Most of us have experienced it.
You might think that it’s a fluke you passed that big exam. You might believe you only clinched that job because you exaggerated your achievements. Or maybe you always felt out of place at university — like you never truly belonged.
The reality is often there isn’t any truth in these worries. Chances are you’re pretty good at your job and you excel in class. But your mind tricks you otherwise. Instead of patting yourself on the back for your successes, you’ve convinced yourself that you’re a fraud and a phoney.
Worse of all, you feel riddled with guilt because, at any given moment, you might be exposed as an imposter.
If any of this sounds familiar, you’re in good company (or perhaps not so good). Because you might be struggling with imposter syndrome.
What is imposter syndrome?
To put it simply, imposter syndrome is the experience of feeling like a fake or a fraud. It’s the idea that you’ve succeeded, not because of your talent or qualifications, but simply through dumb luck.
If it resonates with you, you’re not alone. Around 70% of people have experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their lives, according to the International Journal of Behavioural Science. However, the term was first coined in the ‘70s by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance.
As part of their research, Imes and Clance interviewed 150 high-achieving women and they found that, despite their long list of experience and accomplishments, many women believed that they didn’t deserve their success.
Imposter syndrome isn’t an experience that is limited to women, though. Whilst early research focused on high-achieving women, the phenomenon has been found to impact men and women in roughly equal numbers.
It can affect people from all walks of life too. Numerous celebrities have raised their hands and admitted that they too struggle with imposter syndrome — from Nobel Prize-winning scientist Albert Einstein to three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep. This goes to show that even household names can feel like a fraud sometimes.
Although these famous faces were able to fulfil their potential despite their self-doubts, this isn’t the case for all of us though. For some people, this nagging inner voice can be a big hindrance.
It can hold them back from living an authentic, fulfilling life — and that’s why imposter syndrome isn’t something to ignore.
Signs you’re experiencing imposter syndrome at work
People at all levels (yes, even C-level executives) can experience imposter syndrome.
Here are some common signs you may be dealing with imposter syndrome:
- You are plagued with self-doubt and downplay your accomplishments.
- You have a fear of being “found out” or being exposed as inexperienced or untalented.
- You’re unable to realistically assess your skills.
- You agonise over small mistakes or flaws in your work.
- You set very challenging goals and berate yourself when you fall short.
- You may be an overachiever.
- You may overwork yourself to the point of burnout.
- You struggle to start or finish projects.
- You’re very sensitive to even constructive criticism.
- You don’t like to ask for help.
What causes imposter syndrome?
There’s no sole reason why we experience imposter syndrome. Entering a new role might trigger it — for instance, if you’re starting university or a new job. And now that many of us are working from home, you may have found that imposter syndrome has reared its head because you don’t get as much feedback and praise.
But more often than not, it can be traced back to childhood.. That’s because, the way we feel about ourselves now is closely connected to our past feelings and experiences.
Let’s say you grew up in a family environment that emphasised achievement and pressured you to always “be the best”. Maybe they flitted back and forth between praising you (when you achieved something) and criticising you (when you didn’t). This can lead to an insecure sense of self, where you think of yourself as vulnerable or inferior in some way.
As you got older, you might have found that you were laser-focused on outward achievements. Because you felt the need to prove your worth.
Elsewhere, you might have chosen high-pressure work environments where you never felt like you were “good enough”. Or perhaps you did the complete opposite: maybe you procrastinated and never took risks because you were worried that — if you do put yourself out there and be vulnerable — you’d only fail.
When you’re grappling with imposter syndrome, it can feel like the bar was set too high for you. You might believe that you’re a failure because you always fall short. But, the truth is, you set the bar too high for anyone to realistically achieve. And now, you’re chastising yourself for not being able to do the impossible.
How to deal with imposter syndrome at work
Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom. It is possible to unravel where this feeling stems from and overcome your imposter syndrome.
Here are just a few ways you can tackle it at work.
