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Addressing and Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

What do celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Venus Williams, David Bowie, Maya Angelou and Michelle Obama have in common? They are all from very different fields – film, sport, music, literature and politics – however, one thing unites them, they have all at some point admitted to experiencing imposter syndrome. This may appear to be a very unbelievable fact; after all, each has been phenomenally successful in their chosen fields. However, according to Psychology Today, people who struggle with imposter syndrome believe that they are undeserving of their achievements and the high esteem in which they are, in fact, generally held.

In a December 2018 talk at an all-girls school in North London, former US first lady Michelle Obama was asked how she felt about being viewed as a “symbol of hope”. Her response to that question surprised many, “I had to overcome the question ‘am I good enough?’” she said. “It’s dogged me for most of my life. Many women and young girls walk around with that question in their minds.” She said, “I still have a little [bit of] imposter syndrome. It’s sort of like ‘you’re actually listening to me?’ It doesn’t go away, that feeling of ‘I don’t know if the world should take me seriously; I’m just Michelle Robinson, that little girl on the south side who went to public school’…. It takes time and maturity and successes under your belt to realise that you’re good enough.” (Becoming by Michelle Obama)

Singer David Bowie oozed confidence, and whenever he stepped foot on stage, he looked as though it was one place on this planet in which he belonged. However, in reality, it was a completely different story, with Bowie once admitting that he felt “utterly inadequate”. Despite his outward persona, behind the mask, he suffered from imposter syndrome, which made him throw every ounce of his body into his work as a coping mechanism. He told Q magazine in 1997: “I had enormous self-image problems and very low self-esteem, which I hid behind obsessive writing and performing… I was driven to get through life very quickly… I really felt so utterly inadequate. I thought the work was the only thing of value.”

Tom Hanks recalled co-starring with Paul Newman in Road to Perdition: “I made one movie with Mr. Paul Newman,” Hanks began. “It took a bit for me to make peace with that fact — I’m in a movie with Paul Newman.” When asked if he had experienced imposter syndrome, Hanks replied, “Oh, absolutely. I felt like David Copperfield in a magic shop to be here doing this and being trusted just to follow my instincts and try to keep up or just try to remember my lines in the same scene with Paul Newman. (It) was just pinch-ya.”

Poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once said, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” This even though she received dozens of awards including a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her book of poetry and more than 50 honorary degrees in her lifetime.

Venus Williams recently shared her personal experience with imposter syndrome. The tennis star, renowned for her resilience and skill on the court, opened up about the inner turmoil she has faced throughout her remarkable career. She has struggled with self-doubt, wondering if she really belongs where she is. Speaking on this topic, she said, “I’ve definitely faced some moments where I was, I’ve felt like I don’t know if I belong here. I guess they call it imposter syndrome. So I’ve had different moments.” Her confession follows her sister Serena Williams’ earlier admission that, despite her unmatched success in the sport, she struggled with similar feelings of inadequacy.

According to the Human Resource Management magazine Personnel Today, more than half of women (54%) feel they have experienced imposter syndrome, compared with just 38% of men. Those who identify as non-binary are worse affected, with 57% doubting their abilities in the workplace. The research found that a person’s sexual orientation also has an impact, with bisexual (69%) and homosexual (57%) individuals being significantly more likely to experience imposter syndrome than average (50%).

Perhaps less surprisingly, the older you are, the more likely you are to have strong self-belief. Gen Z, those born between 1997 and 2012, (66%) and millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996, (58%) were much more likely to have experienced imposter syndrome than Gen X, those born between 1965 and 1980, (41%) and Boomers, people in their sixties (25%).

Of those to have experienced imposter syndrome, 72% feel it has held them back at work; and 43% have experienced it at least once a week. Educational high achievers experience imposter syndrome more. Only a third of people educated to a secondary education level reported having had those feelings, whereas people with PhDs are almost twice as likely to experience it (62%). People with jobs in science and pharmaceuticals record the highest levels of imposter syndrome (78%), while those working in property and construction have the lowest (29%).

