In a world of high-achievers, Imposter Syndrome is much more common than you’d imagine, especially among the most successful. The resulting efforts to build confidence may only yield temporary results. Objectivity, not confidence, may be the solution – evaluating yourself realistically without relying on praise or criticism from others.
The tendency to doubt one’s capabilities and feel like a professional fraud is a term that is often affixed to women, though an article in the International Journal of Behavior Science reports an estimate that 70% of people have experienced it. What commonly starts as anxiety about fitting into a new culture, joining a new peer group, or navigating the unfamiliar can develop into full-on trauma that affects not only self-worth – but also net worth.
Who Discovered Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome disproportionately affects high-achieving people, who downplay their accomplishments and mistrust the sincerity of whatever praise comes their way. According to the Harvard Business Review, psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes originally focused on “imposter phenomenon” in their 1978 study involving successful women.
“Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise,” they stated. Their study led to decades of research and methods to address imposter syndrome in women, even those whose accomplishments are celebrated.
But why does imposter syndrome exist? How does the modern workplace undermine women and their success? Imposter syndrome today is considered an individual challenge to overcome. But historical and cultural aspects have allowed it, and we should be asking ourselves how to change the conditions that foster such misperceptions rather than change the condition of women’s minds.
What Are the Signs of Imposter Syndrome?
- You attribute your success to luck or external factors rather than your own merits.
- You fear that someone will discover your fraud
- You feel unworthy of positive feedback
- You are extremely sensitive to criticism of any kind
- You feel you're not (fill in the blank) enough
- You downplay your achievements and exaggerate your mistakes
- You set unrealistic goals and feel bad when you don’t achieve them
- You avoid new challenges You are a perfectionist You procrastinate or over-prepare
What Can Imposter Syndrome Lead to?
- Burning out
- Working harder to prove you are not a fraud
- Work dissatisfaction
- Declining performance
- Distrust of your own intuition
- Neediness and codependency
- Anxiety and depression
What Causes Imposter Syndrome?
"Many factors may contribute to impostor syndrome, including a genetic predisposition to issues with mood and emotion-regulation, high expectations from caregivers during childhood, high expectations of self and others, and low self-esteem," says Stephanie J. Wong, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist. Some experts cite external influences including early family experiences or social and cultural factors. Others blame it on internal issues such as inherent personality traits or mental health conditions.
The Biased Workplace
Women of color experience self-doubt and feeling like outsiders more acutely. Many feel they don’t belong in white- and male-dominated workplaces, and of the women surveyed by Working Mother Media, half of them plan to leave their jobs due to feelings of marginalization or disillusionment, also cited as a key factor in transitions from corporate jobs to become entrepreneurs. For women of color, seeds of doubt are fed by systemic bias and racism that stunt the ability to thrive.
Overcoming imposter syndrome means creating environments that foster different leadership styles and value diverse racial, ethnic, and gender identities as parts of the professional arena.
Feeling Unsure? That’s Normal.
Nervousness and anxiety, being unsure, and hesitancy to take risks are common, but the label Imposter Syndrome makes discomfort into a full-blown pathology – especially for professional women. While men typically feel less doubtful of their abilities when validation is received over time with an abundance of role models, a woman’s success is often couched in a tale of overcoming imposter syndrome in order to succeed – and the medical implications of the term “syndrome” unfortunately echo nineteenth century diagnoses of “female hysteria.”
Feeling uncertain is a normal part of professional life, and while feeling like an imposter can be caused by discrimination and abuses of power in the workplace, there are ways to insulator yourself from sliding into doubt even when all evidence says otherwise.
Confidence Is Not Competence
Does confidence equate with competence and leadership? Organizational psychologist Tomas Chamorro Premuzic thinks not: “The truth of the matter is that men tend to think that they are much smarter than women. Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent – the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group.”
The search for ways to build confidence may only yield temporary results. Objectivity, not confidence may be the better solution – the ability to evaluate yourself realistically without relying on praise or criticism from others.
To stay objective about your work, ask yourself:
- How do I define good work today?
- What did I do well today?
- What still needs to improve?
- Would feedback help?
Lean on your own thinking about your work. The more objective you become, the less likely you’ll be derailed. Imposters are more focused on appearances than the work itself. If you’re curious and committed to doing good work, you shouldn’t doubt that you belong in your role. You’ll know.
Focus less on accepting a kind word; work on actually internalizing it. Stop dismissing compliments and start fixating on them. When someone says something nice about you, start with one simple question: Why? Focus on the praise that feels connected to you personally. Say thanks, then ask for more details. “Can I ask what prompted you to say that?” “Do you have a specific memory or example?”
By the end of the conversation, they’ll have communicated their thoughts clearly and you’ll have hard evidence of being great at something that matters to you.