Impostor syndrome: What it is and how to combat it

Impostor syndrome is a current buzzy phrase in the work world. But, it is a well-established established one, coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in their study, The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. They studied high-achieving women and found that a lot of them, in spite of accomplishments and objective intelligence, felt that they’d fooled everyone around them into believing they were smart.

The Oxford definition of impostor syndrome is ‘the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.’ You may feel like your current position is down to luck or timing, and at any given moment, your colleagues could discover you’re a fraud and incapable.

According to an article about impostor syndrome published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine in 2020, up to 82% of people say they have impostor syndrome. In fact, ‘I don’t feel good enough’ is one of the most common thoughts not only in the workplace, but in life. If this sounds familiar, then you might have impostor syndrome

For young people, this concept is especially relevant. But, that feeling is very common and often a by-product of taking on something new and exciting. John Wooden, a public speaker and writer who’s considered one of the most successful coaches in the history of UCLA basketball, redefines success as the pursuit of our best selves. “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do,” he’s said. You’re stretching yourself, you’re stepping out of your comfort zone, and that should be celebrated. If you keep getting knocked down with thoughts of ‘I can’t do it’, push back with ‘yes I can.’

In her award-winning book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Dr. Valerie Young inspires readers to not be discouraged by the threat of impostor syndrome. She says, “everyone loses when bright people play small.” Her research shows that, though impostor syndrome is correlated with burnout and job dissatisfaction, people experiencing this syndrome are also over-achievers, perfectionists and tend to be successful. In the 2020 Advancing the Future of Women in Business: A  KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit Report, nearly six in 10 executive women said that receiving promotions or transitioning to new roles were when they experienced impostor syndrome most.

That’s not to say you need to feel this way to succeed, but that you can succeed in spite of worrying that you can’t. Dr. Young writes, “Instead of being crushed by even constructive criticism, seeing it as proof of their supposed ineptness, non-impostors see feedback as the gift that it is.”

In 2015, Golden Globe winner Natalie Portman spoke at Harvard 12 years after her graduation on how she still struggles with feeling like an impostor. “Sometimes your insecurities and your inexperience may lead you to embrace other people’s expectations, standards, or values, but you can harness that inexperience to carve out your own path — one that is free of the burden of knowing how things are supposed to be, a path that is defined by its own particular set of reasons.”

Let the advice of Young and Portman be your key to unlocking those insecurities. View your circumstances through the lens of a non-impostor, and don’t be afraid of the gaps in your knowledge. Remember they’re only stepping stones to get you to the next step. Keep reading to learn the four foundational stepping stones that can guide you away from impostor syndrome.

Note your feelings

Dr. Young identifies five impostor types:

  • perfectionist (setting impossibly high standards)
  • expert (expecting to know everything)
  • superhero (wanting to excel at everything)
  • natural genius (believing everything must be done with natural ease)
  • soloist (needing to accomplish tasks alone)

These describe five principle characteristics we might assign to ourselves that can perpetuate a pressure to live up to impossibly-high standards.

If you identify with any of the impostor types, then congratulations, you’ve taken the first step. It’s so important not to ignore these thoughts or neglect your feelings. First remember this is a very common feeling for people of any age and is symptomatic of the larger systemic issues with modern business infrastructure. Mental health and self-improvement apps like Calm and Headspace describe being self-aware as elementally important in being more mindful and meditative, which leads to better mental health. Both apps encourage people to acknowledge their feelings, recognise them as a recurring, and let them pass over the conscious mind without turning into a fixed mindset.

Manage your feelings

The second stage after recognising your feelings is to find their cause. Is there a particular stressor in your life that makes you feel this way? Are you able to remove or reduce this stressor? If what’s making you feel like an impostor can’t be completely eliminated, and is detrimental to your mental health, consider ways to change your lifestyle so this stressor can liveable.

Commonly, impostor syndrome is felt through work or studies. Assess whether these are short-term or long-term stressors and ones that might ultimately help you pursue a happier mental state or lead to more mental harm in time. For example, there may be a temporary hurdle like an exam or a work deadline that, once overcome, will reduce your stress and will benefit you in the long run. There might also be unstable stages of growth in your life that might feel daunting now but could get easier with more experience.

