What Is Imposter Syndrome, and How Can You Overcome It?
Have you ever been plagued by doubts in a professional context? Perhaps you’ve wondered if you have the right skills to continue with your current role.
You may be surprised to realize that these self-doubts are extremely common. Imposter syndrome can be a genuine problem in the workforce, because it can prevent people from having the confidence to aim high, even when they have the right skills and competencies to progress in their careers.
Coined by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance over 50 years ago, the term ‘imposter syndrome’ describes a phenomenon whereby you feel incompetent in your job role.
You may feel that you are a fraud and you’re waiting for someone to discover that you do not have the right skills for the job. Imposter syndrome is a combination of false beliefs, self-doubt, low confidence and feelings of inadequacy.
Imposter syndrome is unique in that it can affect people of all ages, experiences and levels of seniority.
For example, a C-suite executive is as likely to be affected by imposter syndrome anxiety as a college student or a graduate just starting in their career.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to accurately measure the number of people affected by imposter syndrome, as many people may not realize how widespread their feelings are.
However, up to seven out of 10 people could experience imposter syndrome.
If it’s this common, then what’s the problem? Well, unfortunately, the imposter complex can manifest itself in a variety of different ways that could negatively impact your life.
Imposter syndrome is much worse than just a bout of self-doubt. It can create significant social anxiety that can impact your relationships, social skills and day-to-day tasks.
For example, it could prevent you from applying for career advancements, or you could struggle to ask for a raise.
Impostor anxiety could impact your parenting; it could make you second-guess yourself, and you could be passing those self-doubts onto your children. It can even make you self-sabotage yourself in relationships, as your imposter syndrome makes you feel unworthy of being loved.
With such drastic consequences, it is clear that we need to know how to spot the signs of imposter syndrome and take actionable steps to try to improve our resilience and mental strength.
Self-doubt is perfectly normal. An element of humbleness and self-awareness is crucial to the workplace to prevent confidence from veering into arrogance.
However, imposter syndrome is far more serious. Although it is not a medical disorder, many common symptoms could suggest the emergence of imposter anxiety:
- Do you have extensive social anxiety? Those affected by imposter syndrome tend to feel extremely uncomfortable when surrounded by others.
- Does self-doubt plague you? Do you struggle to attribute any successes to your talent and professional capabilities? Does your self-doubt encompass every experience you’ve ever had (past and present?)
- Do you need other people to continually tell you that you are good at what you do – in particular, do you require validation from other people?
- Are you afraid that you won’t live up to the expectations that you feel other people have of you?
- Do you put everything down to luck or fluke? If you avoid admitting that any success results from your talent and your skills, you could be exhibiting signs of imposter syndrome. Perhaps you constantly put your performance down and attribute any positive successes to external factors.
- Do you ever sabotage yourself? Perhaps you deliberately set unachievable goals (rather than SMART goals) as a way of justifying your own disappointment in yourself.
Many of us do not realize that we are affected by imposter syndrome anxiety, because we are unaware that there are many different types of imposter syndrome.
However, as with the symptoms of fraud anxiety, knowing the different types can be crucial to detecting it in ourselves and noticing it in others:
While additional training and upskilling are undeniably positive, you never have the time to cement your existing knowledge if you spend all your time learning new skills.
Those with this form of imposter syndrome constantly feel they do not have the right skills to be working in their job.
Some people are naturally talented at what they do. But if they are used to succeeding straight away, they may find it much harder to cope when they struggle to succeed immediately.
You may never be satisfied and always feel that your work could be done better.
However, if you focus your time on the elements that were not 100% perfect, you can find that you are feeding your imposter anxiety.
Perhaps you push yourself to do too much and more than is physically possible. But, unfortunately, by setting unattainable goals, you will always feel disappointed.
Perhaps your imposter syndrome is so great that you prefer to work solo because you’re scared of being found out. You may be afraid to accept any help or support because you view it as a sign that your work is not good enough.
There is no single cause of imposter syndrome or fraud anxiety.
Instead, it can be a build-up of many different factors. It could be your upbringing or your genetics. It could be your personality traits. It could even be shaped by experiences you’ve had as you worked your way through school.
It was widely believed that women were more affected by imposter syndrome than men for many years. But that could be because men were less likely to admit to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.
And with many examples of imposter syndrome going undiagnosed, it has been difficult for researchers to pinpoint exact causes or correlations.
As imposter syndrome anxiety is so widespread, it is believed that a few factors could lead to its development:
Your family dynamics or parenting style during a young age could shape your personality. For example, perhaps you lived with high-performing individuals or had a lot of pressure placed on you as a child.
On the other hand, if you lived in a high-conflict environment, you might have developed instances of imposter syndrome as a coping mechanism.
Imposter syndrome can be synonymous with change and transitions.
