By Uma Rao, Founder and Capacity Building Coach at Devi Consultants

I want to talk about impostor syndrome, that little hater we all know who has grown too comfortable living in our bodies. It’s the voice that tells the story of our failure, over and over again. 

Really, it’s a wound we have to heal. Because at some point, someone told you or made you feel incompetent — and you believed them. 

Everyone, especially every woman of color I know, has this little hater inside us. I have actually been amazed watching friends of mine, women who have achieved great things in their careers, be so defeated by this little hater. I have watched myself be defeated by this hater many times. 

For example: last year, I was deciding whether or not to reach out to a prospective client. A mutual friend and colleague (who I deeply respect and admire) referred me to this potential client. The project description stated, “[redacted] is seeking someone who is highly skilled, smart, and collaborative with an excellent track record in helping small nonprofits with big programs launch their Series B round of funding. We need a feasibility study and a new case statement. We need strategy!”

When my friend asked me whether I wanted to be connected, I didn’t respond right away. Why? Because my first reaction was to freak out. I’ve been a fundraiser for more than 12 years, and I was saying stuff like, “What is Series B round of funding? What is a feasibility study?”

Say Yes Anyway

“…my first reaction was to freak out. I’ve been a fundraiser for more than 12 years, and I was saying stuff like, ‘What is Series B round of funding?’ … And here’s what some basic googling taught me … I actually have expertise in “securing Series B funding.”

I honestly had competing instinctive responses. One was to respond to my friend and say, “No, but thanks for thinking of me,” because I was too intimidated and didn’t want to make a fool of myself. The other was to say yes anyway … because … well, I honestly don’t know why. But it was an instinct. I decided, in that moment, to say yes anyway. 

Now, with some space from the situation, I can recognize that instinct as my own wisdom. The wisdom that knows that I am generally insecure but also have years of experience to draw from and know what I’m doing. 

And here’s what some basic googling taught me: 

“Series B funding is funding you get after the initial startup funding from investors.” Of course, I have done this before, and I’ll do it again plenty of times with my nonprofit clients. My fundraising experience is mostly with small grassroots groups, moving from initial startup funding to sustainability — this means I actually have expertise in “securing Series B funding.”

A feasibility study “is a planning tool that asks you to research current and potential new prospects to assess if an organization can take on an additional large endeavor, such as a capital campaign.” It’s essentially a strategic plan and workplan all at once that you create before you commit to the work. It’s a decision-making tool. 

That’s amazing! And of course I know how to make a fundraising work plan! And this sounds like an awesome opportunity to explore ideas before committing to them, afforded to those who can afford consultants (me! I’m a consultant!).

I don’t know if I can explain to you how simple and profound this moment was for me. Things that sounded so initially intimidating were actually things I know I can do. All I had to do was spend half an hour on Google to determine this. 

Once I understood the scope of work, I started a Google doc and outlined my conversation with the potential client. I spent the next 15 minutes listing all of my talking points, questions, and research. It took up just one page. After that, I was ready to talk to the potential client. 

This whole process took 45 minutes. That was it! And if I had said no right away, I could have denied myself the opportunity to go after this very interesting job opportunity (what was I thinking?)

Slow Down

My advice is: As soon as you hear that hater voice telling you to say no, ask yourself, “Is this the truth or is this the hater?” 

Trust your inner wisdom to know the difference. 

How did I know? Because I thought both yes and no at once. Often, in this case, the ‘yes’ is the truth. And while I didn’t end up taking that gig or pursuing it after an initial conversation, saying yes to the initial meeting led to an interesting conversation with the prospective client, which enabled me to make informed choices. 

Ultimately what matters is I let my wisdom make the decision for me, not my fears and insecurities.

Choose to Believe You Are That Awesome

Imposter syndrome isn’t going anywhere. It’s so old and settled in my body and it’s comfortable. Now that I’ve accepted it as a permanent guest in my psyche, I know it better.

Now that I’m in my 40s, after being in my career for 20+ years — now, 2 years after starting my own consulting business — I am choosing to believe the compliments, the positive feedback, and the referrals I get as the acknowledgment and understanding of my talents. I deserve the compliments, I deserve the referrals, and I deserve the positive feedback. 

I also accept the little hater inside of me. Imposter syndrome isn’t going anywhere. It’s so old and settled in my body and it’s comfortable. Now that I’ve accepted it as a permanent guest in my psyche, I know it better. I can recognize when it shows up. I think of it as an old bruise or wound — it lingers there, and sometimes it gets extra painful — but for the most part, I don’t need to give it any attention. 

What I’m telling you is not easy to do, and I know that. So here are some ideas I have to help train your inner wisdom to catch the little hater before it overtakes you:

  1. Think of a friend you think is brilliant and send her a compliment.Now, be your own friend and give yourself a compliment. I know it’s hard, but do it anyway. Be critical and be specific — look to a piece of work you have done and give it a solid compliment. Not something like: “It’s great” or “you’re so smart!”More like: “I found the insight you gave on the second page really helpful! It made me think about how so many people experience this.”
  2. Let go of perfection and stick to the 80% rule. You may have heard this before, but I’ll say it again: That need for perfection is a characteristic of white supremacy. It’s about the unrealistic expectation that you need to get it done perfectly the first time you do it.No one does this — no one.

    Consider yourself successful if you do something right 80% of the time. Consider yourself an expert that you know how to get it right 80% of the time — and consider yourself a pro since you know how to address challenges due to the experience of getting it wrong 20% of the time. An 80-20 split is actually the right ratio of success because it inherently means you have enough experience to inform the process comprehensively.

  3. Say yes to things that scare you. Once, I was asked to give a keynote address at a conference. My immediate reaction was, “You’re asking me? Why me?” — the little hater got me!Because I had never given a keynote before and therefore, I must not be qualified to do it, right?

    Thanks to my inner wisdom, though, I said yes and sat down to think. I asked myself, “What do I want to say about this? What advice would I offer to someone on this topic? Where has this gone wrong in my career, and what did I do about it?”

    Suddenly, I had a lot of ideas to share in my keynote address — one that got a standing ovation.

    It turns out, I am that awesome.

So am I an amazingly evolved human being? Don’t answer this question because the answer is obviously no. But I will say this — I feel much more confident that my inner wisdom, living in my body, will show up when the little hater shows up, to help me see clearly what my fears are and what my truths are. 

And when I can’t find my inner wisdom, and I get trapped by that little hater, I try to call a friend, a colleague who I think is brilliant, to help me before I get locked into that trap. I value my colleagues so deeply for this, as they have pulled me out of traps so often. And I know they know that I’m here to do the same for them: To look at their little hater directly and say firmly, “Not today! Let’s talk about all the ways you know exactly what you are doing.” 

Uma Rao

Uma Rao

Uma Rao (she/her) is the founder and coach at Devi Consults, a boutique capacity building firm that approaches its work with a trauma informed, intersectional feminist lens. Her experience in working in the nonprofit field for almost 20 years at every level–advocate, board member, fundraiser, community organizer, volunteer, consultant, interim executive director–has informed her methodology in how to best assess and support an organization, its leadership and staff. She considers herself a lifelong learner and finds her political home in reproductive justice movements. She currently serves on the board of the National Network of Abortion Funds. When she’s not working she loves obsessing over her dog, searching for the best french fries in Seattle, and dancing to loud music in the mornings.