Do you feel “intellectual phoniness” or as if you’ve “lucked out” in the workplace and don’t deserve the position you’re in? That’s exactly what clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes found in 1978 amongst female graduate students, who, despite having adequate external evidence of accomplishments, were convinced that they didn’t deserve the success they had.
They coined the feeling “Imposter Syndrome” and if you’ve felt it, you are not alone. An estimated 70% of people have experienced imposter syndrome at one time or another; it affects both men and women, and is more likely to affect people of colour. A 2014 study found that imposter syndrome was the top fear of executives worldwide, with 60% of executives saying that it negatively impacted their ability to lead confidently. It can manifest as feelings of self-doubt, self-criticism, or critical comparisons to others that make us feel inadequate and out of place.
And it’s no surprise that imposter syndrome is on the increase. There are constantly new technologies we have to master in the workplace, and social media is a constant reminder that others are more successful than ourselves.
In Valerie Young’s book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, she notes five types of imposters:
- The Perfectionist - who have such high expectations for themselves that even small mistakes will make them feel like a failure.
- The Superwoman/Superman - who put in longer hours, never take days off and must succeed in all aspects of life in order to prove they are the “real deal.”
- The Natural Genius - who are used to things coming easily, so when something is too hard or they don’t master it on the first try, they feel shame and self-doubt.
- The Soloist - who don’t like to ask for help, so when they do, they feel like a failure or a fraud.
- The Expert - who continuously seek out additional certifications or training because they feel as though they will never know enough to be truly qualified.
Early warning signs of imposter syndrome:
Although imposter syndrome is not a recognised medical disorder, if you have one or more of these attributes then it may be that you are currently in the midst of imposter syndrome and may want to use some of our tips below to help you deal with it:
- Inability to internalise achievements and downplaying accomplishments
- Fear of being "found out" or being exposed as inexperienced or untalented
- Avoidance of feedback
- A reluctance to ask for help
- Turning down new opportunities
- Second-guessing decisions
- Overworking to the point of burnout to prove you're “enough"
- Failing to start or finish projects
4 tips to help you overcome imposter syndrome
1. Pay attention to your negative thoughts
Negative thoughts can be overwhelming and can quickly spiral out of control. And once you’ve got them in your head they can be self-affirming as they take control of your behaviour.
If you do have negative thoughts in your head, find a sentence you can use to bring yourself back into a positive thinking mode by reframing them. For example, you could say “I know that I am feeling this way because I am working on a new project that requires me to develop new expertise. This new expertise has to be learnt, and my ability to master it won’t happen overnight, but with my willingness to try and make mistakes along the way.”
2. Keep track of your accomplishments
Whether it’s on your notes on your phone, or on your computer, or even placed in front of you in your workspace, make a note of all your accomplishments to date. These can be small, which might have meant a lot to you, in which you had a large obstacle to overcome, or life changing.
Whenever you are having a bad day and are facing a world of self-doubt, you can return to these accomplishments to tell yourself that you have overcome obstacles in the past and been successful, and can continue to be successful in the future. You can think about what made you unique to reach those goals, and can even make a note of the positive feedback your achieved alongside your accomplishments to really reinforce your thoughts.
3. Learn more about your profession
The more you know about how your industry and profession works, the less likely you are to experience imposter syndrome. Much of this comes with age and experience, but getting to grips with your professional development will ward it off quicker. You can take very simple steps, for example, asking to meet other people within your company for coffee to find out a bit more about their role and how it fits with the organisation. Or if there’s a specific tool that you are having trouble with, taking the time out to fully understand it ready for the working day.
4. Speak to others
With 70% of people having experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their life, reaching out to others is a surefire way to halve a problem. They can help you identify when you are at your least confident, and how it’s best for you to deal with the situation, and they might have their own experiences to share which you may find insightful.
You can also ask others for feedback to validate your worth in the office. You can ask about what you’ve done well and what you can improve on - this gives you the ability to concentrate on developing your weaknesses. It will give you something to focus on, and seeing the improvement you are making will, in the long run, will help you banish that feeling of imposter syndrome.
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