The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me feel very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler – Albert Einstein.
At some point in your career, you’ve probably felt like you didn’t belong. Like you had ‘swindled’ your employer into believing you were an expert and were likely to be escorted off the premises at any moment. Or maybe you felt like sheer luck had carried you through life and now Lady Luck was going to start looking the other way.
I have experienced these thoughts and I am not alone. It is estimated that up to 70% of the population will experience imposter syndrome, ‘a belief that you’re an inadequate and incompetent failure, despite evidence that indicates you’re skilled and quite successful’, at some point.
Recent research indicates these feelings are particularly prevalent amongst millennials.
Frequently connected with anxiety, low confidence levels, unhealthy perfectionism, and risk-averse behavior, imposter syndrome has significant consequences for personal well-being and long-term career development.
In this article, I will explore imposter syndrome and its attributes in more detail, and suggest practical ways to address these limiting beliefs.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
First identified in the 1970s by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, imposter syndrome is associated with high achievers who are unable to internalize their success, which they attribute to luck. Such individuals think they are not as talented or competent as others believe, and worry their lack of ability will be exposed at any time.
In her insightful TEDx talk, Lou Solomon reflects that many individuals feel as if they have snuck onto ‘the stage of life’ and are constantly waiting for a bouncer to throw them out – a wonderful analogy!
In addition to the effects outlined above, those who suffer from imposter syndrome are likely to experience reduced job satisfaction, lower salaries, and fewer promotions during their career. They are less likely to pursue career opportunities as they worry about retaining their current position, are uncomfortable in new social situations, and fear new challenges.
‘Imposters’ are also likely to engage in ‘intellectual inauthenticity‘ by downplaying their own ideas, telling managers and colleagues what they want to hear, and avoiding conflict.
In short, Imposter Syndrome makes us believe we are not responsible for our successes and achievements. It’s not so much a fear of failure, but rather a fear of being ‘discovered’.
The precise origins of imposter syndrome are unknown. Possible explanations include childhood experiences; the rise of social media, which gives more people a voice and allows users to compare their experiences to others; organizational structures that emphasize competition and achievement, and fast-paced technological advancements, which leave employees constantly striving to catch-up.
Imposter syndrome is sometimes described as the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the idea that those who lack intelligence, lack the ability to acknowledge this lack of intelligence.
Early research into the phenomena suggested only women experienced imposter syndrome; however, subsequent work has revealed both men and women can fall victim to this flawed self-perception. Indeed, numerous accomplished individuals from a range of spheres – Dr. Margaret Chan, Maya Angelou, John Steinbeck, Sheryl Sandberg, Chris Martin, Natalie Portman, and Neil Gaiman – have confessed to imposter feelings
Six Characteristics of Imposter Syndrome
Following her research, Clance suggested that imposter syndrome is defined by six key characteristics explained below. Although the individual combination of these characteristics varies, a minimum of two should be present when identifying the presence of imposter syndrome.
1. The Imposter Cycle
The cycle begins when an achievement-related task is assigned to an individual who has a tendency towards imposter syndrome and thus becomes anxious about the task. The individual will react by either over-preparing or procrastinating until the last possible moment. This is also known as defensive pessimism (working hard to avoid failure), and self-handicapping (reducing the chance of success through procrastination).
Any positive feelings upon the completion of the task are quickly replaced by self-doubt, for example, a feeling that hard work does not equate to true ability or that luck played a significant role.
2. The Need to be Special
Quite often, ‘imposters’ who excelled at school become overwhelmed in larger settings such as university and the workplace. Consequently, imposters dismiss their own talents and achievements as unimportant.
3. Superman/Superwoman Aspects
Connected to the second characteristic is perfectionism. Imposters set extremely high personal standards, becoming disappointed when they fail to meet these impossible goals.
4. Fear of Failure
Imposters experience feelings of anxiety and doubt if they feel their performance is sub-par. This can often lead to overworking and risk-averse behaviors.
5. Denial of Competence
Unable to internalize their own success, imposters dismiss positive feedback and objective evidence, instead arguing they do not deserve any praise or acknowledgment.
6. Fear and Guilt about Success
Imposters worry success will distance them from family, friends, and colleagues, and will lead to higher expectations for their team. They also feel uncertain about maintaining their current performance levels.
Five Types of Imposter Syndrome
Building on the work of Clance and other researchers, Valerie Young has suggested five common types of imposter syndrome in her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. Look at the list below and see if you can recognize yourself – I certainly can.
Perfectionists set extremely high personal goals, experiencing doubt and worry when they fail.
Such individuals are often micromanagers and find it difficult to delegate tasks to others.
They wait for the ‘perfect’ time to begin a new task and often struggle to deal with mistakes or criticism. Such qualities are not ideal for project managers!
Individuals who feel like imposters often work twice as hard to keep up with colleagues and are reliant upon the validation of others. Relationships and hobbies suffer as imposters are unable to switch off from work completely.
The Natural Genius
These types of imposters judge success by their abilities, assuming they must be bad at anything they have to work hard at. They want to get things right on the first attempt, and as such, often avoid new challenges.
Taking individualism too far, these imposters refuse to ask for help.
Such imposters feel they have tricked their employer into hiring them and fear being exposed.
They constantly undertake training to improve their skills and avoid applying for new roles unless they meet every criterion.
Combatting Imposter Syndrome
The first step in dealing with imposter syndrome is to acknowledge its presence and impact. Next, adopt countermeasures to deal with these thoughts and their limitations. The below ideas will help you get started.
- Record Your Success: Imposters often attribute their success to external factors such as luck or easy tasks, ignoring what they have achieved. Start a daily journal to note any success along with how your skills and expertise contributed to the outcomes. Record your strengths and legitimate areas for improvement. Ask your colleagues and managers for their input, and accept their insights as genuine and honest.
- Build Your Network: Get to know your work colleagues and build some high-quality relationships. This helps to reduce the sense of isolation often linked to imposter syndrome.
- Focus on Learning Instead of Performance: Focusing on performance only makes it difficult to deal with failures and criticism in a constructive manner. Instead, cultivate a learning mindset and view each mistake as an opportunity for growth, not proof of your incompetence. Fail upwards; reflect on what worked and what needs some attention.
- Invest in Your Physical and Emotional Health: Imposter syndrome takes a toll on physical and emotional health, including your energy levels, the ability to deal with negative experiences, and personal relationships. Try our physical and emotional energy audits to identify areas you need to work.
- Stop Comparisons: Comparisons with others is a commonly cited factor for imposter syndrome. Comparisons are subjective and unhelpful; everyone has experienced unique struggles and challenges unknown to those around them. Our online culture has compounded this effect as we often only see the curated, handpicked elements of a ‘perfect’ life. Without the right information, we compare our lows to someone else’s highs, ignoring the context and unseen factors. Pay attention to your own strengths and accomplishments, and if needed, reduce your time on social media sites.
- Forget Perfectionism: Renewed psychologist, Harriet Braiker wrote, ‘Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing’. Wise words worth considering. Instead of wasting time on elusive perfection, do the task to best of your ability for yourself and celebrate your successes.
- Take Action: As noted above, imposters become stuck in undesirable situations, as they are afraid to tackle new challenges. Continue taking action even when you feel doubtful and pursue your ambitions. You may not achieve all of your goals, but you will accomplish more than the imposter believes.