This article is a modified transcript of episode 40 of the podcast Rachel hosts called Connect In.
Do you fear that your boss or colleague is going to discover that you’re really a fraud?
Or worry that your friends will think that you don’t actually deserve your job or accomplishments?
Or maybe you find it hard to feel the success that others attribute to you. Instead, thinking it results has something to do with luck or something else.
You know, these are just some of the feelings known as imposter syndrome.
As always, after reading you’ll leave with some strategies that you can do to address impostor syndrome in your own life, and you’re going to learn a lot more about how it shows up so that you can accurately identify when it is happening.
Did you know that an estimated 70% of people experienced impostor syndrome feelings at some point in their lives? This is according to the International Journal of Behavioral Science.
Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes were the ones who originally offered the term imposter phenomenon, which we now call imposter syndrome. In their research focused on high achieving women, they identified that (and I’m going to quote here)
“despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experienced the imposter phenomenon, persist in believing that they are not really bright, and that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”Citation
A more recent definition from psychologists Audrey Ervin is that imposter syndrome is present for anyone who isn’t able to internalize and own their successes.
If you can see that from when we first began talking about the imposter phenomenon in the 70s, all the way to more recently, we’re still talking about this idea that internalizing accurately who you are in terms of those positive traits and successes, your accomplishments and skills, is an issue for people experiencing impostor syndrome.
Interestingly, what isn’t talked about so often is the other side of what is internalized instead. And while people experiencing impostor syndrome are not internalizing what is real about their successes, in terms of the positive or good things, they are quick, perhaps actually too quick to internalize anything that they perceive as negative, or a mistake, or some sort of flaw. So they are overly internalizing the importance of anything that could be a setback or challenge, perhaps even internalizing what isn’t theirs.
Imposter syndrome results in an inability to accurately internalize what is true and positive while easily internalizing what is not true and is negative.
You can see how operating this way, with impostor syndrome, will really lead to a misguided concept of who you are and what you’re capable of doing.
Is there something wrong with me?
Now, despite its very medical-sounding term of a syndrome. Imposter syndrome is not a clinical diagnosis, nor is it a medical diagnosis, and it does not appear in any diagnostic manual that I’m aware of. When we think about around 70% of us experiencing impostor syndrome at some point in our life, I think we have to acknowledge that it is actually a distinctly human experience rather than a clinical one.
Symptoms of imposter syndrome
So let’s dive in a little bit more into what impostor syndrome is, and look at some of its characteristics.
As I share these, you might just reflect that these are characteristics that you notice within yourself, and perhaps at least be wondering if it could be a sign that you’re experiencing some impostor syndrome feelings.
- self doubt
- an inability to realistically assess competence and skills
- attributing your success to external factors such as luck or timing
- fearing that you won’t live up to expectation over achieving and over preparing
- sabotaging your own success
- setting very challenging goals and then feeling disappointed when you inevitably fall short
These are just some of the symptoms that show up more regularly with imposter syndrome.
Do you notice yourself doing any of those perhaps now or maybe in the past?
Do I have imposter syndrome?
If we dive in just a little bit more deeply into impostor syndrome. I’m going to offer some questions you can ask yourself that might offer some insights into some of the core characteristics of people experiencing impostor syndrome.
Do you agonize over even the smallest mistakes or flaws in your work?
Some people with impostor syndrome really do agonize over the smallest mistakes or perceived flaws because they experience a lot of self-imposed perfectionism in their thinking and expectations. Perfectionistic goal setting and ideals that are unattainable result in confirming negative self-perceptions. So if you struggle with the smallest mistakes or flaws, or notice perfectionism within yourself, I think is a worthy question to ask yourself if you experience imposter syndrome.
Do you attribute your successes to luck or some other outside factors?
People with impostor syndrome see something outside of them, usually something akin to luck, as the reason why they have achieved or accomplished what they have, and that if they could accomplish or achieve what they have, then it mustn’t be anything special. When it comes down to something of that nature. So it’s out of their control, then what happens is they often experience anxiety or worry and fear that that luck will run out.
Do you struggle to receive criticism from others?
People with impostor syndrome are often incredibly sensitive to criticism, even the most constructive and kindly shared criticism. So if you have difficulty receiving feedback, particularly feedback that you perceive as criticism, then it’s certainly worth asking yourself if that is because criticism sets off a threat response and alarm system within you.
Do you feel like you will inevitably be found out to be a phony?
