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Are you an imposter? What is imposter syndrome and how can you overcome it?
“They think I’m good at this. If they only knew -- I’m struggling to keep going!” “I was told that I produced a great video! OMG, I got so lucky it worked, this time. I literally was making up stuff on the spot.” “Any day now, they’re going to realize what a mistake they made in hiring me. I bet they’re already wondering.” “I’m such a fraud. What do I know? I shouldn’t be leading this team. Someone else is more qualified.”
How often do these thoughts cross your mind? For some of us--many of us--they occur quite often. When they do, they bring a cascade of emotions, most of them not helpful. These thoughts of being a fraud or having our enormous deficiencies exposed and the anxieties, insecurity, and dread that follow are all part of a phenomenon we know as “imposter syndrome.”
This article will define imposter syndrome, discuss the different ways imposter syndrome shows up in our lives, and explore ways to deal with imposter syndrome or feeling like a fraud.
Imposter syndrome is the condition of feeling anxious and not experiencing success internally, despite being high-performing in external, objective ways. Two clinical psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, first identified and named the phenomenon back in 1978.
With imposter syndrome, a person doesn’t feel confident or competent no matter what they achieve. They don’t experience the joy of success because they are always waiting for their inadequacy and fraud to come to light.
Although Clance and Imes originally defined imposter syndrome to describe a condition they observed in professional women, research shows that men and women can equally suffer from imposter syndrome.
But humility is good, right? It’s just realistic to acknowledge that we don’t know everything. The world does change quickly, and problems or situations we face might be more complex than we see at first. Yet, imposter syndrome is different from a healthy dose of caution of open mindedness.
Humility and caution stem from an accurate assessment of our own capabilities against a complex situation. Imposter syndrome, on the other hand, stems from a sense of inadequacy in the environment despite objectively being competent. You feel like you don’t belong in that situation at all.
Often people also feel a sense of time running out, and have a belief that they can’t keep going. They have been putting on an act and they can’t keep the act up much longer. This is despite all evidence to the contrary. Remember, the people having these thoughts and feelings often have achieved and overcome obstacles throughout their lives.
Many high achievers reach a point in their career where they feel like they are unable to keep going. Maybe they can’t go at the same rate as they have been on, and that feels shameful. The shame makes us suffer alone and in silence. In fact, we don’t tend to realize how many other people suffer from imposter syndrome because no one wants to admit it out loud.
Imposter syndrome is a cognitive distortion. We doubt our skills and accomplishments. We doubt others’ high regard for us. We doubt our own history and track-record.
Where does this doubt and distortion come from? It isn’t an official psychological condition and it has a variety of causes. Research has shown that for most people it comes from a combination of factors:
- Family environment. Growing up, parents or other family members might have put outsized emphasis on achievement or been overly critical.
- Social pressures. A person may be in a social circle or group where approval or worth seems to be explicitly connected to achievement.
- Sense of belonging. Part of imposter syndrome is the fear of being found out and cast out. Any circumstances, even in the past, that made a person feel different or excluded from the group--language, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, religion, or physical or learning differences--can fuel imposter syndrome. The person can carry that persistent sense of not belonging well after the original circumstance is resolved.
- Personality. Some people are going to be more prone to internalizing the feelings of pressure, doubt, and failure. Times of stress or transition, even unrelated to work, can make it worse.
The effects of imposter syndrome make it worth addressing. The feelings of inadequacy and anxiety can cause people to not seek out some challenges or opportunities that would let them grow and shine. They may not seek out or fully explore useful relationships at work or school. Even if they do, the internal struggle takes up a lot of energy. It can lead to frustration, lack of confidence, shame, and depression.
Left unchecked, imposter syndrome has a negative impact on a person’s relationships, work, and job- and life- satisfaction. The effects can be worse for women and underrepresented groups.
Imposter syndrome comes in many forms. Dr. Valerie Young defined five types in her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. We explore those types, plus a couple more, below. In reality, people may find themselves fitting more than one type over time. See if you recognize yourself in any of these patterns of thought and behavior.
Types of Imposters
The Perfectionist: As the name indicates, this type has to be sure everything gets done with perfection. Achieving an outcome or completing a task is never enough. This type is always hungry for more success, better outcome, and higher prestige.
