Impostor Syndrome: What it is, Why it Matters

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I live in the bush. I’m not joking. Anywhere I need to go is — at minimum — a 45-minute drive one way. This means that I spend a lot of time driving and while I’m driving I like to listen to CBC radio. On one of my drives, I heard an interesting show about Impostor Syndrome. The people who shared their stories were from all walks of life, but the one thing they had in common was that they felt different from the way they were perceived by others. The show made me curious about Impostor Syndrome and how it might impact careers.

What is Impostor Syndrome?

 As defined by psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen in her article published in Scientific American.com:

“Impostor Syndrome is a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It strikes smart, successful individuals. It often rears its head after an especially notable accomplishment, like admission to a prestigious university, public acclaim, winning an award, or earning a promotion.

Impostor Syndrome doesn’t discriminate. People of every demographic suffer from feeling like a fraud, though minorities and women are hardest-hit.”

I also discovered a lot of material written by Dr. Valerie Young, an internationally recognized expert on the topic of Impostor Syndrome. In fact, her website is titled ImpostorSyndrome.com

You might enjoy reading Dr. Young’s article where she unpacks Michelle Obama’s admission of feelings of Impostor Syndrome. The topic came up during a talk Mrs. Obama gave to students of an all-girls school in London, England, in December 2018. She had been asked how she felt about being viewed as a “symbol of hope.”

What forms can Impostor Syndrome take?

In TheMuse.com, an article by Melody Wilding draws on Dr. Young’s research which describes five different categories of Impostor Syndrome. You can read expanded descriptions of the five types in the article, but they are labeled:

  • The Perfectionist
  • The Superwoman/man
  • The Natural Genius
  • The Soloist
  • The Expert

What are the downsides of Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor Syndrome is especially common among high-achieving people. In 2016, a group of German researchers surveyed 242 people in leadership positions across a variety of industries to learn more about the effects of Impostor Syndrome.

The study found that the effects of Impostor Syndrome are:

  • Anxiety
  • Dysphoric moods
  • Emotional instability
  • Negative self-evaluations
  • Perfectionism

In the study, people with Impostor Syndrome reported being more stressed out about their work. They also tended to procrastinate more and to be more perfectionistic.

The bottom line is that Imposter Syndrome has real consequences in terms of how individuals feel and how they act.

Is there any upside?

Yes! There can be positives that come out of Impostor Syndrome.

Dr. Barbara Oakley , professor of engineering at Oakland University, describes how her own Impostor Syndrome is her “career superpower.

“As I’ve grown older, I’ve gone through more than my fair share of careers — Captain in the army, Russian translator, radio operator at the South Pole Station in Antarctica, electrical engineer, professor of engineering. Every single new job has started with me feeling like an impostor. I’ve worked through it — embracing it. That feeling has kept me open, listening, and learning with a beginner’s mind.

One of the biggest problems I’ve observed in people starting new jobs and making substantive changes in their careers is not the lack of confidence that comes with feeling like an impostor. It’s overconfidence. Time after time, I’ve noticed that the uncertain ones who watch, listen, and grow with the job are the ones who succeed. But the people who land with confident self-certitude? Not so much. They’re too convinced of their own abilities to be open to learning and adjusting.

After a lifetime of career change, if I’ve discovered one important tool for success, it’s this: Embrace your inner impostor, so you can waltz toward new challenges that, in the beginning, feel beyond your abilities. You’ll be glad you did.”

Can Impostor Syndrome be overcome?

Dr. Young has a developed a list of strategies for helping to break the cycle of Impostor Syndrome. You can read about the steps in more detail on her website, but, as a synopsis, here is the list:

  1. Break the silence. When you talk to others about your feelings of Impostor Syndrome, you’ll discover you’re not alone.
  2. Separate feelings from fact. We all mess up on occasion, but realize that just because you may feel incompetent, it doesn’t mean you are.
  3. Recognize that there are situations when you should feel fraudulent.
  4. Accentuate the positive.
  5. Develop a new response to failure and mistake-making.
  6. Right misguided rules that make you feel you must be perfect in all things.
  7. Develop a new, positive script for yourself, reinforcing the knowledge that you’re smart enough to learn what you need to know in unfamiliar situations.
  8. Visualize success.
  9. Reward yourself. Instead of seeking validation from others, learn to pat yourself on the back.
  10. Fake it ‘til you make it. We all have to fly by the seat of our pants sometime, but courage comes from taking risks. Put yourself out there and allow your confidence to build.

How Impostor Syndrome impacts career development.