Imagine if that is your day-to-day experience, that people are going to figure out that you don’t know what you’re doing, or don’t know as much as it looks like, or that your successes were really due to luck and nothing that you did.
You can imagine how stressful that is and how distracting that would be.
It really makes sense why impostor syndrome is connected to increase symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Do you downplay your own expertise, even in areas when you genuinely have more knowledge and skills than others?
People with impostor syndrome are often working really hard to avoid the spotlight because the reality is that if you’re in the spotlight, and you make a tiny mistake, or even if you don’t, there is just more opportunity for people to see you, and potentially realize what a fake and phony.
Makes sense that the safer option would be to hide, step back and to be quiet. Essentially to deflect all the attention away from themselves. So if you find yourself downplaying your own expertise, holding back when you really could be speaking up and leading, putting the attention to somebody else you may be experiencing impostor syndrome.
How long does imposter syndrome last?
Now, for some people impostor syndrome is episodic. So it has a period of time when it shows up, and then it leaves. For other people, it’s chronic. So it’s across the lifespan, and we’re just going to take a brief look at how those two differ.
Imposter syndrome as a result of a life event.
When I think about the episodic imposter syndrome, it reminds me of clients that I’ve worked with, usually high achieving and competent women, who have had a really difficult experience in a workplace, that has led to what I call a psychological workplace injury. They’ve often experienced some really poor behaviors within an organization, or with a team, boss or manager. Sometimes a consequence of that is an episode of imposter syndrome. Their confidence is knocked and they experience increased self-doubt and second-guessing themselves. They’re wondering if they really were up for the job after all.
Another common reason women can have an episode of imposter syndrome is when they have a child. The role change, along with all the new obligations they are responsible to can invite temporary imposter syndrome.
The good news. With appropriate interventions to help contextualize and process what has happened, then people can not only recover from this episode of imposter syndrome, but gain also resilience against further experiences of this nature.
Chronic imposter syndrome
For others, imposter syndrome is more firmly established as a belief system that is quite resistant to change. This is often because impostor syndrome is experienced as something that grew out of childhood or young adulthood where they learned to internalize failures, whether they were their own or others, while simultaneously learning not to internalize positive things about themselves or their accomplishments. This results in experiencing persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or imposter throughout the lifetime.
These are really high achieving competent people, but these accomplishments, accolades received, obvious successes, and even awards received, just aren’t more compelling than the internal perception that has been learned in childhood.
Now, I don’t want you to think that if imposter syndrome is more of a chronic long term experience, that there’s nothing to be done for it, just as with an episodic experience, receiving appropriate support and getting some help through it can be really helpful in moving the dial on how intrusive imposter syndrome can be in your life.
Am I the only one with imposter syndrome?
Now, let’s turn to some people that we may have heard of to talk about this a little bit more. So if we think of Tom Hanks, do you think he’s a good actor? He is, of course, the lead in films that include Forrest Gump, Castaway, Big, and Apollo 13 to name a few of his very prolific movie and TV appearances. Now objectively speaking, and as of this recording, he has won 60 major awards for recognition that he is a skilled actor. These awards include two Oscars, four Golden Globes, and seven Emmys. Yet, despite a career with an abundance of external validation, Tom Hanks admits that he experiences imposter syndrome. This is an example of how impostor syndrome is resistant to internalizing competence, even when it has an abundance of external validity to it.
Now, some other well-known people who have shared their own experiences having impostor syndrome include American business executive, billionaire, and philanthropist Sheryl Sandberg.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the attorney, author, and former First Lady Michelle Obama, who also acknowledges feelings of imposter syndrome.
You see, if you recognize signs of imposter syndrome in yourself, whether it’s a chronic state or an acute episode, you’re in good company. It also speaks to the fact that fame or power does not hide you from feelings of impostor syndrome. It is uniquely human, and therefore, you cannot pay your way out of it…even with billions.
The cost of ignoring imposter syndrome in the workplace
Now of course, impostor syndrome impacts us in our personal lives, and it also impacts us in the workplace. Part of the reason I think workplaces should care about addressing impostor syndrome, is because it’s one of the factors that get in the way of creating a place of excellence, well-being and psychological safety in the workplace.
Research indicates that well-being and psychological safety are correlated with positive outcomes, not just for the staff themselves, but also in terms of their contributions to their work. They show increased creativity, innovation, and productivity…and these lead to increased profits.
