Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

January 26, 2022


28 min
If you have a long list of professional achievements, yet you still doubt your own qualifications and worth sometimes, you may be a victim of “imposter syndrome.” According to Sherry Stroud, APM, this can prevent you from reaching your maximum potential. However, the good news is it can be overcome. In this podcast, Stroud explains what imposter syndrome is, how it works — and how to conquer it.
Sherry Stroud, APM Benefits, Payroll and Retirement Manager, King County, Washington
Sherry Stroud, APM Benefits, Payroll and Retirement Manager, King County, Washington
Royce Morse, Editor, IOFM
Royce Morse, Editor, IOFM

Podcast Series – The IOFM Ask the Expert Team

The IOFM Ask the Expert panelists are the folks who offer up their industry knowledge and experience to answer member questions. For our podcast series, we’re speaking to them one-on-one about topics that are of particular interest to them, sharing their insight, experience and stories. Join us — have a listen!

Hosted by Royce Morse, IOFM Managing Editor

If you have a long list of professional achievements, yet you still doubt your own qualifications and worth sometimes, you may be a victim of “imposter syndrome.” According to Sherry Stroud, APM, this can prevent you from reaching your maximum potential. However, the good news is it can be overcome. In this podcast, Stroud explains what imposter syndrome is, how it works — and how to conquer it.

Sherry Stroud, APM
Benefits, Payroll and Retirement Manager, King County, Washington

Sherry Stroud, APM, is the benefits, payroll and retirement manager for King County, Washington. She has more than 30 years in leadership, finance and general accounting experience, including 15 years of government experience, and 10 years managing accounts payable and accounts receivable across the private and public sectors and in higher education. Sherry has established a legacy of leadership training, coaching, continuous improvement, organizational change management and creative problem-solving.

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Royce Morse: Welcome to "Meet the Experts," an IOFM podcast series designed to introduce you to many of the more than 200 panelists and answer your "Ask the Expert" questions. "Ask the Expert" is a popular feature allowing our members to ask fellow AP and AR practitioners any work-related questions and get answers back within five business days. I'm Royce Morse, Institute of Finance and Management's Managing Editor.

Today we'll be talking with Sherry Stroud, APM, about imposter syndrome. Sherry is a benefits, payroll and retirement manager with more than 30 years in leadership, finance, and general accounting; 15 years of government experience; and 10 years managing accounts payable and accounts receivable across both the private and public sectors and in higher education. Sherry has established a legacy of leadership training, coaching, continuous improvement, organizational change management, and creative problem-solving.


Hi, Sherry, thanks for joining me.

Sherry Stroud: Hi, Royce. Thanks for having me. I'm happy to be here today.

Royce Morse: That's great. So today I want to talk to you about imposter syndrome. I know a lot of people have it and actually some family members have it. I would like to kind of get your perspective on it, because I know this is something that you've dealt with quite a bit. Let's start out by kind of talking about what it is and how you get to that place, how you develop this syndrome.

Sherry Stroud: Okay. So I'll give you a little bit of background about what it is first. So, first of all, it is a syndrome that's been coined by psychologists. Their names are Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. They coined this term around the 1970s because, especially for women, when they would get into different types of positions, they would feel as if they were a fraud or not good enough or, "Will people accept me for who I am?"


So the truth of the matter is all of us, at some point, will experience imposter syndrome. It's just a matter of when does it show up, and how do we combat it so that, when we're feeling like we're having an experience of imposter syndrome, we know, within our internal body and thoughts and feelings of what it looks like when it comes on, and how do I combat it while I'm dealing with whatever situation that I'm in?


The definition of it is: The persistent inability to believe that one's success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one's own efforts or skills.

Royce Morse: Yeah. I had actually heard at some point, I think, that imposter syndrome tends to be more common in women. Why is that, do you think?

Sherry Stroud: Well, I think it goes from most likely our workforce and the way women were raised in the United States. We think about years ago, how women were made to feel like our place was in the home and not in the workforce. After one of those civil wars—I'm not a history expert, but one of those wars—women had to go into the workforce. And after they began being in workflow, they remained.


So, for most corporations, if you Google the top corporations in the United States, you'll find that there are very few women in those jobs. So women have been viewed as not as qualified at some points. So this imposter syndrome is so that, when women do get into those positions of authority or they're making decisions or when they have these feelings like "I'm not good enough," or "I have self-esteem" [issues], that we can look at ourselves and think about whether or not imposter syndrome is playing into this feeling that we have, and whether or not the feeling is real.


Sometimes, the reason why we say it's fraud is because we can think, in our own mind, that people are thinking these things about us, that we're less than, when the other person's truly not thinking that at all.