Example: A manager who is always asking his direct reports for updates on the project progress. When he gets the progress, he’s constantly telling them how to improve their process and how the projects must be done every step of the way.
Underlying emotion: fear of losing control
The Superwoman/man: This type thrives in showing off their ability to take on a lot of work in a short period of time. They are willing to work overtime on their own time and even work on weeknights and weekends to achieve the validation of their colleagues and managers that they are capable of handling anything.
Example: An individual contributor who takes her job very seriously and offers her time and support to her colleagues. She goes out of her way to take on work even during holidays or scheduled time off. She is happy to do the work, even on her own time.
Underlying emotion: overwhelm of having free time
The Natural Genius: This type of imposter thrives on being so quick and slick in getting things done. They believe that they got it right the first time. Feedback cycles, critique, or rework is threatening--if they didn’t get it right, they failed. They put minimal effort into their work yet often succeed. This pattern of minimal effort and good results was likely there throughout their lives. They never had to put in the extra work--until they do.
Example: A new accountant who just graduated top of his class always found that the classwork came easily. He never had to spend late nights studying for anything. He gets into the workplace and feels overwhelmed with the expectations as he’s not always able to get his calculations according to his manager’s satisfaction. When his manager asks him to spend some time with his colleague to learn the process, he feels uncomfortable and insulted. He doesn’t need anyone to tell him how to do his work more than once.
Underlying emotion: shame of failing
The Soloist: Like the Natural Genius, this type is not interested in getting support from others to do their work. However, the soloist resents others altogether. The Soloist is NOT willing to ask for help, no matter what. Asking for help can leave them vulnerable and expose what they don’t know or can’t do.
Example: An HR Director has to present new organizational changes and reports to her C-suite. As the deadline approaches, she abruptly orders her team to gather up information in a specific way the C-suite wanted it. This creates some chaos for the team. She kept the information to herself until the last minute rather than sharing the requirements with her team because she thought that she would handle everything herself. Then she realized time was running out.
Underlying emotion: shame of failing
The Expert: “I must have all the credentials before I can even think of applying to this job.” This type of imposter feels the compulsive need to have all the knowledge and experience before even attempting the job. They may be critical of others around them who “work to learn” or take aspirational roles, while also not recognizing that certainty and having all of the answers isn’t expected. In a fast-changing environment, no one is an expert in what to do next.
Example: A scientist working on new drug discovery feels compelled to fully understand the results before sharing with the team. The experiment nears the end of its funding and timeline, and the scientist has not yet shared the progress updates. Team members are uncertain and become restless. Worse, two team members have relevant insights that could have built on the scientist’s results if they’d had a chance to work through them. Even more pressure is on the scientist now, because he is the expert in this process.
Underlying emotion: not enough
The Noticer: This type can’t be proud of their work or themselves because they immediately “notice” what isn’t right. Whether in a work product, a meeting, or in the clothes they wear, the Noticer is forgiving of others but doesn't extend the same grace to herself. When a tough project ends, the Noticer feels relief, more deflated than elated. This person is hyper-aware of the competition, real or imagined, and secretly believes that she will always miss the bar.
Example: An Account Manager works with her team to prepare a working session with the client. The team works hard on it for several days, and the manager spends every night making it better. Despite changing direction more than once, they ultimately create a workshop that the client loves. The team celebrates but the manager can’t stop thinking about where her presentation was awkward and how much more charisma and comfort the other project lead had.
Underlying emotion: don’t belong
The Discounter: The Discounter automatically rationalizes away evidence of their own competence, achievement, or high regard. “People think well of me because they really don’t know what they’re talking about.” This type of imposter doesn’t value or trust their network of supporters very much. They doubt the quality or level competition in any effort that they succeed at and are ashamed to share something that “anyone could have done.”
Example: A newly-promoted HR Director gives a well-received and engaging presentation on a planning process. Several peers congratulate him and thank him for making a formerly dreaded process more useful and relevant. Instead of feeling proud, he thinks about how no one values his group and how low their bar was--they were saying it was good, for HR.
Underlying emotion: not enough
Is this you?