Addressing impostor syndrome just seems like an economic as well as humane approach to the workplace.
Indeed, if we look at what is happening in the workplace when people are experiencing impostor syndrome, the research tells us that they’re experiencing impaired job performance and lower job satisfaction, which means they’re more likely to leave. They are feeling at increased risk for burnout, increased levels of stress, experiencing more pessimism, and decreasing self-esteem.
Remember, these are highly competent achievers.
They have proven skills and capabilities, but let imposter syndrome get in the way of them performing at their best. It is a waste of potential for sure, and financial estimates suggest that each employee experiencing impostor syndrome is costing their company about $3400 US dollars per employee per year.
Now that’s not just costing us in the workplace, but also personally. A study by Mint, a powerhouse for researching economics, suggests that on an individual level, we are spending thousands, if not tens of thousands of US dollars a year addressing impostor syndrome. We do this in terms of how it impacts our stress levels, our attention, and our health.
Mint’s research findings suggest the following costs of imposter syndrome on the individual.
- Burnout and stress from being spread too thin costs the average working American $988 a year.
- Tension from unrealistic goals and schedules costs, on average, $2,244 per person each year.
- When putting your health on the back-burner, your performance follows. Lack of sleep in the US costs $2,569 per person each year.
- Just by avoiding your salary talk and not negotiating your worth can cost you $7,528 each year.
Let me share about Alice who sought out coaching just as she was starting a new job and was feeling highly anxious. The reason she left her previous job was because of burnout, high stress, and worsening health…all signs of imposter syndrome. Being highly competent in her field, she quickly got a new job offer.
What was really fascinating was that, when Alice shared with me what she’d said when asked about salary requirements in this new position, she couldn’t understand why she had suggested an amount that was equivalent to about 60% of her previous salary. Impostor syndrome had devastated her self-confidence to the point where she asked for 40% less money to do the same kind of work in a different company. So impostor syndrome can be costly. Thankfully, we managed to salvage her salary negotiation, but many do not.
Common experiences that could make you vulnerable to imposter syndrome
Some of the common times that I’ve encountered when working with clients when impostor syndrome shows up include the following.
When you’re in a workplace that you didn’t think you’d be.
Perhaps you never imagined being promoted to the C suite or a senior leadership position within a company. Maybe you don’t consider yourself to be an expert subject matter speaker, but others do. Or feel out of your depth when tasked to take the lead on important projects. At times when you are moving outside of your usual comfort zone. You can be at risk for experiencing some feelings of impostor syndrome.
After an experience that requires that you change how you work.
For example, after becoming a parent and returning to work while balancing parenthood as well as a busy workload. Or moving from full or part-time work to the other. Changing roles in an organization. Or indeed changing where you’re working to a new employer.
Often when people are beginning their journey as an entrepreneur or solopreneur, they experienced some impostor syndrome.
After a psychological workplace injury.
When somebody has experienced treatment that was related to their identity rather than their competence, and as a result, have had such a knock in their sense of self that they are experiencing impostor syndrome. This can include discrimination.
Imposter syndrome as a result of systems of exclusion
I’d like to offer a word of caution about imposter syndrome. Instead of only framing impostor insecurities as an individual problem that arises from within an individual, it is true that we should also consider the important role of outside forces as well and that imposter syndrome may be a response to external forces.
We can consider how context and social structures create impostor feelings when we think about who places and spaces were built for, and who they were not.
When we honestly consider this, then we can glimpse into the systemic issues at play in creating impostor syndrome feelings. To truly address impostor syndrome is to work on structural changes that increase a sense of belonging for everyone. It is the work of dismantling systems of discrimination.
This work needs to be done. If you are reading this, and in a position within an organization seeking to increase psychological safety and well-being then this would naturally include creating processes and work practices to avoid triggering impostor syndrome in staff. If you’d like to talk about this further, feel free to reach out to me to talk about how we could do this while we continue creating spaces and workplaces that foster a sense of belonging for all.
There are individuals today who don’t have time to wait. Large systems often move slowly, and I want to offer you some suggestions that you can take away right now.
Individual things you can do to address impostor syndrome
1. Avoid comparison thinking.
Brene Brown says that comparison is the thief of joy. I agree. It can be really tempting for any of us to compare ourselves to one another. But when we have impostor syndrome, not only are we more likely to engage in a lot of comparisons, but people experiencing impostor syndrome very often experience comparison assessments between themselves and others that are not appropriately similar, ensuring a setup for failure. Let me give you a real-life example of what I mean.