Imposter syndrome has a negative impact on individuals’ academic and professional performance. It can lead to self-doubt and a decline in productivity and confidence, and it can inflict emotional paralysis and poor mental health. The irony is that people with imposter syndrome are often highly accomplished, impressive individuals such as the celebrities that we have featured above.

exhaustion-from-over-work

Understanding Imposter Syndrome

If you have ever questioned whether you are good enough, been afraid that people will find out that you are not capable, or felt like a fraud, then you are not alone as you too may have been experiencing imposter syndrome, which affects around 70% of people at some point in their lives.

Imposter syndrome is not about being modest or humble about your achievements; imposter syndrome is a behavioural health phenomenon described as self-doubt of intellect, skills or accomplishments among high-achieving individuals.

Imposter syndrome was first described in high-achieving women in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, but subsequent research such as that detailed above, shows that anyone can be affected by the condition, whatever their job.

People with imposter syndrome experience continuous frustration and anxiety about being concerned that they are not good enough, that they will be exposed as incompetent and that everyone else knows what they are doing. Some of the common characteristics of the syndrome include, but are not limited to:

  • Working too hard – the person overworks to cover up their feelings of inadequacy and ends up not managing their time effectively.
  • Downplaying their knowledge, abilities or skills – despite having, for example, certifications and diplomas they still feel that they are not enough.
  • Avoiding responsibility – they might fear failure so much that they actually avoid taking on new responsibilities, going for a new job, or even accepting a promotion.
  • Being seen as a perfectionist – they look over every single detail and check their emails, papers and exams thousands of times to ensure that they are perfect. They never feel that they actually are perfect. They feel the pressure to perform at their best in every circumstance, and when they don’t, they feel incompetent and anxious.
  • Comparing themselves to others – they spend time comparing their abilities to those around them, and think others might be better than they are, which can lead them to conclude that they are an incompetent fraud.
  • Lacking confidence – when showing their accomplishments, speaking up or contributing, they are often afraid of being seen as silly or ignorant.
  • Struggling with pressure – they tend to underperform in extreme circumstances, often because they lack confidence in their abilities and decision-making.
  • Seeing the world in terms of extremes – they consider themselves and the world around them to be the best or the worst, there are no grey areas. This is known as all or nothing thinking.
  • Tending to be people pleasers – they focus more on doing what others want and expect in order to get validation.
  • Exhibiting self-sabotaging behaviours – such as procrastination, poor time management, not relaxing, overstressing, mismanaging priorities, and other distracting avoidance behaviours.
  • Inability to enjoy achievements – this can manifest as depressive symptoms, low mood, withdrawal, limited laughing/smiling, reduced self-care / fun times, or minimal celebrations of successes.

Personality traits largely drive imposter syndrome; those who experience it struggle with self-belief, perfectionism and neuroticism.

Self-belief, self-efficacy or self-confidence is a person’s belief in their abilities, capacities and judgements to complete tasks and to achieve their goals. Self-belief is a realistic but optimistic evaluation of yourself and your abilities and a sense of trust and confidence in yourself.

A perfectionist has excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations. They insist on perfection and accept nothing shy of flawlessness. This can manifest as criticism of self and others and in attempts to control situations and people. Perfectionists will sometimes worry so much about doing something imperfectly that they become immobilised and fail to do anything at all. This procrastination can then lead to greater feelings of failure, further perpetuating a vicious and paralysing cycle.

Neuroticism is a trait that reflects a person’s level of emotional stability. It is often defined as a negative personality trait involving negative emotions, poor self-regulation (an inability to manage urges), trouble dealing with stress, a strong reaction to perceived threats, and the tendency to complain.

