‘Defeat that gremlin’: how to overcome self-doubt

Written by Emily Hill Wednesday 10 March 2021
It can be called self-doubt, imposter syndrome, even self-sabotage. We’ve all felt it some time but we can beat it
Woman hiding from inner demons in a box

The past year has put all of us in unusual, sometimes uncomfortable situations. Managers have had to step into new roles or take up new responsibilities. Team leaders have been forced to become more visible and offer anxious colleagues support.

And none of this is easy. But by understanding the causes and symptoms, we can move forward.

So what is imposter syndrome?

“Imposter syndrome is caused by insecure thought,” explains Dr Aaron Turner, managing partner of One Thought. “Insecure thought makes us feel doubtful, unsure and we lose confidence in ourselves... If a person assumes these feelings and perceptions are true, they will lose faith in themselves and then suffer the anxiety and insecurity of feeling their shortfalls will be discovered.”

Accidental managers can be particularly prone to feeling that they’re an imposter. It applies particularly in management because “employees typically get recruited early on for a specialism and then get promoted to manager status and end up managing a team – a very different competency to their expertise they were originally hired for,” explains Liz Sebag-Montefiore. Women will be vulnerable simply because there are fewer women than men in management roles.

And what can we do about it?

Psychologist Dr Audrey Tang, author of The Leader’s Guide to Resilience, says that imposter syndrome is a state of mind that you can overcome. “First, try to identify what it is you see in others you deem ‘more successful’ than you, and write it down. Next, compare it to a list of your own achievements. Then ask yourself if they are actually better skilled, or if it is their means of expressing their abilities that makes you feel less accomplished? If the latter, consider if you would like to learn that approach; if the former, approach them and ask them their advice on improving skills in that area.”

Professional coach Andrea Morrison discovered that her imposter syndrome was simply “an insecure thought that I had about myself… the less attention I paid to my insecure thinking, in general, the more I experienced my confidence; the more confidence I experienced, the less the insecure thoughts felt true to me so I paid even less attention to them…”

Imposter syndrome specifically appears to be an issue felt particularly by women. Last year a US study found that three-quarters of women executives experience imposter syndrome and feel they put more pressure on themselves to succeed than men. According to a number of experts, women, women of colour, Black women, and people from the LGBTQ community are most at risk of experiencing imposter syndrome.

Liz Sebag-Montefiore, director of the HR consultancy 10Eighty refers to confidence-sapping imposter syndrome thoughts as her “gremlin”.

“Often when we are standing at the threshold of change that saboteur, the gremlin can appear with his self-limiting beliefs,” she says. “Change is the enemy of the gremlin, whose mission is to preserve the status quo and avoid risk taking! The better our understanding of the gremlin and his actions, the more successful we can be at limiting his effects on our future lives.” Defeat that gremlin and you’ll be an ‘imposter’ no longer.

Two Chartered Managers on addressing confidence issues

Janet Berry CMgr is head of conservation at the cathedral and church buildings division of the Church of England. It’s a position with significant responsibility, and she tells us of what helps her when imposter syndrome rears its head in the face of a difficult decision:

“I try to go back to the basics of ‘five bums on a seat’ – what is the real issue; why is it an issue; who’s involved; where can I get help if I need it; when do I have to make the decision by? This generally gives me a way forward to how I can make the decision. It slows my thought processes down enough to calm my nerves and focus on the issue at hand, which bolsters my confidence through me knowing I’m making a decision that I can defend with integrity. It doesn’t always work but with practice I’m getting better.”

Mike Hetherington CMgr, project manager at IMI Truflo Marine, says that self-doubt or a crisis in confidence is quite normal; it’s what you do with it that can make a difference.

“I tend to turn these moments into something positive.” When feelings of uncertainty creep in, he turns it into practical action. “I tend to use the energy to drill down into the subject. For example, get a little closer to the detail, research more options or way forwards; speak to team members about the topic. By understanding the topic that’s causing self-doubt, confidence will increase and self-doubt will disappear.”

A practical way to overcome that little, self-doubting voice in your head is to cement your skills and learning. Don’t forget that CMI’s ManagementDirect and Career Development Centre platforms are full of resources, advice and background reading on most of the scenarios that will face a manager. Try searching for ‘Confidence’ to find videos like Competence to confidence with Jodi Detjen and How to Build Confidence with Gisele Shelley.

You can also find support through the resources on our International Women’s Day hub.

Or you could give yourself the ultimate confidence boost by achieving the highest status available to a manager. Find out more today about becoming a Chartered Manager.

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