,” she says. “They were being held back by their own mental mean girl.”
Time and again, her clients confided that they didn’t feel qualified to go off in a new and different direction. They hadn’t gone to school for it. They didn’t have years of experience. Nobody had given them permission. “We don’t give ourselves any credit,” says Ash. “We feel bad because we’re not the Beyoncé of everything.”
Pressuring yourself to be the best in the world at your job pretty much guarantees you’ll never stretch yourself professionally. Instead of thinking small and safe, take on challenging projects and big new roles. Focus on making an honest contribution. If you start hearing the mean girl in your head, it’s nothing more than a sign that you’re pushing yourself.
Meredith agrees. “I coach CEOs and public figures, and every one of them feels their accomplishments aren’t enough or aren’t worth talking about,” she says. “It comes with the territory when you’re doing things that are hard.”
If your own thoughts aren’t enough to get the mean girl to shut up, call in those around you for help – they’re a more objective judge of our work than we are. Trust that they aren’t idiots. They didn’t hire you by accident and they’re not paid to stroke your ego. When they praise you, they mean it.
“Sometimes I simply reiterate my clients’ accomplishments back to them,” Meredith says. That’s because impostor syndrome makes you blind to your own achievements. But the mean girl is a figment of our imaginations – a cognitive distortion based on fear. Present her with the facts, and she’ll fade away.
Ash recommends keeping a running log of your workplace wins, including every piece of praise and thanks you receive. Look at feedback you’ve received from managers and colleagues, as well. You’ll be surprised by how quickly the evidence of your awesomeness piles up. Plus, you’ve now got a handy list of achievements you can show off.
Being fearless (but not shameless) about bragging
Overcoming impostor syndrome is a crucial first step, but you won’t score that raise or get to the next stage of your career unless you’re vocal about your worth. The people you need to impress are busy with their own concerns and need to be shown the great work you’re doing. Meredith’s mission is to flip the script on bragging and reclaim that word. What she calls “bragging better” is about being proud of what you’ve done, and telling people about it in a way that is strategic and authentic.
“This stuff is necessary, given what we pay attention to and how short our attention spans are,” Meredith explains. “I’m sure some people think I’m obnoxious. But it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Particularly for women.“ Plus, bragging lets you control your own narrative because you’re the one out front telling your story. You set the tone. Your detractors (if you have any) are forced to play defense because you got the first word in.
Bragging in a way that feels authentically you requires preparation. Start by making lists of everything you’ve accomplished in the past month, year, and five years. Include shared accomplishments as well, because sometimes it’s just as important to highlight your team. Write down why you’re proud of those things and which of your skills or qualities were instrumental in making them happen.
Also think about what gets you excited in your current role. Are there particular tasks you relish? Are you uniquely suited for it in some way? Then, channel your inner baseball geek and collect some stats on yourself. Maybe you’ve been promoted quickly and consistently. Maybe you’ve been put in charge of ever-larger projects, budgets, and teams. Maybe your work has provably brought in (or saved) lots of money for the company.
Now you’re ready to construct a few ready-made brags with all that juicy info. Think about your various audiences – your boss, colleagues, prospective clients, the public – and try to speak their language. If your boss is all about metrics, for example, be sure to include some numbers.
EVERYDAY BRAGS IN ACTION
While meeting attendees trickle in or in an elevator (when that’s a thing again) – A couple of sentences describing what you’re working on, why it’s relevant for the person/people you’re talking to, and how you’re crushing it.
Forwarding an email – When passing along good news, add a short note at the top summarizing the role you played and why you’re excited. Be sure to praise the work of other people involved too, especially if they (or their boss!) are on the send list.
Reporting on results – A few sentences sharing why you’re excited about the results and acknowledging contributions from other team members. Add a final sentence about where to go from here to show that you’re a long-term strategic thinker.
In a big meeting – In a minute or less, summarize something you’re working on that is of interest to the rest of the group. Be sure to time this so that it fits neatly within the context of the conversation.
Be careful not to undermine your brags with nullifying language like “I don’t want to brag, but…” or “shameless self-promotion”. In her book, Meredith calls these out as the equivalent of saying “I suck and I know it.” You’ve already done the work of articulating your accomplishments as simple facts – this is no time to let impostor syndrome creep back in! It’s work you’ve actually done, so be proud of it.
There is, however, room for self-deprecating humor. It shows that you can poke fun at yourself, but should still be taken seriously. It’s the difference between “Maria did all the important work on this project” and “Maria delivered her piece of the project three days ahead of schedule – she puts the rest of us to shame!”
And if you’re concerned about bragging too hard or too often, take comfort. That level of self-awareness is enough to stop you from going overboard, Meredith says. “The mere fact that you’re worried about it indicates you’re probably incapable of bragging too hard.”
Bragging for the benefit of others
Once you’ve got the hang of “bragging better” about yourself, do it on behalf of people you care about. (Or, if you just can’t bring yourself to brag about your own work yet, start by bragging about others’ work to get some practice.) In the vast majority of situations, success isn’t a zero-sum game. There’s room for everyone to shine. Besides: lifting someone else up helps them get over any impostor syndrome they might be facing.
You can even make a brag-pact with teammates to support each other. When you echo what they say and they echo what you say, both your voices will carry more weight.
Moreover, amplifying the voices of those who don’t get much attention is a powerful form of allyship. “If you are in a position of power or privilege,” Merideth says, “it is your civic duty to elevate the voices of people who have historically been marginalized.”
Is it about getting men or white people or cis-gendered able-bodied folks to shut up? Absolutely not. It’s about shining a light on the achievements – big and small – of people of color and women and people with disabilities. Because, unfortunately, even now, some voices “matter” more than others.
True to form, Meredith makes no apologies for seeing a higher purpose in all this and describes bragging-as-allyship as important for truth and important for democracy. Systemic and cultural barriers around visibility and credibility create a self-perpetuating, downward-trending cycle. Our health as a society hinges on whether and how fast we can break out of it. “If, for whatever reason, you are somebody people listen to,” she urges, “passing the microphone is part of your job.”
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