Hannah Winter, Sandstone associate and sport and exercise psychology consultant, looks at imposter syndrome and ways to overcome it
Am I qualified enough to do this job? Do I belong? Am I good enough? Many people walk around with these types of questions hanging over them. Failing to believe that the achievements they have are to do with their talent. This self-doubt is commonly described as imposter syndrome. But what does imposter syndrome mean and how can you assess whether you have it, or if a colleague does? And more importantly, how can you start to tackle it?
Fear of being exposed
Imposter syndrome was coined by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 who found that many people, despite having ample external evidence of achievements, consistently felt they didn’t deserve the success they have. People with imposter syndrome have an internalized, often persistent, fear of being exposed as a fraud.
Actress Jodie Foster summed it up nicely, “When I won the Oscar, I thought it was a fluke. I thought everybody would find out, and they’d take it back. They’d come to my house, knocking on the door, ‘Excuse me, we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep.”
It was just good luck
This perceived fraudulence can be buried in the hearts and minds of many high achieving individuals and has been found to impact men and women relatively equally. For people that struggle with imposter syndrome, it can appear every day. A promotion at work leads to the thinking that the company was short on candidates. Winning a new client is put down to luck. Doing a presentation leads to the fear someone will ask difficult questions and you will get found out on how little you really know, or how you aren’t really qualified for the job (even though external evidence shows this all isn’t true).
This feeling can be derailing. It can halt progression, and limit someone's courage to go after opportunities or step outside their comfort zone. People with imposter syndrome don’t fall into one diagnostic category. But research shows some of the most frequently reported symptoms are a lack of self-confidence, generalized anxiety, depression and frustration at being unable to meet self-imposed high standards.
Are you experiencing imposter syndrome?
Asking yourself some simple questions can help identify if you might be experiencing imposter syndrome. Some of the sings of imposter syndrome include:
- Feelings of inadequacy and frequent self-doubt.
- Thoughts of "I'm not worthy," or "I don't deserve this."
- Worrying that you can't live up to others' expectations.
- Focusing on your mistakes rather than on your achievements.
- Showing perfectionist tendencies
- Thinking that your job is so easy that anyone could do it.
- Thinking that your talents and strengths are common or unremarkable.
- Believing that what you do is never enough.
- Believing that if you were to start over, you wouldn't have the luck, talent or skills to replicate your current success.
However, if you are a manager, you may also want to look out for signs of imposter syndrome in your team. Here are some signs to look out for:
- Turning down promotions, switching roles or avoiding certain high-exposure projects.
- Feeling uncomfortable or seemingly unhappy about a promotion
- Being uncomfortable with compliments or praise.
- Attributing good work or success to luck, good timing or knowing the right people.
- Demonstrating low self-esteem
- Expressing fears of failure or incompetence.
- Comparing themselves unfavourably with others.
- Using self-deprecating statements such as "I'm not sure I know what I'm talking about, but…" or "It might just be me, but…"
Overcoming imposter syndrome
So how can you start to overcome imposter syndrome? For some, the intensity of self-doubt can be paralyzing and talking to a coach or therapist can help. However, for many, some simple strategies can help lessen the experience of imposter syndrome.
Firstly, if you feel you are experiencing imposter syndrome, it can be incredibly helpful to voice your concern to others. This can help normalise the conversation around it, help you realise that others feel the same way and that they do not perceive you to be a fraud.
Secondly, to build confidence write down every day ‘three things that went well today’. This technique will enable you to reflect on your work in a way that recognizes all the good things you are doing, building positivity. This strategy will help you develop a bank of moments in which you have been successful. You can then draw upon these reflections in moments of self-doubt to remind yourself that you have plenty of objective achievements and evidence for your accomplishments.