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Have you ever felt like you don’t belong in your job?
Do you ever feel that you don’t deserve your job or the accomplishments you’ve made?
Have you ever felt it could be a matter of time before your colleagues find out that you’re a fraud?
It could have been when you started a new role, when you received a promotion, or possibly at any point in your career. If so, you’re not alone.
When these thoughts become a nagging sense of self-doubt its known as imposter syndrome or more traditionally, imposter phenomenon . According to the International Journal of Behavioural Science, an estimated 70% of people experience these thoughts and feelings at some point in their lives. In fact, the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that up to 82% of people facing imposter syndrome struggle with the sense they haven’t earned what they’ve achieved. It is far more common than we realise and tends to be most prevalent in high-achieving individuals, they experience an ongoing fear that they will be “found out” or unmasked as being incompetent. More often than not, it is the idea that your success is because of luck, and not because of your qualifications or skills and people at any stage of their career can experience this. It is a tendency to discount or diminish the obvious evidence of our abilities and Dr Audrey Ervin, a clinical psychologist and academic director at Delaware Valley University said imposter syndrome can apply to anyone “who isn’t able to internalise and own their successes.”
The effects of this psychological phenomenon can vary and depend on the impacted individual. Dr Ami Rokach, clinical psychologist and instructor of psychology at York University in Toronto, co-authored a paper on imposter phenomenon and said “it is a spectrum, not binary.” The polarities of its effects can be likened to a flight or fight response. In some cases, imposter syndrome can be a catalyst for growth. By acknowledging that we don’t know everything, we’re opened up to new learning opportunities which often lead to positive contributions. Dr Rokach said “Just as high achievement can fuel impostor phenomenon in self-doubting people, imposter feelings can fuel high achievement, which would enhance one’s beliefs in his or her abilities and achievement.” On the other end of the spectrum, imposter syndrome can affect a person’s mental health and overall functioning, with the condition strongly linking to increased anxiety and depression. Imposter syndrome can affect a person’s sense of self-worth, happiness and professional progression.
There are a multitude of factors to consider as to why someone might experience imposter syndrome – from personality traits (such as perfectionism) to family background. Whilst the roots of this way of thinking are certainly worth exploring, the reasons are completely individualistic and a greater journey into self would be required to understand it on such a level. However, imposter syndrome expert, Dr Valerie Young, who is the author of a book on the subject, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, found patterns in people who experience this phenomenon and was able to identify five different ways imposter syndrome manifests itself.
- “Perfectionists” set extremely high expectations for themselves. Even if they met 99% of their goals, they will ultimately feel like they’ve failed and any small mistake will make them question their own competence. They set impossibly high standards for themselves and feel like they’ve failed when they don’t reach them.
- “Experts” want to know every piece of information before they start a project, they will constantly look for new trainings and certifications to upskill and they are hesitant to speak up in meetings at work because they’re afraid of looking like they don’t already know the answer. They expect to know everything and feel ashamed when they don’t. Research has shown women and people of diverse backgrounds tend to experience this the most.
- “Soloists” feel they have to complete tasks on their own and that they are a fraud if they have to ask for help. They feel they must accomplish their work alone and won’t take any credit if they received any kind of assistance.
- “Super Men/Women” feel they need to succeed in all aspects of their life and will feel stressed when they are not accomplishing something. They often push themselves to work harder than everyone around them to prove that they’re not imposters. They feel they should be able to excel at everything in their lives.
- The “Natural Genius” feels that when they struggle or work hard to accomplish something that they are not good enough. They are used to achieving things easily and when they have to put in effort, they feel like an imposter. They tell themselves that everything must be handled with ease, otherwise it’s not “natural talent.”
There is no quick fix to dealing with imposter syndrome, in fact it takes conscious effort and time. The first step to overcoming imposter syndrome is recognising it. By acknowledging the thoughts and feelings that come up, you become more self-aware and can start to address it. Try to observe the thoughts as opposed to engaging with them, by questioning whether the thoughts help or hinder you, can be a great way to help put them into perspective.
Valerie Young suggests recognising that people who don’t feel like imposters, are no more intelligent or capable than those that do. The only difference between the two is that they think different thoughts and suggests the power of reframing your way of thinking. Dr Ervin suggests we can categorise our thoughts and challenge their validity in order to alleviate ourselves of their burdens.
Based on the five archetypes of imposter syndrome there are also some techniques that can reframe your thinking and combat imposter syndrome. They can allow those experiencing it to become more self-aware and move through these, sometimes crippling thoughts and feelings.
- Challenge yourself to act before you’re ready: This is designed to push people out of their comfort zone but also to realise that there is never a “perfect time” to start or ask for something.
- Reframe your thinking around perfection and prioritise progress: This refocuses the attention to refining talent rather than expecting yourself to be an expert straight away.
- Take note of your accomplishments to see what you have achieved: By tracking your progress you can focus on what you have achieved rather than focusing on what you haven’t if you don’t reach the unachievable goals you set.
- Avoid unequal comparisons: Do not compare yourself with people who have more experience than you, it is natural they will know more and it is unfair to put that comparison on yourself.
- Recognise that you have the skills, regardless of your gender or race: By recognising that you have the skills to do the job it will empower you to focus on the task at hand.
- Engage your inner expert by mentoring or volunteering: You can impart your wisdom to those with less experience and knowledge than you and help them progress in their careers.
- Talk to people you trust: Sharing your experiences of imposter syndrome with someone you trust can be freeing, you no longer carry the heavy burden alone and it will feel less overwhelming. Talking with a trusted person can allow you to simply express how you feel or even could help find a solution.
- Pro-actively seek out opportunities to work with other people on projects: This is about stepping out of your comfort zone to address the fear head on, being witness to the range of skills others have to offer will open your eyes to the benefits of collaboration.
- Write down the people you have learnt from: This helps to recognise how others have helped you and that your skills are not just created internally.
- Failure is an opportunity to learn: Reframe your thinking around failure, it is an opportunity to discover how you can improve rather than the reason to be negative on yourself.
- Seek out those who have the same experience as you: By speaking with people who have experienced imposter syndrome, you can have genuine conversations around how to overcome it. In order to find these people, you need to be willing to accept and speak about it.
- Constructive criticism is not personal: By reframing your thinking around constructive criticism you have a positive opportunity to grow rather than a reason to think you’re not good enough.
- Understand that great achievement takes lifelong learning: Natural ability will only get you started, it is the seed to success and you won’t achieve much without a strong work ethic to follow it up.
- Recognise specific skills that you could improve: Facing this head on will instil humility and allow you to work on specific skills and build on your talents.
- Segment your tasks: By breaking your tasks into smaller, more achievable sub-tasks will make them more manageable.
The journey to overcome Imposter Syndrome does not happen overnight, by speaking to trusted people and embracing acknowledgement and acceptance you can start the work to help you grow from it.