However, if the workload or work practices are constantly unmanageable, then you should consider the cost versus reward. Remember what you gain from your work in the long and short term. Gain strength from thinking of all the qualities you possess which have guided you through life and all of the achievements they have led to. But also remember it’s not always about achievements, nor is it a competition with yourself or anyone else. Not everything is about work, there is a whole life outside of the office, too.

Share your feelings

Made worse by the ongoing cloud of Covid-19 over an already isolating digital world, factors like remote working and reduced in-person interactions lead us to feel isolated and sometimes insular. Even if it’s not always physically possible, remember to live outside of work, live outside of your own head.

This is not to say forget the people in the workplace; your colleagues and work environment should be a supportive and encouraging soundboard for all of your worries, as they are the most likely to understand your work-related feelings of fraud. Everyone you’ve worked with has likely experienced those same feelings at some point, so ask them about it. Though proclaiming feelings of being an outsider may appear counter-intuitive, it will be the most welcoming conversation you can have and generate useful discussion not only for you but your work friends, too.

More often that not, you’ll find that even the ‘largest’ people in your company have felt small at some point. And you’ll also find they have numerous reasons for why you’re great to work with. Your fear in your own ability demonstrates the high bar you set for yourself and your fervour to achieve, reasons you were hired in the first place. You just need not set the bar so high that you can never reach it. No one else is telling you to do that.

If people are telling you to do that, to create unreachable expectations and impossible tasks, then don’t let them have that psychological power over you, no matter their professional status. Your health comes before your career. As human rights activist and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

We’re all pretending

Another former US First Lady Michelle Obama describes her experience and advice with impostor syndrome all the time. She fights against feelings of inadequacy by leveling that even the most celebrated, outwardly-great people aren’t as great as the pedestal we put them on. “I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of, I have worked at non-profits, I have been at foundations, I have worked in corporations, served on corporate boards, I have been at G summits, I have sat in at the UN; they are not that smart.”

In an article and Ted Talk entitled Why do so many incompetent men become leaders? And what can we do about it?, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic discussed a reverse version of impostor syndrome. This phenomenon captures business people who misguidedly had more faith in their own abilities than real talent who convinced other people too and allowed them to ‘trick’ people to the top. Chamorro-Premuzic stresses that it is statistically more men who have this inflated ego and mostly women who suffer from impostor syndrome.

The KPMG study mentioned above also found that 75% of women at the executive level identified having experienced impostor syndrome at various points during their careers. As well, 74% said they don’t believe male leaders have as much self-doubt as their female counterparts. In Impostor Syndrome Prevalence In Professional Women And How To Overcome It, Kathy Caprino describes the tangible and psychological patriarchy that still exists in the workplace. That engenders impostor syndrome as an experience mostly felt by professional women.

The general knowledge that we are all pretending in some way should allow for a larger discussion on the structures and practices businesses can implement. Things like open communication, co-worker appreciation, and an employee procedure of support to help those weighted by this syndrome.

As employers continue to grow more aware of impostor syndrome, it is evident of the changing work infrastructures to improve mental health. Take advantage of that infrastructure, talk to your colleagues, and give yourself a break now and then. Remember, while you’re fretting over a deadline or an imperfect submission, there is someone else who is clueless except for the belief that they are exactly where they should be.

Chamorro-Premuzic says, “One of the best ways to fool other people into thinking you’re better than you actually are is to fool yourself first.” If you’re still navigating through unwelcome thoughts that you’re not good enough, let that quote be your guide. When you don’t know how you got here, or where you’re going, find comfort that you’re here now. Every day allows for learning curves, every motion gives rise to a wave, and each wave falls to the tide. The tide, like life, is a game of back and forth, but that’s the whole point.

About Avado

At Avado, we believe that true transformation isn’t digital, it’s human. We build professional future skills to help diverse talent access and accelerate careers through award-winning learning experiences that deliver tangible and measurable impact. We upskill people, uplift culture and future-proof organisations in a fast-moving world.

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Yasmin Ballingall

Posted November 30, 2021