Competitive environments can also have an impact on whether someone might be prone to experiencing imposter syndrome. Over recent years there has been a particularly positive emphasis on getting a more diverse group of people onto science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) courses at universities. Women, black and ethnic minority groups, and working-class people have all been the focus of drives and campaigns designed to help them enter STEM careers. However, a study suggests that the competitive nature of STEM courses may be having a knock-on effect on the confidence of certain students, in this case first-generation college attendees, that is those who are the first in their family to go to university. Such students, the paper argues, are more likely to experience “imposter syndrome”, the feeling that they don’t belong or don’t have the skills or intelligence to continue their studies, precisely because of this atmosphere of competition.

Some people may see imposter syndrome as being just a lack of confidence; however, although they are indeed related, they are different. A person can have a lack of confidence without feeling like an imposter, but anyone who suffers from imposter syndrome will almost always feel a lack of confidence. Usually, having a lack of confidence stops a person from doing something before they do it, whereas, with imposter syndrome, it usually sets in after they have done something. In other words, people who are immobilised by a lack of confidence don’t hear the imposter voice because they don’t get to the point where they feel like a fake. A person experiencing imposter syndrome may:

  • Feel like a fake or a fraud
  • Never feel good enough
  • Feel like they don’t belong
  • Are filled with self-doubt
  • Feel uncomfortable when people praise them
  • Feel that other people have an inflated perception of their abilities
  • Have a habit of playing down their strengths
  • Find it hard to take credit for their accomplishments
  • Feel any success achieved is due to luck or charm
  • Have an inability to internalise success, despite evidence

They may focus on:

  • Their mistakes rather than their successes
  • Their weaknesses rather than their strengths
  • What they don’t know, rather than what they do know
  • What they can’t do, rather than what they can do

There isn’t enough research to say what really causes imposter syndrome, but there are some things that appear to be linked with it such as pervasive racist and sexist stereotypes which can cause marginalised people to doubt themselves and their abilities. Corporate culture exacerbates the problem of imposter syndrome, particularly for women. The lack of role models for marginalised communities has a major impact on making people feel as though they do, or do not, belong in these corporate environments.

Lack of physical representation, however, is just one of the factors that feeds into imposter syndrome. Common biased stereotype messaging can also be a contributing factor, such as that women are not good leaders because they are too emotional, or women are not good at maths or science. Also, the traditional focus on female beauty can make an impact on self-doubt. Girls growing up with messages that females are only valued for their looks, rather than their skills or intelligence, might make them wonder whether it was merit that helped them to get a particular job and if they truly deserve it, or are they just a pretty face, or just there to make up the equality quota.

Two types of messages can spark imposter syndrome in children. These are constant criticism, which makes them feel as if they will never be good enough, and universal, superlative praise which instils high expectations and pressure; however, the syndrome may not manifest until later in life.

Many people experience imposter syndrome symptoms for a limited time, such as in the first few weeks of a new job, but for others, the experience can be lifelong. Imposter syndrome often strikes at moments of success such as, but not limited to:

  • Starting a new job
  • Receiving an award
  • Getting a promotion
  • Taking on extra responsibilities
  • Starting your own business
  • Marrying the person of your dreams
  • Becoming a first-time parent

A person may feel that they need to work harder because of their perceived inadequacies to avoid being exposed as a fraud. Paradoxically, this may even lead to further success and recognition, and feeling like an even bigger fraud.

However, in many cases a person’s poor perception of their skills can result in them becoming less ambitious, taking roles beneath their abilities and preventing them from fulfilling their true potential.

Employee-worrying-about-work-project

Impact on Personal and Professional Life

Imposter syndrome is not a recognised mental health disorder, although it severely affects people’s well-being. Imposter syndrome can cause high achievers to mistrust their skills, fail to acknowledge their accomplishments, and to worry about being exposed as fraudsters, all of which can have a negative impact on their personal and professional lives.

When someone has imposter syndrome, they experience repeated feelings or thoughts that they are incompetent or not good enough, despite evidence to the contrary. These beliefs often tend to play out in their personal life, in work, academic life and other high-pressure settings. They can keep people from enjoying their successes and living life to its full potential.

