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What is imposter syndrome, and how can you deal with it?

Most people have experienced feeling like an imposter at some point in their lives, so here we explore the causes of these feelings and how they can be prevented.

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By Rhiannon Wardle

You’ve probably heard of the term “imposter syndrome” before, and perhaps you have an understanding of what it is already. However, it’s quite a loaded term and has potentially complicated implications, which we’d like to explore in this post in more detail.

We’ll be exploring the origins and history of imposter syndrome, who is most likely to show signs of it, the causes of it and what can be done to prevent these feelings in the first place. Hopefully, you find this informative and gain a new perspective on imposter syndrome.

What is imposter syndrome?

Have you ever felt like a fraud after achieving success? Imposter syndrome is supposedly an explanation for this feeling. The term refers particularly to the internal experience someone has of not feeling as successful as they are perceived to be externally. 

It’s common that someone showing signs of imposter syndrome will feel as if they are about to have their secret discovered, where they will be outed as a phoney who doesn’t deserve praise and recognition.

The history of imposter syndrome

The origins of the term lie in the 1970s, where it was coined by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance. They originally believed that only women were affected by imposter syndrome, and in particular, intellectual women with academic or professional accomplishments. It has since been recognised that signs of imposter syndrome can affect anyone, from any gender, race or background.

The term is not considered a mental disorder and is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). However, it is considered to be a recognised psychological phenomenon by professionals, and can often accompany or lead to anxiety and depression. This is because feelings of self-doubt and fear can be pervasive with the syndrome.

Is the term outdated?

It’s important to recognise that when the term first emerged, the impact of biases such as systemic racism, sexism and classism were not considered. The original study excluded the majority of the population, including women of colour, different genders and people with different class and professional backgrounds.

Additionally, the label ‘imposter syndrome’ itself definitely doesn’t have pleasant connotations. In an article in Harvard Business Review by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, they suggest that labelling anxious professional women as ‘imposters’ with a ‘syndrome’ undoubtedly has both a criminal and medical undertone, which “recalls the “female hysteria” diagnoses of the nineteenth century”. Perhaps the conclusion of their work is that we need to acknowledge that the term is a product of its time, and not a label to still place on people today. 

How common is it?

An estimated 70% of people will experience feelings of imposter syndrome at some point in their lives, making it an extremely common phenomenon. However, people with imposter feelings are likely to keep quiet about their feelings due to fear of being discovered.

In this video by TED-Ed, the narrator describes this experience as “pluralistic ignorance”, which is the incorrect assumption by individuals that they feel differently to everyone else. So with imposter syndrome, this is the idea that people believe they are the only ones having negative thoughts, despite lots of people suffering in silence.

What is the cause of imposter syndrome?

This is a pretty complicated question with no simple answer. Some experts will say it’s a mix of things, like your personality traits being more prone to anxiety, or your childhood experiences. It’s argued that certain experiences, like never feeling good enough in school in comparison to your friends, can cause you to experience signs of imposter syndrome in later life.

However, to label the cause of imposter syndrome as largely personal or due to familial expectations, would be to minimise other external factors. There is a lot of evidence to show that these feelings are spurred on by factors such as institutionalised discrimination, including racism and sexism. 

Discrimination as a cause of imposter feelings

Thema Bryant-Davis, a black psychologist and professor at Pepperdine University, suggests that racist and sexist stereotypes, such as indigenous and people of colour being lazy or unintelligent, cause marginalised people to lack confidence in themselves. Corporate culture then exacerbates these feelings of doubt because it doesn’t reflect the success of women and people of colour.

Research from Lean In in 2019 found that men held 62% of managerial positions in the US compared to women who held just 38%. This is amplified for women of colour, who only hold 5% of US corporate board seats, despite making up 18% of the population. It’s no surprise that women and minorities experience self-doubt when society seems to prove their point that they’re not worthy of high-level positions.

As Valerie Young, imposter syndrome expert and author, says, “A sense of belonging fosters confidence, and the more people who look or sound like you, the more confident you feel.” This points to the fact that factors such as gender inequality and racial discrimination could be some of the biggest causes of imposter feelings. If women and people of colour felt more confident and were included in society, professionally and otherwise, would they still be so prone to this so-called “syndrome”?

If you’re curious about the types of discrimination that can lead to feelings of imposter syndrome, you can explore some of the barriers women face in the workplace in our open step by the University of Exeter.

Who gets imposter syndrome?

As we’ve previously mentioned, anyone can experience signs of imposter syndrome, but women and other minority groups may be more susceptible due to societal discrimination and pervasive stereotypes. 

However, it is certainly prevalent in men too, particularly if they are part of a minority, have a disability or are working class. It’s likely that men are less likely to admit feeling like an imposter, due to toxic ideals of masculinity preventing men from wanting to admit any vulnerabilities.

It seems like the imposter phenomenon is more common among people who are moving onto a new stage in their lives, whether that means achieving a promotion or graduating from university. This makes sense, as these are times when we’re most likely to be unsure of our capabilities, and are jumping into the deep end, so to speak.

However, imposter feelings can also be experienced by people who are extremely successful, even though all the evidence might appear to point towards their capabilities. For example, Maureen Zappala, a former rocket scientist in a mid-level management role at NASA, still experienced self-doubt. “For years I thought NASA only hired me because they needed women”, she explains, showing how gender stereotypes can affect the mindsets of even tremendously successful women.

The potential signs of imposter syndrome

Here we’ll discuss some of the imposter-like feelings people might experience, which we gathered from experts on a range of established sites such as Psychology Today and Very Well Mind. However, we encourage you to not view this as some kind of diagnosis. Instead, if you recognise some of these signs within yourself, take this as an indicator that you’re not alone. 