I once had a client Rosa, who had started a new job. Within two to three weeks of starting this job, Rosa was telling me about a competent peer at work, and she was comparing herself to them. I asked her to explain what she meant. Rosa described how this person knows so much about the company, how they report to the same boss, and this created fear that her boss was going to think that this other person is more competent than Rosa and that she might lose her job.
Turns out that anytime there’s a question in the meeting, this peer already knows the answer. While Rosa was still learning the answers that fit the company.
I asked Rosa, to tell me how long her peer/colleague had been working at the company. The answer was seven years.
Of course her peer knew more about the company. They’d been there for 7 years, not a few weeks. The premise for the comparison was guaranteed to support increasing feelings of imposter syndrome (and unnecessary misery).
I invite you, whether you’re experiencing impostor syndrome or not, to alter your focus when engaging in comparison thinking, and instead focus on contribution thinking. What contributions are you making? By focusing on contributions, rather than comparison thinking (which is probably the pattern that most of us have built into our systems) we will be engaging in the kind of thinking, and the kind of monitoring within our own minds, that leads to a much healthier appreciation about not only our own contribution, but the contribution of others.
Here’s a question you can ask yourself each day to develop a contribution mindset.
In what ways did I contribute today?
You can ask yourself this question about work, or a specific aspect of your work, such as a project, and you can also ask yourself this question about other non-work parts of your life too
2. Talk with people you trust about your feelings or imposter syndrome.
Most of us will feel impostor syndrome at some point, and chances are, you’ll be able to talk with someone who can empathize because they will have experienced it themselves. So gaining empathy, support, and encouragement from somebody else that you trust will help you understand you’re not alone. And that’s actually really important because impostor syndrome can feel really isolating and lonely.
When we are able to connect with others who say “I get it, I’ve experienced that myself,” or “I’m aware of what that is, and I understand that that feels really hard”. You’re connecting you’re creating a place between you in this conversation of belonging. And those are both really helpful when it comes to imposter syndrome.
3. Document your accomplishments.
Now, this is not new advice, but I’m going to offer a completly different approach that I created to share with clients that address the root cause of imposter syndrome.
Let me explain.
Most people, talk about documenting your accomplishments after you’ve completed them. But if that were the issue, that would really be speaking to a memory issue that you can’t remember your accomplishments.
If that’s not what’s an issue, writing them down afterward also runs the risk of being negated. So something we perceive as really challenging and hard, once accomplished is often re-evaluated as easy and not a big deal. So essentially, we write it off because impostor syndrome makes it hard to attribute successes to ourselves.
So writing it afterward, I think is really problematic and doesn’t address some of the underlying issues related to imposter syndrome and the way that we don’t internalize things.
I suggest that when you are experiencing imposter syndrome that instead, you commit to keeping some sort of journal about what challenges you are experiencing before you tackle them.
Here is an example of how to do this. After identifying an upcoming challenge, write answers to these 4 prompts:
- What the challenges is.
- What skills, experience and knowledge it would take to complete this challenge successfully.
- Write down the characteristics a person would need in order to successfully complete this challenge.
- Write what completing this task would indicate what about you, or about a person able to do it?
When you answer all four of those questions, you’re setting up with intention, who you would have to be to do it, which means that on the other side of completing it, it’s harder to write that off to things like luck or timing or any other factor outside of your control because we’ve already identified what it would mean if completed successfully.
We’re not leaving anything to luck when we proactively understand what it takes to complete a challenge.
If you commit to this process, I think it makes it that much harder for the typical imposter syndrome thinking to undermine our successes and accomplishment.
If you notice, all three approaches that I’ve described today, do not in any way speak directly to the imposter syndrome thinking. They don’t dispute it or argue.
If we look at the first idea, we replace it with contribution thinking. The second idea, we seek connection and a sense of understanding by sharing, so we no longer feel so alone in our impostor syndrome feelings. And the last one, we’re proactively identifying what it takes to complete a challenge, which makes it harder to deny attributing success more accurately once achieved. These are very gentle ways of making a change because this is an emotional issue.
Impostor syndrome is a big topic. I have tried to highlight some of the most relevant aspects here to help you get started in identifying it, understanding it, and addressing it. If you’d like help with imposter syndrome I offer coaching and training services. Feel free to contact me here.