The damage that imposter syndrome can cause to a person’s personal and/or professional life can be significant. The stress of imposter syndrome can trigger mental health issues. People who struggle with imposter syndrome are more likely to experience anxiety, stress and/or depression, have low self-esteem, and feel less satisfied with their lives; potentially imposter syndrome can lead to burnout. Burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, which can occur when a person experiences long-term stress, such as the stress induced by having imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome can affect a person’s work performance, as they may fear that their colleagues and managers expect more from them than they can manage. They may feel unable to deliver. Often those experiencing imposter syndrome stay within the comfort zone of their present job; those who venture outside their comfort zone and seek promotion or additional responsibilities may frequently question their own abilities and feel that they may be exposed as a fraud and that they are not deserving. Instead of celebrating their achievements, the person may worry that others will discover the “truth” about their abilities and see them for what they are.

Many people with imposter syndrome hold back in meetings and do not contribute. They are often thinking to themselves, “How did I get into this room with people who are clearly cleverer or more entitled to be here than me? They are going to find out that I am a fake, I’ll keep quiet.”

In some cases, a person may not feel sufficiently challenged in their work; they may undervalue their skills or fail to recognise how other roles might place more importance on their abilities. Undervaluing skills and abilities can lead those with imposter syndrome to deny their worth, feeling that they do not deserve higher salaries or more prestigious job titles. However, this fear of failure and the need to be the best can sometimes lead to overachievement.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

There is no specific treatment for imposter syndrome. There are, however, many practical things that anyone with imposter syndrome can do to help to overcome it. The first step towards overcoming it is to recognise the signs, and examples of these have been highlighted earlier.

Start to pay attention to your language choices, both when you are talking to other people and when you are talking to yourself, especially when it comes to talking about work. Are you using phrases such as “I was just lucky to get that role” or “I don’t know why I’m here, I’m not as good as the others”? If you find your own success or the praise that others give you uncomfortable, do some reflective thinking on where those types of negative thoughts came from and what they mean in your professional life. Once you have caught an unhelpful thought, the next stage is to check it. This means taking a step back and examining the situation. For example, you might be worried about an important task you have to do at work, and are convinced it will go wrong and everyone will think you are a failure. Rather than immediately accepting this thought and feeling even worse, take a moment to check it. Try asking yourself:

  • How likely is the outcome you are worried about?
  • Is there good evidence for it?
  • Are there other explanations or possible outcomes?
  • Is there good evidence for alternative ways of looking at the situation?
  • What would you say to a friend if they were thinking this way?

Then try to reframe these negative thoughts. Reframing is the process of replacing negative thoughts, which can contribute to or worsen anxiety, depression and pain, with more helpful thoughts, for example:

“I was just lucky to get that role” – “My skills, qualifications and experience helped me to give a good interview which resulted in me being offered the role”

“I don’t know why I’m here, I’m not as good as the others” – “We all bring a range of different skills, qualifications and experience to this organisation and all our contributions are valid to its success”

Often you will be able to change an unhelpful thought to a positive or neutral one, but this will not always be possible. Don’t worry if you cannot change your thought, there are no right or wrong answers, and changing the thought is not the only way that you can benefit from this process. Reframing your thoughts is about learning to think more flexibly and realistically, and to be more in control. If you can learn to identify and separate unhelpful thoughts from helpful ones, then you can find a different way to look at the situation.

Many people who suffer from imposter syndrome are high achievers; people who set extremely high standards for themselves and are committed to doing their best and being the best. However, perfectionism only feeds into imposter syndrome. When you feel like a fraud, it is usually because you are comparing yourself to some perfect outcome that is either impossible or unrealistic. Try to let go of your inner perfectionist, and remind yourself that not only can no one do everything perfectly, but also that holding yourself to that perfect standard can actually be counterproductive, and may lead to procrastination or missing deadlines. Next time that you find yourself striving for perfection, try stepping back and asking yourself “When is good enough, good enough?” The answer to this is quite simple, it is good enough when it successfully solves the problem, addresses the need, or conveys the message intended and the quality of work is consistent with the level of previous satisfactory work.