Royce Morse: Yeah, I think in a lot of cases it's your internal dialogue; you're telling that to yourself, so you're kind of projecting it onto other people and thinking that's what's in their mind, when it isn't that at all.

Sherry Stroud: Right. The reason why I wanted to do imposter syndrome is I know I've experienced it in the past. One of the things I do as a coach is also coach for when I hear coachees [sic] talk about themselves in the way that I think imposter syndrome is playing into it. How can we come up with tools and techniques so that, when you have these feelings of self-doubt—or when you have these feelings like people may not think that I'm as educated as I am, or they might think that I really don't know what I'm talking about—how can you put some tools or techniques in your thoughts to prevent you from having those overwhelming feelings?


Royce Morse: Yeah, that's going to be extremely useful information. First, though, I want to talk about why people go through these episodes at certain times. What will trigger a bout of imposter syndrome, in your experience?

Sherry Stroud: I think I would say almost anything can trigger it, but I believe it has more to do with your self-doubt or your own self-esteem in who you are and what you're doing at the time. So, for example, I would say I was recently working with someone, and we were talking about transitioning to a different position.


When I was talking to this individual about moving on to another job, one of the things that they said to me was: "I didn't think that I should apply for that particular position because it pays so much more and, because of what it pays, I don't know that I'm qualified."

Royce Morse: Mm-hm, I've heard that. There's some statistic out there (and I can't cite it) that says that men, in particular, will apply for jobs that they don't have all the qualifications for; whereas, women are very reluctant to do that.

Sherry Stroud: Exactly. And this was a woman that I was talking to, that I was coaching, and I said, "Let's look at the job description and let's talk through whether or not you meet the qualifications." And when we went through the qualifications, she met every one could explain in her background where she had done that work.


I went through a series of questions with her as to: "Why now do you think, if an organization is going to pay you $100,000" (let me just throw that out) "a year to do this job, and you have the qualifications—what inside of you makes you think that you don't deserve to get paid that much money?"

Royce Morse: Yeah, I think you've hit it spot-on. I think it's a question of self-worth and doubts about your abilities, even when, as you said, this individual is quite well-qualified for the job. You just think, "Well, I'm not worth it."

Sherry Stroud: Right, so your question was: When does it show up, or how does it show up? I believe it shows up all the time in different situations. It's just a matter of: How do we recognize when it's there? And what do we do to make sure that, when it does show up, we have a tool to use to help us cope and help us manage the feeling that comes over, so it's not overwhelming and making you feel like you can't do what's expected of you?


Royce Morse: Mm-hm, yeah, I get that. I think it has a lot to do with self-awareness. So, when you feel that sensation coming on, like, "I'm not good enough for this," or "People think that I'm not good enough for this," that you recognize what that is and then apply whatever strategies you've learned to deal with it. But I think the first thing is becoming self-aware and recognizing that inner dialogue as happening, and you need to kind of get on it before you kind of curl up into a ball.


So what kind of strategies do you recommend for people who are experiencing imposter syndrome?

Sherry Stroud: Well, the first thing I recommend is recognizing that this is something that you are experiencing and understanding what it looks like for you. For me, when I feel like I'm experiencing imposter syndrome, I can feel, like in my gut, my body language is changing. I can feel it in my throat that I'm feeling—I don't want say "incompetent," but not feeling my full worth. So one of the things that I do for myself is make sure that if I'm going into a meeting, or depending on what I'm going to do, that I recognize when I start feeling this way. Then I'm going to take a deep breath if that's what it takes, and I'm going to pause and I'm going think about it, and then I'm going to respond before just rattling off whatever is on the top of my brain.


Or also, for me, one of the things that I do is, if I'm in a meeting—when I first went into this position that I have now, where I'm a manager—I manage 33 employees. I'm responsible for a payroll of close to a billion dollars a year. When I first got this position, even though I felt really good about the position, one of the first meetings that I went to, I started to have a little bit of this self-doubt. So some of the things that I started doing is telling myself: "Why were you selected for the job?" And I tell myself that I made it through this interview process, and I was successful in this position over hundreds of people that applied.


So I start telling myself mentally all the things that I can bring to the table when I'm at this meeting. What I found out, too, is I also start thinking about how I can be more confident. I tell myself now: "When you go to a meeting, you'll never leave a meeting without asking the question that you wanted to ask in the back of your mind."

Royce Morse: Oh, that's really good advice. You just have to speak up.

