In 2011, the United Nations General Assembly declared October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child, to recognize girls' rights and the unique challenges girls face around the world. As the former CEO of the national nonprofit Girls Inc., I've been involved with helping girls and young women reach their personal and professional potential — sometimes against great odds.
The workplace can be particularly daunting for a young woman striving to scramble up the corporate ladder, have her voice heard, and make a difference in her organization. One of the biggest obstacles she faces comes not from others, but from herself. Many accomplished and talented young women suffer from low self-esteem and "impostor syndrome" — the feeling that they aren't as talented, worthy, or valuable as their peers. They worry that they're simply "faking" it, and that sooner or later they'll be "discovered."
Many of the well-known, successful women I've encountered during my years in corporate America have experienced impostor syndrome and low self-esteem, particularly when they were younger. I myself struggled with these feelings, and am now committed to helping other young professional women conquer their feelings of inadequacy and get on with the business of showing the world what they have to offer.
In honor of the International Day of the Girl Child, here are three ways young women can get over their feelings of inadequacy and build up their self-esteem at work.
1. Be proud of your background — even if it's humble.
If you're a high achiever, it's not uncommon to land in a firm populated by coworkers and colleagues who went to prestigious colleges and grad schools, and perhaps grew up privileged. I was an African American woman from a working-class background, but my peers were mostly white males who came from a wealthy socioeconomic background. Your parents, family, upbringing, and challenges are what made you who you are. Don't be ashamed of your past, and don't try to be like everyone else. Try to wear your uniqueness like a badge of honor.
2. Remember that gender matters — and it can make you stronger.
A common theme among women who have impostor syndrome is that they feel they have to work harder than their male peers to prove their worth. Ultimately, it's never enough because the external validation we're so eager for doesn't actually neutralize our own feelings of low self-esteem. The validation we need has to come from within us. The way back from this fruitless pursuit is to ask what it means to be worthy in your own eyes. This isn't an easy question for a young woman to answer, but you need to answer it if you want to claim the power and joy you deserve.
3. Don't let the naysayers influence you.
The most debilitating aspect of impostor syndrome is the way in which it enables us to hear the naysayers, while the words of those who compliment, reward, and acknowledge us fall on deaf ears. See if you can put aside your habitual response and allow the positive, affirming, supportive information to sink in. One way to "hear" the truth about yourself is to ask a trusted colleague to help you build self-awareness. Ask them what they think your special gifts are, and listen carefully.
Want to know if you have impostor syndrome? Take a free quiz here.
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