Having a mentor can help to overcome imposter syndrome. A mentor can offer invaluable support in identifying and addressing the root causes of imposter syndrome. With their knowledge, experience and objective perspective, they can help you recognise your strengths, achievements and areas for improvement, enabling you to build self-confidence and overcome the self-doubt that has been holding you back. Mentors can act as a sounding board, providing constructive feedback and helping you see things from a different perspective. Consider when looking for a mentor looking for someone who has experienced imposter syndrome themselves or has helped others overcome it as they will be able to offer guidance, empathy and validation, while also challenging you to grow and confront your fears. Professional organisations, charities and regulatory bodies run mentoring programmes that match professionals with appropriate mentors such as, but not limited to:

Most universities run mentoring schemes for their students, and many trade unions support mentoring through their union reps.

Cultivating Self-Confidence

As stated earlier in this article, a person can have a lack of confidence without feeling like an imposter, but anyone who suffers from imposter syndrome will almost always feel a lack of confidence. Self-confidence is your belief in yourself and your abilities. True self-confidence leads to more positivity, happiness and resilience, which is why changing your beliefs about yourself in order to build self-confidence is important to overcome imposter syndrome and for your physical and mental well-being.

Start by being kind to yourself; you might automatically put yourself down. If you find yourself doing this, it can help to ask: “Would I talk to a friend in this way?” Practise saying positive things to yourself. Some people find it useful to stand in front of a mirror. This can feel strange at first, but you may feel more comfortable the more you do it. Try using affirming statements, which are a method for transforming automatic negative thoughts into positive thoughts, for example:

  • I am capable
  • I have skills (it helps to name them) that I am good at
  • I have worked hard to get to where I am, I deserve my position/salary/responsibilities
  • I am constantly generating new and brilliant ideas
  • I am resilient in the face of challenges
  • I trust myself to make the right decisions
  • I allow myself to make mistakes as they help me grow
  • I accept myself exactly as I am without judgement

If you feel uncomfortable using words of self-affirmation, this may indicate that most of the time your self-talk is negative. Thoughts are reflections of our beliefs, so if your thoughts about yourself are mostly negative, so are the underlying beliefs. Positive affirmations can help you replace those old negative beliefs with new, more positive ones.

You may turn down tasks or projects that could build connections with colleagues, co-workers or managers because of your imposter syndrome. Try to embrace these opportunities as they can provide chances to affirm and to develop your capabilities.

When you feel like an imposter, one of the hardest things to grasp is how much of a role you have in your own successes. It has been your own work, knowledge and preparation that had a lot to do with it. Keep track of your successes – you could keep a log of achievements and review when you need a confidence boost. Make sure that you celebrate achievements, and use any disappointments to plan opportunities for self-development.

Changing Mindset and Beliefs

Addressing imposter syndrome depends on identifying the triggers and understanding the factors that perpetuate it. These will be different for everyone, and a one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t exist. However, there is one thing that people with imposter syndrome have in common and that is mindset.

A mindset is a series of self-perceptions or beliefs people hold about themselves. These determine behaviour, outlook and mental attitude. For example, believing that you are either intelligent or unintelligent. When someone has a fixed mindset, they believe traits such as intelligence or talent are seen as fixed traits, set at birth. A person with a fixed mindset lets failure or success define them. A growth mindset is the belief that skills and abilities are largely a result of learning and effort. It generally leads to high levels of effort, persistence, creativity, learning and performance and allows people to embrace failure and learn from it.

Cultivating a growth mindset by framing imposter syndrome not as an insurmountable barrier, but as an obstacle to be overcome, can help you to change. A growth mindset can act as an antidote to imposter syndrome, shifting the focus from self-doubt to continuous learning and development.

Seeking Professional Help

Talking about imposter syndrome can help. Talk to people that you trust about how you are feeling whether that’s at home, with friends or at work. At work, you could arrange a formal one-to-one appraisal to speak to your manager about your feelings, your work and your capabilities, or speak to a colleague that you trust more informally. Other people may be able to reassure you and help you realise that your feelings of inadequacy are irrational. You may be surprised to find that they feel the same way about themselves too.

