Impostor Syndrome: What it is, Why it Matters

By Cathy Milton.

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. Recently, 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 an 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 of McMaster 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.

Additional Resources

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

Thinking Your Way Out of Impostor Syndrome–a TED Talk by Dr. Valerie Young

Activating Potential: How to Apply Mindset Tools to Empower Your Clients–the first in a series of CERIC–CPC partner webinars

Photo by Leandro DeCarvalho on Pixabay

Comments

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

    • Thank you, Gayle. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the information found in the links. I found it extraordinary that Dr. Valerie Young has based her entire practice around the topic of Impostor Syndrome. Clearly it’s a common, but complex, issue.

  2. 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.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Adrienne. You’re so right about the benefit of talking to others about feelings of Impostor Syndrome. You probably noted that in Dr. Young’s list of strategies for combating IS, talking about it takes the #1 spot. My research for this article revealed that many other experts strongly support that strategy, too.

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