Breaking the Cycle of Self-Doubt: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome in the Workplace

Meet Aisha, a brilliant tax lawyer at a leading law firm in the heart of Abuja. Aisha had always dreamed of being a successful lawyer, but as she climbed the ranks at her firm, she couldn’t shake the feeling of being a fraud. She’d look around the conference room, convinced that everyone else was smarter, more competent. When her boss gave her a glowing review, she attributed it to luck. When she won a difficult case, she chalked it up to chance. As a result, she never applied for the partnership she deserved, instead settling for a comfortable but unfulfilling associate position. Aisha let imposter syndrome get in the way of her career, and she couldn’t help but wonder where she might be if she hadn’t. We’ve all been Aisha at some point and the culprit, is Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome is a common phenomenon that affects individuals from all walks of life, but it is particularly prevalent among women in the workplace. Women are more likely than men to experience feelings of self-doubt and insecurity, which can hold them back from pursuing their goals and achieving their full potential. According to a survey conducted by KPMG, 75% of female executives have experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their careers, compared to 58% of male executives.

What are the main triggers of imposter syndrome?

  • Societal Pressures and Expectations: Women often find it challenging to prioritize our jobs because we are frequently expected to be nurturers and caregivers. There is this underlying fear that if you are seen prioritizing your career, you must be doing a bad job with your home and with this in mind, we feel like we are not as qualified as our male counterparts to go for a project or a position.
  • Gender Based Discrimination: We may start to doubt our own skills and accomplishments when we are underpaid, overlooked, or denied opportunities at work especially in fields where men predominate. These issues can make it difficult for women to be assertive in the workplace and to feel confident in our abilities, which feeds the cycle of self-doubt that is imposter syndrome.
  • Personal Experiences and Upbringing:If you grew up in an environment where you were constantly criticized or told that you weren’t good enough, you may struggle with feelings of self-doubt and insecurity later in life. If you never learned to assert yourself and speak up, it will hardly come naturally in your workplace. 
  • Perfectionism and High Standards: Women are frequently subjected to unreasonable expectations at work, and if we’re being honest, we oftentimes have to put in twice the work in order to gain the recognition and respect we deserve. There is also the pressure that comes from society’s gender biases, where women are expected to be perfect and flawless, while men can make mistakes and still be respected. 
  • Lack of Representation: When we don’t see other women doing the things that we want to do, it can be difficult to reach for those things. This survey, conducted by the global market research firm Ipsos, found that 74% of women feel more confident when they see other women in leadership positions.

You can succeed despite imposter syndrome… here’s how;

  • Seek Out Supportive Mentors and Networks: One thing that you can be sure of is that there are other women who have gone through what you may be going through and can help you. For example, you can join a professional organization or seek out a mentor who has experience with where you’re trying to get. 
  • Recognize Negative Self-Talk: For example, if you catch yourself thinking, “I’m not good enough,” you can try to reframe the thought by saying, “I am capable and competent.” What you say about yourself matters, and while you cannot stop the immediate thoughts from crossing your mind, you have a say on whether you will starve those negative thoughts or whether you will create a table and feed them. 
  • Embrace Failure as a Learning Opportunity: You can learn to embrace failure as a learning opportunity rather than a personal flaw. This allows you to control the situation immediately. 
  • Celebrate Successes and Accomplishments: You can celebrate your successes and accomplishments, no matter how small.. You can keep a running list of your day to day wins to remind you of how much you have accomplished.
  • Do It Afraid: We have seen formidable women admit to doing what they did while being terrified. It is proof that while the feeling of being an imposter might come, you have the choice of refusing to allow it paralyze you. Rihanna said “pretend” in this interview where she was asked what she does on the days she is not feeling herself.

It’s important to remember that you’re not alone in this. Sheryl Sandberg and Michelle Obama have spoken up about having imposter syndrome and look at how much they’ve achieved still. Nothing changes the fact that if you were not considered capable, you wouldn’t even have gotten the opportunity in the first place. So go out there and treat your accomplishments with the respect that they deserve.

Paula Pwul is a Personal Brand Strategist, Lawyer, and Host of She’s the Brand Podcast, who leverages her unique insights and skills to help professional and creative women build online brands, be their bravest selves, and position themselves as impactful industry leaders. When she’s not working, she’s reading fiction, hanging out with her family, or trying new experiences.