Is Imposter Syndrome a “thing”?
Imposter syndrome – the first time I heard this was when I started my first job. My boss said “we all feel imposter syndrome at some point, so do I.” I had a vague idea of what it was, but I didn’t know there was a name for it. I thought I didn’t have it because I believed, in fact, that I was an imposter. So surely this didn’t apply to me, because I don’t feel like I am an imposter but I actually am one? I’m not good enough!
What does imposter syndrome mean?
Since then, the term “imposter syndrome” has come up repeatedly in various trainings and seminars. People talk about it all the time in the corporate world. What is imposter syndrome though? The dictionary.com imposter syndrome definition is “anxiety or self-doubt that results from persistently undervaluing one’s competence and active role in achieving success, while falsely attributing one’s accomplishments to luck or other external forces”.
It basically means you don’t think you’re good enough. You feel like you are a fraud, you don’t know why are where you are or how you got there. I had this feeling since I was in university. It got even more pronounced when I started working. Five years ago, I finally got the job that I had wanted for so long and worked so hard for. But from Day 1 I felt like I didn’t deserve it and I had no business being there!
Do I have imposter syndrome?
Everyone else is way smarter than you, they went to much better schools.
You only got here because your cousin knew someone who knew someone.
They only hired you because of your connections and potential business opportunities.
They will find out any minute that you aren’t good enough to be here.
If you’ve had thoughts like this, then it is more likely than not that you have imposter syndrome!
These thoughts were a constant reel in my head, I would hear them over and over again. I felt so uncomfortable in my own skin. My imposter syndrome anxiety was through the roof. I would be waiting at my desk in fear. I was afraid of people asking me to do things I had never done before (which was pretty much every task because I was brand new!). Every day I would just wait. “Any minute now”. “Any minute now they will know I am a fraud and will kick me out.”
But you know what? That minute, that day never came. I progressed, completed my contract, did well in my appraisals and was offered a permanent contract. I eventually left my first job for another one, but I wasn’t fired or pushed out. My company bosses were actually unhappy that I was leaving. That must mean I wasn’t an imposter, right?
I started my next job feeling confident after I impressed my future bosses at interview. I felt like I deserved the new job and I was qualified for it. Once I started though, lo and behold, the same thoughts popped up in my head.
What can imposter syndrome do to you?
Together with work pressure, feeling out of my depth and my low confidence it finally became too much and everything boiled over. I had a breakdown and I was signed off from work for stress. I didn’t think I could do it and I didn’t think I was qualified for my job. After this episode, I decided to finally take back control of my life and mental health. I found a new therapist and found a psychiatrist to reevaluate the medication I was on.
I met 3 different therapists until I chose the one I am still currently seeing. This was almost two years ago. I think I can safely say it is the single best thing I’ve spent my money on. I started a long and difficult journey to get myself well again through therapy. I still struggle with my mental health and imposter syndrome, but therapy has taught me how to deal with it.
Imposter syndrome is very real and something I continue to fight every day. It’s hard to get it out of your head, it’s hard to build confidence. Imposter syndrome is thrown around so much people take it for granted, but the effects it has can be serious. Imposter syndrome stops many people from reaching their goals (not just in careers, but in life) and makes people doubt themselves constantly which leads to low self-esteem.
Is imposter syndrome worse in women than men?
Imposter syndrome is actually a lot more common than you think. Almost all my peers at work have expressed this feeling to me at one point or another. Scientifically, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on whether imposter syndrome does affect women more than men. Early research focused on women, but later studies showed that it affects both men and women. While imposter syndrome is shown to affect both men and women, some research shows that women are more susceptible to it.
Current working culture in companies makes the problem worse for women as there are so many barriers to career advancement in the workplace today. The organisation Lean In in a 2019 study found that only 38% of women are in management while men hold 62% of managerial roles.
The research also found that women of colour are even more susceptible to imposter syndrome. Black women and women with disabilities are worse off: they get less support and fewer opportunities to advance in their careers in comparison to other women.
An article in the Telegraph describes research undertaken by NatWest that showed men find it easier to work through imposter syndrome.
According to Clare Josa, author of Ditching Imposter Syndrome and a leadership consultant, men are more likely to push through the syndrome while women tend to give in to their self-doubt. This is backed by recent research from NatWest, as part of its #OwnYourImposter campaign, which showed that 60pc of women who have considered starting a business did not because of a lack of confidence, not feeling like the type of person who could start a business or feeling they did not deserve to succeed despite their skills. This is one of the reasons why just one-fifth of UK businesses are run by women.
As you can see, imposter syndrome is actually very real and has some serious long-term effects.
So, how do you overcome imposter syndrome?
In my opinion, from a corporate perspective, companies need to provide more education on imposter syndrome and they should try harder to make people feel comfortable in their positions. If you are a woman in a majority male working environment, you can easily feel isolated and out of place. There are ways to make people welcome and show them they are appreciated, and they deserve to be where they are.
This tweet sums it up well:
Organisations need to do better. Unfortunately, this kind of change will take years (if it ever happens). So we need to think about how we as individuals can overcome imposter syndrome and improve our professional lives.
There are many ways to cope with imposter syndrome. It’s important to figure out what works for you and develop that mechanism. Keep practicing your coping mechanisms, you will need to perform them repeatedly so that they work. There is no magic cure that will make it go away. I’ve been in therapy for about two years now and I am still struck with imposter syndrome regularly. What’s different now is how I deal with the thoughts when they pop up. I acknowledge them and know they are just thoughts and are not based on reality.
I remind myself of my achievements and how I got to where I am in the first place. I also think about other people: there are people who are much less qualified than me doing what I am doing. If they can do it so can I! There are certain political leaders in very powerful positions who, on paper, do not have the right qualifications but are where they are. I don’t know about you, but that gives me a little confidence.
The main action I have been taking is looking at myself objectively. Taking an objective approach helps me process my emotions better. I look at the issue on paper, does it make sense? I have studied for 7 years, I completed my qualifications and I was hired for this job, passed my probation and I am being paid. Are they just paying me as a favour? That doesn’t make any sense, on a rational level, does it?
I take a step back and observe my thoughts by thinking of these questions:
What is going on in my head right now?
Are these thoughts or facts?
What would I say if my friend were having these thoughts?
Once I start to think about these questions it helps bring me back to reality and helps me push my feelings to the side. It reduces my emotional reactions and I recognise the thoughts for what they are — just thoughts!
I also think to myself, so what if I’m underqualified? I guess I could fail, or I could disappoint because I’m not good enough, but so what? I’ll be able to find another job if it comes to that. I know that times are hard now and we are all nervous about job security. But if your performance is not under review why worry? I used to want to quit because I was scared of being fired (ridiculous, I know!), but I had to tell myself it makes no sense to give up my salary — why not keep being paid until they put me on notice? Try to look at your problem as a stranger would or imagine a friend of yours had this problem.
It’s also important to reach out and talk about your thoughts and feelings. You will find you are far from alone and you will be able to find a support network that will help you overcome your imposter syndrome. I always find comfort in talking to my colleagues because I realise that it’s normal to feel this way and that these thoughts are not true!
Have you experienced imposter syndrome before? How do you deal with it?