For example, if you’ve changed jobs or changed schools, you may find that the transition between the two was tricky to manage and created an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy.
It could also be your personality type.
For example, if you are highly strung or extremely competitive, you may find that imposter syndrome could develop quite quickly.
It is possible to change the way you think and overcome imposter syndrome, but it does rely on your being able to spot the signs and knowing which type of imposter syndrome you are affected by.
To improve your resilience, you could practice simple techniques such as mindfulness and meditation to calm your nerves and recenter your frame of mind.
Take a few moments to focus on yourself each day, cutting out any distractions or negative influences.
Where possible, try to share your feelings and experiences with others. One of the reasons imposter syndrome is so disruptive is that people tend to keep their emotions to themselves.
This leads to a worsening of thought patterns, as you have no one around to talk to you. You could find that talking to a therapist or a mentor could be a way of sharing your feelings in an open, informal environment.
It would help if you tried to focus on the outside perspective. What is causing you to feel this way? If you can trace your feelings of inadequacy, you can find ways to reprogram your thought patterns.
Don’t be afraid to talk to your line manager or your HR team about your feelings – they may be able to suggest new routines that could improve your anxiety.
Try to question yourself repeatedly. If you have a negative thought creeping in, ask yourself, ‘Is this true?’ or ‘Is this real?’.
You may be surprised to realize how effective constructive questioning can be. It will take time – often, you will be so used to thinking badly about yourself that you won’t even notice that you are doing it.
But eventually, your clarity will take over, and you will build more resilience and find ways to overcome your issues.
Why not set yourself a reward chart? If your imposter syndrome prevents you from enjoying yourself, then set yourself a way of validating your achievements.
For example, you could say daily affirmations to motivate yourself. Or you could set up rewards for each time you have objectively succeeded.
Perhaps a dollar jar for each time you receive praise could help you see how well you are performing visually.
Remember that no one is perfect all of the time. It’s physically not possible. Try to stop dwelling on any mistakes and learn from them.
Employers want employees who aren’t afraid to take risks. They want teams that will try new things because the fear of failure isn’t holding them back.
You need to learn to accept mistakes and forgive yourself when things do not go as expected. Instead, reframe your thinking. Instead of asking yourself, ‘What went wrong?’ ask yourself, ‘What can I learn from this?” or ‘How can I improve on this?’
Finally, self-doubt is important. It helps you to keep perspective and prevent you from becoming carried away.
It would help if you thought of self-doubt as a good thing and a normal reaction. Do not escalate your feelings into thinking that you are incompetent.
Imposter syndrome feels like you are constantly failing. Nothing ever feels like it’s good enough, and you have a constant anxiety that someone will agree with your self-doubt.
When it’s not managed, imposter syndrome can lead to poor job performance and low job satisfaction.
You could be working harder than ever, yet feel like you are getting nowhere. This could result in severe employee burnout and have long-term implications.
Imposter syndrome isn’t a medical diagnosis, but it is a form of anxiety. It is often found in people who are affected by depression.
Many psychologists will freely admit that imposter syndrome can have a significant impact on people and is a very real problem.
There is no one singular cause for imposter syndrome. Many people are plagued by self-doubt, but it’s only when it develops into imposter anxiety that it can become a significant issue.
There is a lack of research to show exactly who is affected, and this impacts the research into causes of imposter syndrome.
However, it is believed that causes such as personality traits, previous experiences and your family upbringing can all contribute towards imposter syndrome.
There are similarities, but ultimately self-doubt is passing. It often happens during specific periods of your life (such as your teenage years).
In contrast, imposter syndrome can feel all-encompassing. It can feel overwhelming and constant. If it’s a nagging, ongoing feeling, then it is likely that your self-doubt has evolved into something more serious.
There’s no reason why one person may have imposter syndrome over another. The reality is that people from all walks of life can be plagued by imposter anxiety.
High-profile chief executives may be affected in the same way as students or graduates. The trick is being aware when your feelings of self-doubt have pushed past the normal boundaries and have transitioned into imposter syndrome.
Once you are aware of this, you can find new ways to overcome these issues.
One of the reasons why imposter syndrome is so destructive is because many of us simply do not realize how common it is.
With almost seven in 10 people affected by impostor anxiety, it is clear that we are in a good space to talk openly and honestly with our family, friends and co-workers about how we feel.
Imposter syndrome causes you to think negatively about yourself, yet it doesn’t reflect on who you are as a person.
To overcome imposter syndrome, you need to be able to recognize when your negative thoughts and feelings have gone way beyond the normal boundaries.
Take the time to talk to your co-workers about how they are feeling – you may find that they also suffer from similar thoughts and feelings.
The more you can talk about your anxieties, the easier it will be to put strategies into place that will overcome them.