Sherry Stroud: Yeah, because sometimes we go to these meetings and there's questions and there's things that's being said, but, because imposter syndrome has taken over, we don't feel comfortable in asking the question for fear of looking like we don't know as much as the other people.


Royce Morse: Mm-hm, when, in fact, a lot of them are probably thinking the same thing. "I don't get that, but I don't want to speak up and say that." I think that takes a certain amount of courage and it does show that you're assertive if you do speak up and say, "Could you repeat that? Could you elaborate on that a little bit because I'm not getting it?" I think a lot of it has to do with delivery, too. You see sometimes people who you know are very intelligent and competent, but their body language, they kind of curl in on themselves and they don't make eye contact and they speak in a very quiet voice, or they laugh inappropriately in the middle of what they're saying. It makes them seem weak when, in fact, they aren't or shouldn't be.

Sherry Stroud: We know, too, just since, in society in general, we have some people that are extroverts and some people that are introverts and not going to speak up as much as someone else because that's just their personality.


But the thing we want to separate from their personality is: Am I not speaking up because I feel like people are going to think that I'm a fraud, or that I don't measure up to these people that I'm surrounded with? One of the things that I do, too, is I have started journaling, and I write down all my accomplishments because sometimes, at the end of the day, we're like, "Where did the day go? What did I do today?" And so I started writing down my accomplishments and my achievements of what I'm doing in my job and what I'm doing in my life so that each day I can see progress toward the goals that I have set for myself, and also feel good about what I've done and why I deserve to be where I'm at.


Royce Morse: Yeah, I think that's incredibly good advice. I think for a lot of people they focus on the negative stuff. They kind of obsess about the thing that I didn't do, or the thing that I did wrong, or the thing I could've done better, or something I said that didn't come out right—whatever it might be—and that's all they think about, instead of the 98% of the good stuff that they did all day. I think journaling it really kind of—when you review that, it's like, "Oh, yeah, I did all that. That's pretty cool." Instead of, "Oh, God, I'm so stupid." I just think that that's a great strategy to kind of realign your focus with what really happened and the way that other people see you.


Sherry Stroud: Right. I do that with my team. I record every accomplishment that we've done, so that at the end of the year—we need to brag about what we're doing so that others can see our great work. And the other thing about imposter syndrome, too, is I don't compare myself to the next person. Maybe years ago, when I was younger and first starting off in my career, I would say, "Oh, this person has these skills and this person doesn't have the skills." Now what I tell people is: "We all come to the table with a unique set of skills and a unique experience, and that's why we're all hired and that's why we're all different." So my thing is: "Don't compare yourself to other people, where they're at versus where you're at."

Royce Morse: I think that's brilliant advice. As you said, part of the beauty of a workforce is that you have all of these different skills and different perspectives and different abilities. We're all different, so trying to compare yourself to somebody else, you're comparing apples to oranges; it makes no sense. It'll just make you feel bad because they're better at some things than you are and that's what you're going to focus on, even though you're better at some things than they are.


Sherry Stroud: Right.

Royce Morse: That's a great insight, I think. Do you have any specific success stories about people that you've worked with who have learned to overcome imposter syndrome?

Sherry Stroud: Yeah. I could tell you—I can use myself as a success story. I think I could be the best success story I can tell you really quickly.


When I got out of high school, I decided to go to college and I went to—I'm an African American—a predominantly white neighborhood, white college, thinking that society has said and has proven and shown that most times you can get a better education, depending on where you live and where you go. So that's why I went to this school.

But when I got to the school, I had all these feelings of self-doubt, that maybe I didn't deserve to be here, that maybe the people here didn't want me here. "Am I good enough? Will I succeed?" And mind you, it wasn't anything that one person said to me, although I had a business administration teacher for my first quarter, and he had a different style that I wasn't quite used to, and that could've been because that's just how college was.


But at the end of the day, I felt like being in college at that time was not a good fit. It wasn't necessarily because I wasn't educated enough; it was more so because I didn't have the self-confidence and felt like I wasn't going to achieve.

Royce Morse: I see.

Sherry Stroud: And so, needless to say, I dropped out at an early age, but then I went to work at an insurance company. When I was about 19 years old, I worked at an insurance company. But before I went to work for that insurance company, I changed my mindset that no matter what happens on this job, I will succeed, which was different than what I said when I went to college.


I had had those feelings of insecurity, like I couldn't achieve it, so now I'm determined I'm going to achieve being in the workforce.

Royce Morse: I think that's super important, the desire to succeed and being willing to overcome your own self-doubt.

Sherry Stroud: Right.

Royce Morse: It requires a certain amount of strength of character and will for you to stand up and say: "I don't know how to do this, but I am going to learn it, and no one's going to stop me—including me."