You might be ...
|1. Have you been told that you micromanage?||The Perfectionist|
|2. Do you feel your work must always be perfect no matter the price?||The Perfectionist|
|3. Do you stay late in the office to get work done even when everyone else has left?||The Superwoman/man|
|4. Do you work on future projects to get ahead and not have a downtime?||The Superwoman/man|
|5. Do you reject work that you are not good at or that seems challenging?||The Natural Genius|
|6. Do you sometimes choose to not give something your best effort because you’re afraid that your best effort wouldn’t be good enough?||The Natural Genius|
|7. Are you uncomfortable when others see your work in process?||The Soloist|
|8. Do you resent offers of help or even status requests?||The Soloist|
|9. Do you feel shaky and restless when someone refers to you as an expert?||The Expert|
|10. Do you stick with what you know and make sure you know it best? Are you always in search of the next certificate/degree?||The Expert|
|11. Do you find it difficult to accept compliments and celebrate accomplishments?||The Noticer|
|12. Are you often in “self-improvement” mode but feel embarrassed to tell anyone else?||The Noticer|
|13. Do you answer a compliment with “Thanks, but…”?||The Discounter|
|14. Do you often think others are “just being nice”?||The Discounter|
|15. Do you often wonder how much longer you can keep up the Act?||All of them|
Note: If you’re a leader or manager, you might suspect that one of your team members or proteges suffers from imposter syndrome. For early warning signs to look out for and ways to help those who report to you, see this useful article.
The sense of “I can’t keep going” can be seen in the five types established by Dr. Young. The perfectionist can’t keep going unless he guarantees his work is perfect 100% of the time. The superwoman/man can’t keep going unless she has saved the world by hoarding all the work. The natural genius can’t keep going unless he completes the job right from the first time. The soloist can’t keep going unless she is able to do her work on her own without anyone’s support. The expert can’t keep going unless he has all the credentials and knowledge that equips him to get the job done.
No one can do those things all of the time. Trying to is exhausting. It depletes rather than energizes. Yet we can, and do, keep going.
How do we keep going when we hit that brick wall? And how do we regain some joy in the work and our accomplishments?
First, understand that imposter syndrome is a form of saboteur. You are not helpless against it. Don’t try to ignore it. Instead, tame it by acknowledging its presence and being aware of its impact on your body. The SBNRR technique (stop, breathe, notice, reflect, respond) technique can help you slow down and consider the situation--and your own thoughts, feelings, and reactions--more mindfully:
- Stop: allow yourself to stop in your tracks and take a moment to pause
- Breath: give yourself a deep breath and let your thoughts go and not be attached to them
- Notice: notice your feelings, your body, your surroundings, your peers, the situation, your reaction, and anything else that you can notice.
- Reassess: evaluate the situation and the reason you felt a need to fall into the imposter syndrome
- Respond: your reaction can be more informed now that you have calmed yourself a bit
Here are some other tips you can use when struggling with any version of feeling like an imposter:
- Understand the voice. The Positive Intelligence assessment can help reveal the different saboteur voices that keeps you from advancing.
- Assess the evidence. Making a simple 2-column list--on one side, “Evidence that I am inadequate” and on the other side, “Evidence that I am competent”--can help bring perspective.
- Refocus on values. Take your focus away from outward signs of success or achievement and remind yourself of what really matters to you.
- Reframe around growth. Life, and a career, is a journey. You can’t grow, learn, or make progress without stretching yourself.
- Get out of your head. Ruminating, a pattern of circling thoughts, goes hand-in-hand with imposter syndrome. Find someone to talk to or write down your fears--they are less powerful when they aren’t circling.
- Practice self-compassion. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling like a fraud. Now that you understand where the doubt and inadequacy comes from, give yourself credit for how far you’ve come
- Be kind to yourself. You are a human and humans make mistakes. You will, too
- Keep failure in perspective. Instead of focusing on failure in the abstract, take time to write down the likely outcomes if some part of your effort fails. Rarely is it the end of the world.
- Practice mindfulness. Use the SBNRR technique to pause and re-evaluate.
- Seek trusted feedback from your network. Make a practice of periodically getting feedback from people you trust and respect. Knowing that you have a source of meaningful feedback can help you let go of wondering what everyone else is thinking of you.