Here are just a few examples of how Impostor Syndrome — no matter what variety — can impact a person’s work and career development:

  • If you’re a student who is just starting to look for jobs, you may not apply for jobs you’re qualified for because you don’t believe you’re good enough.
  • If you’re an employee who is capable of advancement within your company, you may not apply for higher-level jobs because you don’t think you have what it takes.
  • You may struggle with your leadership skills because you don’t think you’re qualified enough to lead, and instead, you just follow the crowd.
  • If you feel like you don’t belong and don’t deserve your job and accomplishments, you may start viewing your colleagues as significantly more worthy than yourself.
  • You may even become your own worst enemy and overwork yourself just to prove that you deserve your job, promotion, or salary.

In other words, people may sabotage their own careers by turning down a promotion for fear that they don’t deserve it, overworking and decreasing the quality of their work, or by passing on positions they’re qualified for because of a belief that they’re not good enough.

How can career professionals help clients with Impostor Syndrome?

  • Reinforce that the client’s feelings are natural and not uncommon, and that its useful to talk openly about them.
  • Encourage the client to regularly review his or her accomplishments. Writing them down helps.
  • Work with your client to develop a positive script to be used — internally, and with others — to create a confident, engaged persona on the job.
  • Recommend that your client regularly ask for feedback so that they can receive evidence of the value he or she delivers on the job. The more positive feedback received, the more the client may internalize it.

To support your clients even further, enrol in CPC’s upcoming Employment Interview Coaching certificate course. In this fully-facilitated, part-time 3-week online course, you’ll learn how to develop innovative, strategic plans to help your clients — even those with Impostor Syndrome — gain confidence and present themselves for interviews in the most effective way. You will help clients achieve positive outcomes before, during, and after employment interviews.

Additional Resources

Impostors — an episode of the CBC radio show “Out in the Open”

Thinking Your Way Out of Imposter Syndrome — a TED Talk by Dr. Valerie Young

Lifting the Curtain on Imposter SyndromeElana Sures, The British Columbia Association of Clinical Counsellors

Cathy Milton, after a long career in the telecommunications industry, embarked on the path to becoming a résumé writer. She has been a member of CPC for 10 years now, and has earned the CRS, CIS, CCS, and CES designations. Cathy is an advisor for CPC and the organization’s Communications Manager. She is an avid sailer, a fairly decent cook, and active “pack member” in her pet menagerie.

Photo by Leandro DeCarvalho on Pixabay

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Great read Cathy. I plan to read more in the links you provided in this well written piece.

Fabulous article on this important topic Cathy, thank you. I often speak with peers about this topic. Knowing that others experience it too from time to time is a bit help for us all.

45 minutes in the car x 2 is a long time. Good thing you can listen to interesting CBC programs Cathy! I appreciated reading this article and found the strategies to overcome imposter syndrome really helpful. Thank you.

Last edited 2 months ago by Barb Penney

Imposter syndrome is something I’ve grappled with often, especially after mustering the courage to leave a cushy job with the airlines and start my own business. I really enjoyed this incredibly informative article and your lovely writing style. Thank you so much for taking the time to write it.

Thank you for your comments, Lynn! I’m happy to know that you got some take-aways from the article.

Thank you for this great article, Cathy. It hits close to home. Like Adrienne, I appreciate knowing that many others experience it too. It’s helpful that you mentioned the upside and offered many practical tips for job seekers and career development practitioners.

Thanks for reading, Ksenia! Yes, the “upside” of Impostor Syndrome really resonated with me, too. I really liked how Dr. Oakley turned her personal feeling of Impostor Syndrome on its head and made it her “career superpower.” Like her, I have observed that those who are willing to embrace their uncertainty, and learn and grow from it, often have happier and more successful careers than those who launch themselves into a new venture believing they are experts who know everything-there-is-to-know-about-everything.

I recently came across an interesting article titled “Successful Careers: A Matter of Confidence.” Although the article focuses on academic careers, I think that the observations can really be applied to any work scenario. I laughed out loud at this great line: “An appropriate level of self-confidence comes from maintaining a sincere relationship with reality.” ?

I noticed this interesting article was authored in 2012. It’s SO relevant today and contains more helpful strategies to build confidence. Thank you for sharing!

I know, Barb! I was surprised by the date on that article, too. Although I’ve only been familiar with the phrase “impostor syndrome” for a few years, it’s obviously been “a thing” for a long time.

Hi Cathy,
This is a fabulous article! Thank you for the effort you put into this. It is very informative.
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Last edited 2 months ago by Lotte Struwing