Many people all over the world experience similar feelings to you, and these thoughts are not a true reflection of your abilities. However, if you are experiencing large amounts of stress and anxiety, you should consider consulting with a medical professional.

1. Feeling anxious in social situations 

Often people who feel like imposters will experience anxiety in social situations because they fear being ‘found out’ or being a disappointment. This stems from believing that everyone has a high opinion of them that they don’t live up to.

2. Overworking at every opportunity

Sometimes people feel that they will only be successful if they push themselves really hard, and this can include overworking. Often they don’t even need to do this, but there is a strong belief that they will fail otherwise

3. Constantly fearing failure

The last point brings us nicely to this one – many people with imposter feelings have a fear of failure. This is because of a false perception that if they fail at anything they will be a huge disappointment to friends, family and colleagues. You can learn to explore and overcome your fears with Dr Diane Hamilton in our open step.

4. Feeling undeserving of success

Achievements are normally something to be celebrated, but often people with imposter feelings will feel like they’re not deserving of the success they’re having and might feel as though someone else deserved it more. This could even become intense feelings of guilt.

5. Comparing yourself to others

Everyone compares themselves to others now and then, especially because social media makes it very easy to do this. However, if you’re constantly comparing yourself to others, especially when it comes to ideas of ‘success’, it can become an unhealthy behaviour.

6. Focusing more on what you haven’t done rather than your achievements

You might have done a lot of incredible things, but if you have imposter feelings, perhaps you choose to ignore all of those things. Instead, you might fixate on all of your currently unfulfilled goals, or even on other people’s achievements.

7. Attributing all of your successes to luck or external factors

Even if your successes are a result of hard work or natural capabilities, you might say that you just experienced good luck, or attribute your successes to help from other people. This forms as a kind of self-sabotage.

8. Never feeling sure of yourself when you voice opinions

Do you hate speaking up because you’re worried you’ve not got the “right” answer? This can be a part of feeling like a fraud. Often women are socialised to second-guess themselves, and that’s why it’s more common for them to say things like ‘I think..’ and ‘maybe…’ when giving their opinions.

9. Being sensitive to constructive criticism

Even if you criticise yourself regularly, it can be hard to receive criticism from other people, even if it’s constructive. Those with imposter feelings might feel like any amount of criticism means that they’re not good enough and are disappointing others.

10. Downplaying your expertise to others

Some people feel as if they’re bragging if they reveal the true extent of their expertise and experience. Hence, they might be tempted to downplay themselves because they don’t want people to think they’re arrogant or unworthy of their accomplishments.

11. Sabotaging yourself on purpose

This might include not going for a promotion when you’re qualified to do so, or not taking certain opportunities that you would enjoy, because you don’t think you’re good enough or worry that you might take the spot of someone more deserving.

12. Wanting to be the best at everything you do

You might be an expert in your field or really great at a certain craft, but sometimes this isn’t enough, and you want to be the best at everything you do. If you try something new and aren’t very good at it, you may be tempted to give up so as not to embarrass yourself.

How to deal with imposter syndrome

A lot of the time when people discuss how to deal with imposter syndrome, the onus is placed on the individual to overcome the problem themselves. While there are things individuals can do to help when they experience feelings of self-doubt, this responsibility is generally misdirected.

In this article about imposter syndrome by Harvard Business Review, the writers discuss how seeking individual solutions ignores the fact that systems of discrimination are often responsible for people experiencing these feelings in the first place. Instead, there must be a focus on creating an inclusive environment in workplaces and beyond, where leaders with diverse identities are celebrated.

This means fostering an environment where people of different races, ethnicities, gender identities, sexualities and disabilities feel comfortable, rather than just celebrating masculine, heteronormative standards of professionalism. 

In one of our open steps about creating an inclusive work environment, experts from Griffith University provide some great examples of questions you might want to ask yourself if you own a business or manage a team. If you don’t, you could bring up these questions to your team, or even think about how these questions might apply to other areas of your life:

  • Is everyone on your team accepted for who they are and are their needs accommodated whenever possible? Or generally, do they tend to seem anxious or ‘weighed down’ from the poor balance in their work and personal lives?
  • Do you offer flexibility to your team, regarding their other commitments and personal circumstances? This could include accommodating for any health concerns or family commitments.
  • Is your staff turnover high? If so, why is that?
  • In what ways is the physical environment at your work conducive to good health and wellbeing?
  • Have you demonstrated that you’re committed to growing diversity and creating a sense of inclusivity in your team? If so, how are you doing this?

If you are struggling on an individual level with some of the feelings we’ve explored in this post, we have an excellent range of psychology and mental health courses online. Whether you want to increase your understanding of anxiety and depression or learn how to maintain your wellbeing at work, we have something that might help.

However, our best resource for this is our highly-rated course, Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: Identify the Patterns Undermining Your Confidence by the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. In this course, you’ll learn how to tackle feelings of inadequacy, recognise negative behaviours and leadership anxiety, and become a confident leader.

Final thoughts

To summarise, feelings associated with imposter syndrome are extremely common, and we hope you feel less alone after learning more about it. However, it’s important that we recognise that these feelings are not always the result of mental illness, but sometimes a product of societal issues. 

Everyone feels doubtful of themselves sometimes, but it’s important to celebrate our achievements and feel grateful for our successes. By creating an inclusive environment at work and beyond, where different identities are celebrated, we can begin to break down some of the barriers that prevent us from celebrating ourselves.

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