What is imposter syndrome and how can we overcome it?

Photo credit: Katie Wilde - Getty Images
Photo credit: Katie Wilde - Getty Images

Imposter syndrome is a phrase most of us will be familiar with. It’s used frequently to describe feelings of not being good enough or up to a task or scenario, often within the workplace, but in social settings, too. It was first coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who explored imposter syndrome in “high achieving women” (Clance has since acknowledged it’s not only women who are affected) and now, an estimated 70% of people experience imposter feelings at some point, according to an article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science. But what is imposter syndrome? And is there an imposter syndrome test or set of criteria you can look through to identify whether you’re struggling with it? Getting to grips with these questions can help you to, in turn, take control over imposter syndrome and – hopefully – banish it from your life.

What is imposter syndrome at work?

“Imposter syndrome at work is when a person holds the distorted belief that they are not worthy of success or as capable as people think they are, despite there being evidence to the contrary,” explains Satpal Kaur-Thompson, a Psychotherapist with experience helping people with workplace issues like stress and low self-esteem. “They fear being discovered as a ‘fraud’ as their self-doubt and overwhelming feelings of ‘not being good enough’, shame and inadequacy convince them that their achievements are down to luck or external factors, rather than talent, ability, hard work or effort.

“They typically minimise, or in some cases, completely disregard, any acknowledgement or validation they receive as their mind struggles to accept a positive and realistic assessment of their performance. Instead, they are wedded to the belief that they are defective in some way and do not deserve their accomplishments,” Kaur-Thompson adds.

Imposter syndrome can manifest in various ways, according to Kaur-Thompson, including:

  • Leading us to approach our professional lives with a survival mentality, rather than enabling us to thrive and reach our full potential.

  • Preventing us from sharing ideas, contributing to meetings, taking on new responsibilities or embracing new opportunities (e.g. promotion), because of a lack of confidence.

  • Feeling alone and isolated. (In reality, imposter syndrome is very common).

  • Less effective work relationships and team camaraderie as a result of feelings of isolation causing people to internalise their anxieties and vulnerabilities.

  • Perfectionism at work, as an individual may drive themselves to reach impossible standards, putting themselves under immense pressure (which could result in burnout) in order to avoid being exposed as an ‘imposter’.

  • A lower self esteem which may hinder or disrupt a person’s natural career growth and progression.

  • In some cases, physical ailments or unhealthy coping strategies.

These manifestations can become all-consuming, as was the case for Safiya Lambie-Knight, Lead, Artist and Label Partnerships UK&IE at Spotify.

“I didn’t know what ‘imposter syndrome’ was until it affected me, but when I did experience it in the workplace, I had an overwhelming sense that I was doing everything wrong and that I didn’t deserve the job that I had been given. It [also] affected my ability to make decisions in aspects of my life beyond the workplace. Even getting out of bed to go into work was a real struggle,” Lambie-Knight says.

Imposter syndrome test

Pauline Rose Clance, the psychologist who originally put a definition to the idea of imposter syndrome, created an imposter syndrome test which you can access online. This involves answering a series of questions with numbers on a scale, then adding up your tally to find out whether you have few or frequent imposter characteristics.

There are other questions you can ask of yourself to identify whether or not you’re experiencing imposter syndrome. From her experience working with clients, Kaur-Thompson notes there tend to be three key defining features:

  • An internal sense of inadequacy and persistent and pervasive feelings of shame and self-doubt.

  • Attributing your achievements and accolades to external factors, rather than your own abilities and efforts, despite evidence that suggests otherwise.

  • A fear that your cover will be blown, and you will be exposed for being a fraud as you do not believe you are ‘good enough’ or up to the job.

Why does imposter syndrome happen?

There are many factors that can lead to imposter syndrome occurring at work, including being a person from a marginalised group in a space that doesn't feel inclusive. This means that the issue can be particularly difficult for women of colour.

When she was struggling with imposter syndrome, Lambie-Knight encountered that problem. “I was working in an environment where there was no one who looked like me as a Black woman and dealing with the weight of that was, in itself, incredibly hard. Specific situations and events can still be triggering for me,” she says.

