Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
March 21, 2023
Picture this: you’ve just landed your dream job. What should be a moment of pure elation is tarnished by feelings of self-doubt. After an arduous, seemingly never-ending hiring process, you’ve come out the other end triumphant. And yet, your success is marred by that familiar, pesky little voice that wiggles its way to the surface of your mind: “I don’t deserve this – I’m a fraud, and they’re going to find me out eventually”.
This is imposter syndrome talking. This negative little voice nagging away at you is always lingering in the background; a party pooper just waiting on the side lines and anticipating your success, so that it can hold you back from celebrating, instead submerging you in a suffocating blanket of self-doubt.
If you’ve experienced this feeling, rest assured that you’re not alone. So many of us suffer from imposter syndrome at some point in our lives, particularly women. A recent KPMG study has revealed that 75% of female executives experience it at some stage in their careers.
But what exactly is imposter syndrome? And, the million-dollar question: what are some practical ways of overcoming it?
What is imposter syndrome?
Two American psychologists – Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes – explored the concept in their essay entitled ‘The Imposter Phenomenon in High-Achieving Women’, published in 1978. They initially regarded the ‘imposter phenomenon’ as an exclusively female experience, but the term has since been expanded – it’s become clear that feeling like an imposter can be a pretty universal experience, though it may disproportionately affect some groups more than others.
So what exactly is imposter syndrome? Well, according to Imes’ and Clance’s founding study, those who experience the phenomenon ‘persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise’. You may be left wondering how on earth you got into your dream university, or how you secured a major promotion. No matter how many accolades you add to your belt or how much praise you’re showered with, you remain thoroughly convinced that you don’t belong, and that you’ve ended up where you are through sheer dumb luck alone.
Now, it’s important to note that experiencing imposter syndrome doesn’t mean you’re a fraud. Far from it: those who experience it actually tend to be exceptionally bright.
Who experiences it and why?
Many potential triggers can lead to feelings of imposter syndrome. It could stem back to family history: Perhaps your parents underestimated your abilities while you were growing up, or you had a sibling who was constantly doused in praise and referred to as ‘the smart one’. On the flipside, maybe your parents treated you like a fledgling Einstein who was destined for great things, so you grew up feeling like you could never come close to reaching their unattainably high expectations.
Sexist stereotypes unfortunately continue to run rampant in many workplaces globally. And although, statistically, a similar number of men and women experience imposter syndrome at some point in their careers, the proportion of men that never experience such feelings is significantly higher (28%). Women tend to endorse their strengths less than men, while women only apply to jobs if they meet 100% of the requirements, and men usually apply if they meet just 60%. Historically, women have held less positions of power and leadership roles, and so young women grow up with fewer role models in many professional fields (particularly in STEM careers). Although the tide is definitely turning in the right direction, this remains a definite factor that contributes to feelings of imposter syndrome in women.
Or, perhaps your imposter syndrome comes down to the fact that you’re a perfectionist. It’s hard to feel satisfied with your achievements when you’re constantly striving towards the impossibly high standards you set for yourself. It may feel like a failure to lean on others for support, and you might be convinced that you have to be an expert in your field; no matter how well-versed you are, it will never be enough – at least not until you’ve mastered the subject in its entirety.
Evidently, there are many factors that may result in feelings of imposter syndrome, and it can be difficult to pinpoint just one.
How can you overcome it?
If you’ve experienced imposter syndrome before, suffice to say you’re not alone. Up to 70% of us experience it at some stage in our lives. But it can be extremely damaging, and shouldn’t just be accepted as part and parcel of success and progress. Those who experience it tend to inflict blockers on themselves in the workplace: perhaps you’re afraid to ask for help, instead opting to suppress any uncertainty you feel, or you work excessively long hours in a bid to prove yourself. It’s not always harmless; it can lead to feelings of anxiety and burnout, so it’s important to be aware of some practical steps to overcome it.
Acknowledge your feelings
When you sense yourself slipping into negative self-talk, don’t just try to ignore it. Calmly identify these thoughts as they cross your mind, recognising them for what they are: no matter how convincing that little voice may be, it’s not speaking a word of truth – it’s a natural and common response to success. Don’t let yourself be dragged down by these thoughts; acknowledge them critically, from a distance – as if that pesky little voice making you question your self-worth are coming from an entity separate from yourself. Once you come to terms with the fact that these feelings are just imposter syndrome talking, you won’t be so quick to believe them.
Come up with a counter-argument
Try and imagine that any thoughts of self-doubt are coming from a little devil on your shoulder, who is determined to convince you that you’re not good enough. It’s up to you to conjure up an angel to counter those negative thoughts, an internal voice that can spur you on as your cheerleader. Whenever you feel that first inkling of imposter syndrome niggling away, remind yourself of every little thing that you have accomplished leading up to this point. If you hear a little whispering voice telling you that ‘you’re not worthy’, fight back by mentally reciting all the evidence to the contrary: what steps have gotten you this far? Be kind to yourself, logically tracking and reminding yourself of all your successes up to this point. Your success is not a fluke, and sometimes you need to remind yourself of that.
Share your feelings with others
Rest assured that imposter syndrome is very common. Many people can resonate with you, likely including the people closest to you. There’s no harm in opening up to friends and families about your feelings: Not only can they provide a supportive shoulder for you to lean on, but then can also bolster up your confidence by showering you in (well-deserved) praise and words of reassurance. If you feel like your feelings of self-doubt are holding you back in the workplace, it might also be a good idea to find a professional mentor who you can turn to for support and guidance, whether that be a colleague or your boss, or someone external to your organisation, if that’s preferable.
If all else fails, keep this in mind at all costs: experiencing imposter syndrome can actually be a good thing. It’s a sign that you’re pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, and that you’re constantly striving towards improvement. Even if it can feel uncomfortable at times, you’re pushing back against feelings of self-doubt by putting yourself out there and achieving amazing things. And it’s actually very normal to be humble and experience ‘pinch me’ moments where you can’t quite believe how far you come. Feeling like an imposter, when all is said and done, simply shows that you’re human.
December 19, 2023