If you don’t feel you can talk to someone you know, you can find a professional counsellor/therapist to talk through your feelings with. Dealing with imposter syndrome can be overwhelming, so seeking help from a professional is often a step in the right direction. Therapists can help you recognise where these negative feelings come from and help you implement strategies to get past them. They can also help you understand the commonality of conditions like imposter syndrome. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) maintains an online, searchable directory of around 16,000 private therapists who offer services to the public. Only registered or accredited BACP members can advertise on their directory, ensuring that all the counsellors listed meet their standards for training, experience and ethical practice.

Creating Supportive Environments

Managers are in an important position to help employees who may be wrestling with imposter syndrome. Giving employees confidence, reassurance and support can be a challenging task for any manager, especially when employees may falsely perceive that they are underqualified, lack necessary skills, or simply lucked out getting an assignment or promotion. Given the prevalence of imposter feelings as seen in statistics highlighted earlier in this article, most managers are likely to be managing people who feel this way.

Chances are that employees are not sharing their imposter feelings with their manager, so managers need to know what behaviours to look out for. Unsustainable work habits, such as constantly working long hours, can be a tell-tale sign; also competent workers who do not put themselves forward or do not freely contribute in meetings.

Managers can help to combat this inclination by framing performance, growth and development in objective terms rather than by rank and status. Performance feedback, both formal and informal, is an excellent opportunity to dispel uncertainties about the employee’s standing in the organisation.

We have already seen how mentorship can be helpful in combatting imposter feelings, and organisations can benefit enormously from initiating a mentoring scheme. However, when pairing employees with a mentor, an organisation should consider individuals outside of their team, who understand the context but who have no evaluative relationship with the employee. This will take the pressure off the relationship.

Having a supportive working environment is good for everybody and feeling supported at work can have an impact on the physical and mental well-being as well as the performance of employees. Ways that organisations, teams and colleagues can be supportive to help dispel imposter syndrome include, but are not limited to:

  • Celebrating colleagues’ achievements is a great way to show support. It is likely to give them a confidence boost too, and demonstrates that you care about them enough to notice their hard work.
  • Regular check-ins with colleagues help to strengthen relationships and make people feel included.
  • Taking the time to listen to your colleagues lets them know that you value what they have to say and, importantly, gives them the space to come up with their own solutions and conclusions.
  • Trust is important in creating healthy and supportive relationships. When giving feedback ensure that it is constructive. When colleagues know that the feedback they get will be honest, regardless of whether it is good or not, it removes the worry that people are thinking something other than what they say.
Celebrating-achievements-at-work

Sharing Stories and Normalising Experiences

When you struggle with imposter syndrome, it’s very common to have the belief that it is critical to maintain the façade of competence, control, and the ability to handle almost anything. This faulty notion leads people to rarely ask for help, share their difficulties and to avoid any appearance of vulnerability. However, many people are now being open about their experiences with imposter syndrome, as we have seen from the celebrity examples at the start of this article. The more open people are about it, the more people realise that imposter syndrome is a natural phenomenon, experienced by, and successfully overcome by, millions of high achievers.

Conclusion

As we have seen, imposter syndrome seems to affect high-achieving people more frequently. If you are experiencing it, this means that you are probably going to have a range of past successful achievements to review as evidence of your ability to do good work and to handle challenging new environments. Revisiting your own track record of success can help ground you back in the realities of your own ability. Applying some self-empathy and kindness can go a long way in relieving the pressure that accompanies imposter syndrome, and hopefully the techniques above, as well as time, will help ease the intensity of your imposter feelings.

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About the author

Liz Wright

Liz has worked with CPD Online College since August 2020, she manages content production, as well as planning and delegating tasks. Liz works closely with Freelance Writers - Voice Artists - Companies and individuals to create the most appropriate and relevant content as well as also using and managing SEO. Outside of work Liz loves art, painting and spending time with family and friends.



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