As Kaur-Thompson notes: “A person’s temperament may contribute to imposter syndrome, although, often it can be traced back to the environment an individual grew up in and the expectations placed upon them, along with other contextual factors, such as societal expectations, culture, or schooling, for example."

If you're someone with perfectionist tendencies, it could link to imposter feelings.

“Often those who experience imposter syndrome were raised in families, where love, worth or attention could not simply be taken for granted, rather they were conditional or dependent on achievement. In turn, the child internalised the belief that they were not ‘good enough’ and coped with this belief by trying to be ‘perfect’ in order to get approval and not be rejected. Later in life, the adult may be unconsciously drawn to high-achieving professions or certain work environments that reinforce and perpetuate these beliefs,” Kaur-Thompson adds.

Insecurities can arise as a result of new, challenging experiences at work, too.

“In some instances, feelings of insecurity in our abilities may also arise as a result of a transitional experience such as getting a promotion or securing a new role, particularly if we move to a new work environment. We may begin to question our capability as a result of the change, which can in turn affect our self-confidence,” Kaur-Thompson says.

Photo credit: Katie Wilde  - Getty Images
Photo credit: Katie Wilde - Getty Images

Imposter syndrome: How to overcome it

Even though imposter syndrome can be incredibly difficult, it’s not impossible to overcome and it shouldn’t define us. The first, crucial, step on the right track is to speak about your experience and listen to other people’s accounts of imposter syndrome. This will help with feeling less alone and normalising what’s going on.

“When I identified that I needed to get help I spoke to a therapist and, by talking through things with her, I was better able to identify what was wrong and, more importantly, that it was something that I could fix,” says Lambie-Knight. “Eventually, when I did speak up, I realised that a surprising amount of other people felt exactly the same way as I did. This gave me the space to talk about imposter syndrome with people I trusted.”

“Talking about your feelings about imposter syndrome can really help to manage your anxieties and provide relief from the self-doubt that you may be plagued by. As it is typically based on feelings of not being good enough and shame about oneself, sharing our feelings and expressing our vulnerabilities can loosen the hold such feelings have over us,” Kaur-Thompson says. “You do not have to suffer in silence and often the thought of making ourselves vulnerable is far scarier than the reality – it requires us to take the step of getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. However, it is important that when sharing your feelings, it is done with people whom you have an established level of trust and emotional safety.”

It’s also important to retrain your inner voice to accept praise and to recognise your accomplishments and skill.

“Try to realistically assess your knowledge, abilities and accomplishments to help reframe your thinking so that success can be accurately attributed to hard work and talent. Allow yourself to hear and receive praise and positive feedback, rather than discounting it. Consciously, take a step back, before your inner critic takes hold and make both a mental and physical note of the feedback. Then, revisit this over, and over, and over again, until you start to notice your mind acknowledging your achievements in a more balanced way and you feel your confidence start to grow,” Kaur-Thompson advises.

There are lots of resources out there, from podcasts and TED Talks to books that can help you on your journey to overcoming imposter syndrome.

“Building resilience and coping strategies by listening to others and learning from them is incredibly powerful,” says Lambie-Knight. “I read a number of books and listened to some podcasts that helped me immensely with decision-making and mindfulness. My current favourite is Oprah’s Super Soul podcast.”

It’s worth remembering that, because imposter feelings are often deeply ingrained, speaking to a professional can be very helpful.

“Feelings and beliefs about being an ‘imposter’ have often been reinforced over several years and can be hard to shake off. To address the root cause, it can be helpful to seek support from a counsellor or psychotherapist [who can help you] challenge your deeply ingrained beliefs in a supportive and compassionate way,” advises Kaur-Thompson.

Satpal Kaur-Thompson is a UKCP and BACP registered Psychotherapist. She completed her Masters degree in Integrative Psychotherapy with the Metanoia Institute and has a successful private practice, where she offers both face-to-face and online therapy. Satpal combines her extensive HR and Learning and Development expertise with her in-depth psychotherapy knowledge and skills, to help bring about lasting change for individuals.

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