How to overcome “imposter phenomenon” and find confidence in your abilities11 Dec 2023 · 4 min read
Laura Santos, Privacy Manager, Americas, Philip Morris International
Have you ever felt inadequate in your workplace and worried about being exposed as a fraud? Then you’ve likely suffered from imposter phenomenon, often incorrectly referred to as imposter syndrome. Like most of us, I've sometimes doubted my abilities. However, with former U.S. First Lady and attorney Michelle Obama and businesswoman Sheryl Sandberg admitting to these same anxieties, it seems I’m in good company. It’s interesting to note that while the term was initially applied to high-achieving women, subsequent research reveals it occurs equally in men and women, but manifests differently in each.1
As a lawyer, it’s self-evident that my skills have got me where I am today. However, despite this professional success, I’ve sometimes compared myself unfavorably to others. That inner critic has tried to coax me out of making big decisions, affecting both my professional and personal life.
Privacy Manager, Americas
Philip Morris International
During my education in Colombia, I had plenty of external validation from peers and teachers who saw in me what I couldn’t. After starting my career at a global law firm in Bogotá, I was looking to further my education and came across Chevening, the U.K. government’s international scholarships program. Looking at the impressive alumni, I wondered how my own achievements could possibly measure up, but a friend encouraged me to ignore the metaphorical “devil on my shoulder.”
The application involved sending in four essays on various themes. Despite the self-confidence I may have exuded in my writing, as soon as I’d submitted them, I thought, “They were horrible. Did I really apply for this program? I’m not good enough!” In a rash moment, fueled by negative thoughts, I deleted the essays from my laptop, dismissed any notions that I might study in the U.K., and instead focused on my job.
Ignoring the triggers that make you think “don’t belong”
You can imagine my surprise when I discovered I’d been shortlisted for an interview at the U.K. embassy in Bogotá as one of around 100 people from over 1,000 Chevening applicants. Of course, the achievement should have emboldened me, but it did the opposite. “The other applicants will be more interesting than me,” I told myself. One known trigger of imposter phenomenon is a new opportunity or job, which can result in either overwork to make up for the perceived shortfall in attributes, or self-sabotage. For me, it was veering toward the latter.
I contemplated withdrawing my application as I feared being exposed at the interview. Fortunately, I challenged those negative sentiments, telling myself, “They’ve chosen me for a reason, so I just need to be myself. The embassy will make the judgement, not me. Perhaps they will see something in Laura Santos they like.”
After the interview, I heard I’d been offered a scholarship for a masters’ degree at the London School of Economics, and my first thought? “It must be for someone else, perhaps with the same name?” Even after accepting I’d been offered a place, I worried the committee would realize I didn’t have leadership qualities and might still change their mind, before finally acknowledging there was a reason I was chosen. It was time to embrace the opportunity.
See new challenges as a chance to learn and make a positive impact. Yes, sometimes you may fail, but often you may surprise yourself—and others—and excel.
Confidence doesn’t always mean competence
The strange thing about imposter phenomenon is that it isn’t solved by success, as new challenges can trigger further doubts. Once in London, I worried I couldn’t match my fellow students academically or in terms of my English. However, through interactions with them—as well as my lecturers—I had to accept that I deserved to be there.
One thing I’ve learned is to not equate confidence with competence—often those we perceive as successful leaders may experience imposter phenomenon but hide it better than others.
My shift in attitude toward ignoring that inner monologue led to me not only furthering my education but also providing a life-changing experience living in another country.
I returned to Colombia with a new outlook and ambition to help change the world for the better. That led me to taking my current job with Philip Morris International because I was so inspired by its transformation to deliver a smoke-free future.
Believe you’re good enough
Even as we progress up the career ladder, there will always be gaps in our knowledge—and that’s okay. In fact, it can be liberating to let go of our quest for perfectionism in every area—that’s why we turn to experts in their field for advice.
After being so close to withdrawing from the Chevening program, I’ve learned to stop doubting myself and see new challenges as a chance to learn and make a positive impact. Yes, sometimes you may fail, but often you may surprise yourself—and others—and excel.
By acknowledging external praise, and accepting you deserve your career, you can confront the internal voice that you “conned your way to get here.” In the end, self-sabotage only prevents others from learning how great you are.
And that’s what our career journeys are all about—learning valuable lessons from opportunities that don’t work out and riding the wave of our achievements that lead to long-term success.
1 Treatment of the Imposter Phenomenon in Psychotherapy Clients. Matthews, Dr Gail and Clance, Dr Pauline Rose. 1985. Psychotherapy in Private Practice. The Haworth Press Inc. Vol. 3. Issue 1. Page 72.