Sherry Stroud: Exactly. The one thing I want to say about the whole college thing is that, later on in life, I then went back to college with the same attitude that I went into the job market with, that no matter what happens, I'm going to get this degree.


Royce Morse: And you did, didn't you?

Sherry Stroud: Yeah, I did.

Royce Morse: That's wonderful. Yeah, I think a lot of it is determination. I understand it's hard to be that determined when you have self-doubt.

Sherry Stroud: Yeah, and you've got to be able to believe in your skills because when you have that self-doubt as an employee, then that can prevent you from being the best possible employee and prevent you from succeeding in your own career goals, and prevent your organization from going where they possibly could go, as far as where you could take them with your expertise and knowledge.


Royce Morse: Yeah, absolutely. Tell me your tip. When you went back to college and you approached it with a different mindset, what was your inner dialogue at that point?

Sherry Stroud: My inner dialogue was the thought that, no matter what happens here, I'm going to have urgency to get this done. No matter what comes my way, what storm comes my way, what happens in life, this is a goal that I'm going to achieve—whatever bridge I have to cross, whatever tunnel I've got to go through, I will do it. And I also surrounded myself with a good support system. I talked to friends who had gone to college, I talked to counselors at the college, and I created a support system for myself of people who had achieved those goals that I was trying to achieve, and I made sure that I checked in with my counselor.


I had students that I connected with, so [we] could learn and study together, and that's how I made it through college.

Royce Morse: Interesting. I think that support system is really important, and I'm glad you mentioned that. Did you ever come home from a hard day at school and think, "I don't know if I can do this"?

Sherry Stroud: Of course. I can say that for math, for sure. [laughter] It seemed like the math was great until we got to the calculus.

Royce Morse: Don't get me started on calculus—no, thank you.


Sherry Stroud: I'll be transparent and say that I failed the calculus class the first time. I'm a visual learner. Some people can hear it, but I'm the type, I've got to see it like two or three times. I failed the class, but this time, when I failed the class, I did not go off thinking "I'm never going to pass this class." From this class, I went, "This is one step closer to my goal. I failed this class, but I also learned from this class, so I'm one step closer to passing the class."

Royce Morse: That's a good point. It wasn't for nothing, right? You did learn some things.


Sherry Stroud: I took a different attitude with this particular class.

Royce Morse: That's great. And, of course, I know you use calculus every day in accounts payable, right?

Sherry Stroud: Yeah. [laughter]

Royce Morse: Yeah, sure.

Sherry Stroud: Right. [laughter] That's what I was thinking: "When am I going to use this?"

Royce Morse: Probably never—unless you're going into a science field or a math field. Any final words you'd like to say to encourage people who may be suffering from imposter syndrome [about] how to think about it, how to get their brain wrapped around it, and how to try to overcome it?

Sherry Stroud: Yeah. The first thing I would say is, whenever you have self-doubt or you're not feeling like your success was achieved legitimately, or you don't belong where you're at, talk to someone. Talk to others. Find yourself a support system or find yourself someone that you can talk to about the thoughts that you're feeling, so that you can have a sounding board.


And I would recommend journaling. For me, in the position that I'm in, I found myself a mentor and I found myself a coach so that I could have someone that I could ask questions of about the job that I'm doing. My mentor was somebody that's in a higher position than I am in, and then I had a coach that could help me stay on the right path for the goals and the things that I want to achieve. And then also just having some people—friends, family, colleagues, someone that you can talk to.

The last thing that I would recommend is, if those things don't work, then sometimes talking to a professional therapist to help recognize those feelings and get through past behaviors so you can move forward may be something that is needed, too, because sometimes different experiences in life may have us stuck where we can't move beyond until we work out the things that have happened in the past.


So I always recommend that if these tips, or the things that you're doing, are not helping you move forward, then talking to a professional or a therapist is also a great way to look at your behaviors and to assist you in creating some new ones.

Royce Morse: That's great advice. Well, I thank you for your time. I think people will definitely get some benefit from this. I know that an awful lot of people experience this in their daily lives, and they may be embarrassed to talk about it, and I think you've encouraged them to reach out to other people and they don't have to suffer this alone. It's something they can overcome, but sometimes we need help to do that.


Thanks so much for your time. I appreciate it. It's been a fascinating conversation.

Sherry Stroud: Thank you so much, Royce. I appreciate the time.

Royce Morse: Thank you for listening to "Meet the Experts," and IOFM podcast series. Remember, if you have a question for our guest or any of our experts, be sure to log into IOFM.com/ask-the-experts.

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