Dealing with Impostor Syndrome

Have you ever felt a nagging self-doubt that you're not qualified for your new job or that you're undeserving of your success? Well, you're not alone. What you're experiencing (along with many others) is impostor syndrome. 

Impostor syndrome is a thought pattern where you doubt your own abilities and accomplishments, and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud or impostor. Even in the face of external evidence of your own competence, impostor feelings can be hard to shake-oftentimes misattributing their success to luck or feeling like they're being deceptive.

What does Impostor Syndrome look like?

Impostor syndrome was first identified in a 1978 article by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. Initially, they believed the impostor phenomenon was an experience uniquely observed in high-achieving women but in subsequent studies and papers have shown that both men and women experience it. It's been estimated that nearly 70% of individuals experience impostor feelings at least once in their life. They can occur in a variety of settings: professional, academic, relationships, social interactions, or simply in a new environment.

For some, these feelings of inadequacy may only be momentary but for others they can cause psychological distress and negatively affect their mental health. Impostor syndrome can take many forms:

  • Self-doubt

  • Being overly critical of your work

  • Inability to realistically assess your own competence

  • Attributing success to external factors

  • Overachieving

  • Self-sabotage

These can also be accompanied by anxiety, stress, and depression. 

What causes Impostor Syndrome?

Personality traits like anxiety and neuroticism can certainly contribute to impostorism, but so can environmental factors. Things like the circumstances we're raised in and institutional discrimination can significantly affect our experiences and perceptions. This story is played out prominently at the intersection of women and people of color. Female ethnic minority college students can encounter particularly insidious forms of racism and sexism.

Valerie Young, an author on the impostor phenomenon, says that a sense of belonging fosters confidence. "The more people who look or sound like you, the more confident you feel. And conversely, the fewer people who look or sound like you, it can and does for many people impact their confidence." To that end, it follows that impostor syndrome may be more prevalent among underrepresented demographics in academic or professional settings.

In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer, Young identifies several profiles of those who are likely to experience impostor feelings:

  • Perfectionists set high expectations and even small mistakes will make them question their own competence. Even when they accomplish 99% of their goals, they consider themselves a failure.

  • Experts want to know every piece of information before starting a project. They won't apply for a job if they don't meet all the criteria in the posting and often shy away from asking questions in meetings to avoid looking incompetent.

  • The Natural Genius is used to things coming easily. When they have to exert a lot of effort or hard work, they will see it as proof they're an impostor.

  • Soloists avoid asking for help because they think it means they're a fraud. They would rather complete a task on their own.

  • Supermen or superwomen are high achievers that feel a constant need to work harder and perform better than their peers. They have a deep fear of failure and feel stress if they're not accomplishing something.

How to manage your impostor feelings

In their original paper, Clance and Imes proposed a group meeting method where participants meet with others experiencing impostor syndrome to alleviate the feeling that we're alone in this. 

We don't all have that kind of immediate access to a group of strangers though, so what can we do to mitigate the impostor phenomenon?

Reframe your thinking

Instead of honing in on the worst case scenario, imagine yourself being successful and having a positive outcome. Easier said than done but really the only difference between those of us who do experience this and those who don't is how we respond to challenges. Rather than critically examining your self-worth, ask whether these self-defeating thoughts serve you.

Jot it down

In Clance and Imes' original study, participants wrote down instances of positive feedback they received, then were asked to recall why they received it and why they perceived it in a negative light. They were also asked to list everyone they felt they'd duped. Impostor feelings undercut the competence and intelligence of both the individual and the ones they feel they've tricked. This exercise can help us disrupt these self-defeating thought patterns and build self-confidence.

Confide with a close circle

Sharing what you're feeling with close friends and mentors can help to alleviate impostor feelings, especially if you perceive them to have more "experience." We're usually our worst critics and they'll be able to offer the validation that we don't trust coming from ourselves. A trusted confidante can also provide constructive criticism in a way that won't damage your self-esteem

We may never get rid of these insecurities entirely but being able to recognize impostor syndrome, and having a few techniques up our sleeve to mitigate it can powerfully transform the perceptions we have of ourselves.

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