Acknowledge your thoughts — and then challenge them
Here’s the thing about thoughts: sometimes they aren’t even true or based on fact. You might tell yourself that you’re “not charismatic enough” to get that job promotion. Or maybe you tell yourself that you shouldn’t deliver the sales pitch because you’ll only “mess it up”.
Odds are this isn’t true. You’re simply jumping to the worst-case scenario. Psychologists call these thinking traps or cognitive distortions. They cloud your judgement and prevent you from seeing things as they really are. But, thankfully, it’s possible to overcome them.
The first step is to acknowledge these thoughts and put them into perspective. Try to observe the thought, rather than engage with it.
Then, when you’re ready, try to critically question these feelings. Ask yourself if these thoughts are really true? Could there be any other explanations? Would your friends and family agree? And, most importantly, does this thought help or hinder me?
If this seems tough, remember that hiring managers aren’t fools. You got the job because you have the skills to do the work. The company believes in you, otherwise, you wouldn’t be there.
Share your feelings
It can be horrible when you have irrational worries swirling around your mind. But these unfounded thoughts can fester when they’re hidden and not talked about. That’s why it’s helpful to speak to a close work colleague or mentor and let them know how you’re feeling.
They can reassure you that you’re doing okay, and what you’re experiencing is normal. Hearing someone validate your emotions and share their own experiences, may make things seem less scary.
Get comfortable with feedback (and criticism)
Don’t wait for an annual performance review. Check in with your manager and ask for feedback on what you’ve done well and where you can improve in your job.
Not only will they appreciate that you’re inquisitive and keen to grow, but it’ll also make you less afraid to ask for help if you’re unsure how to tackle an assignment.
If they do highlight an area where you could improve, don’t fret. Mistakes are a part of life and they help you learn. No one is expecting you to be perfect on your first-try at everything.
You probably don’t hold your peers to these high standards so don’t be so hard on yourself. Complete your assignments as best as you can, and take a moment to appreciate the fruits of your labour.
Stop comparing yourself
Sometimes comparison can be useful. If a mentor inspires you, you might look to them as a blueprint for success. But, more often than not, we use comparison as a way to pick ourselves apart and zero in on all our pitfalls.
Next time you speak to a colleague about their achievements, take a moment to check in with yourself. Do you feel a stabbing feeling of jealousy and inadequacy? Rather than seeing how their achievements stack up to yours, try to be genuinely interested in learning more about them.
Simply be happy for them. Instead of questioning “Why haven’t I done that?’, reframe your mindset and think “Good for them”.
In a similar vein, it may be worth curbing your social media use. We all know that overusing social media can tarnish our self-esteem and make us feel bad ourselves.
So, try to remind yourself that what people post on social media isn’t necessarily “real life”. It’s often the best bits that we deem most “perfect”.
Keep a record of your achievements
Let’s face it: when you’ve got piling deadlines and an overflowing inbox, it’s easy to lose sight of the little victories. That’s why it’s useful to write down a list of your accomplishments and successes. Taking time to celebrate your wins will not only boost your self-esteem, but it might help you realise that you have a unique skill set that not many people share.
Another way to ward off imposter syndrome is to keep a work journal where you write down any positive feedback you receive. On bad days, it will serve as a reminder that you’re qualified and capable of your job.
Go to therapy
Sometimes, our feelings of imposter syndrome can be so deep-rooted that it might seem like we’ll feel like an imposter forever. But it is possible to overcome these feelings of inadequacy — and, the good news is, you don’t have to do it alone.
Many people find therapy a useful antidote to imposter syndrome. In your session, a psychologist will help you pinpoint where your imposter syndrome stems from, and teach you strategies to help you cope with it, and gradually overcome it once and for all.
Therapies such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) may be particularly useful if you tend to slip into unhelpful thinking patterns. Or, if your feelings of inadequacy stem from your early childhood experiences, Schema Therapy may be the right route for you.
Whatever you decide, you don’t have to let imposter syndrome get in your way any longer. Now is your time to shine.