Everything You Need to Know About Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome

Everything You Need to Know About Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is the experience of feeling like an imposter or fraud and that achievements are undeserved or achieved by luck alone. Typically imposter syndrome is experienced by high achievers who excel at their work but feel inadequate despite evidence to the contrary. 

Recognition of imposter syndrome dates back to the 1970s. It was initially recognized in high achieving women, who, despite being successful, were worried about being seen as intellectual frauds. They also suffered from anxiety, extreme fear of failure and experienced some overall dissatisfaction with life. At the time, some hypothesized this to result from women comparing themselves to men. But we now know that every type of person experiences imposter syndrome. 

Characteristics 

Imposter syndrome is not one size fits all. Some common signs include;

  • Overachieving 
  • Self-doubt
  • Inability to accurately assess personal skills 
  • Attributing success to external factors, such as luck
  • Disappointed about current successes
  • Fear of not living up to personal expectations
  • Setting high expectations or goals and feeling disappointed when they aren’t achieved
  • Sabotaging success 
  • Criticizing performance
  • Feeling uncomfortable with praise or recognition 
  • Feeling stress, anxiety, and depression as a result of feelings of inadequacy 

Do You Experience Imposter Syndrome? 

Do you have thoughts of being a fraud? Think you experience imposter syndrome? Is it negatively impacting your mental health or achievement? 

Ask yourself the following questions to determine if you may be experiencing imposter syndrome:

  • Do you downplay your expertise or second guess yourself in areas where you’re an expert?
  • When you achieve something, do you feel lucky?
  • Do you agonize over small mistakes at work? 
  • Do you worry that people, especially coworkers, will find out that you’re a fraud? 
  • Are you sensitive to criticism, even when it’s constructive?
  • Do you attribute your achievement to outside factors?
  • Do you feel like your work needs to be perfect all the time?
  • Are you working harder or longer than your coworkers?

Imposter syndrome can also be divided into five common subtypes. If you’re still unsure if you experience imposter syndrome think about if you identify with these categories. 

5 Subtypes of Imposter Syndrome

Perfectionist 

Perfectionists tend to set very high expectations for themselves and are rarely satisfied with their performance. Even if they achieve most of their goals, they still feel like a failure and fixate on their flaws or mistakes. 

This tends to lead to feeling a lot of pressure and high levels of anxiety. Success often doesn’t feel satisfying because they feel they could have done better. 

Expert

The expert tends to always want to continue learning. They’re generally unsatisfied with their level of knowledge and want to know every piece of information before beginning a project. Even though they are usually very skilled, they don’t believe in themselves or their skill and underrate their level of expertise. 

Often, ‘ experts’ won’t apply for jobs unless they fit every single qualification. They also tend not to speak up or give their opinion because they are worried about looking stupid. 

Superhero

Super Heroes tend to push themselves to work as hard as possible due to their feelings of inadequacy. They tend to feel that working harder may prove to others that they’re not an imposter. 

This often looks like a ‘workaholic’. 

Natural Genius

A ‘natural genius’ tends to be naturally intelligent and succeeded in school at a young age. As adults, when they struggle or have to work hard to accomplish something, they see this as a sign of failure. This failure makes them believe they were an imposter all along. They also set lofty goals for themselves and are devastated when they don’t accomplish them on their first attempt. 

Soloist

Soloists are people who overvalue individualism and tend to work alone as a result. They tend to reject support from others. They also feel that needing support or asking for help is a failure or a sign of incompetence. 

Why We Experience Imposter Syndrome – Causes of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is not an official diagnosis according to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-V), but it can cause a significant amount of distress. The exact cause of imposter syndrome is unknown. Although anyone can experience imposter syndrome, a few factors may increase a person’s risk of developing imposter syndrome. These include:

  • Family Environment: Many family environments can lead to developing imposter syndrome later in life. Children who live in a household where high expectations are placed on them, successes are not celebrated, and mistakes are punished harshly, for example. Additionally, those who are ‘gifted’ or find it easy to perform well as a child may experience doubts (natural genius). The sibling(s) that grow up with a gifted child may also internalize feelings of inadequacy that aren’t justified. 
  • Existing Mental Health Conditions: Those who are diagnosed with anxiety and depression often experience imposter syndrome.
  • New Challenges: Imposter syndrome often arises during life transitions where expectations may change, for example, graduating from university, getting a new job, or getting a promotion. It’s common to feel undeserving or fear that you will not perform adequately or are simply unprepared. 

Negative Mental Health Impacts of Imposter Syndrome

Regular feelings of feel doubt and inadequacy, increased pressure and expectations, and never being proud of oneself can lead a person to experience other mental health symptoms. 

It’s common for imposter syndrome to be associated with excessive worry, which can lead to anxiety. Feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy can lead to feelings of depression. Increased pressure on oneself and excessive work can lead to burnout. Burnout is a state of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion as a result of ongoing workplace stress. 

Long-term feelings of imposter syndrome can lead to problems psychologically and professionally. 

How to Manage Imposter Syndrome

If you see yourself in the definition and characteristics of imposter syndrome, know you’re not alone. Most people experience similar feelings of doubt. Recognizing it is a great place to start. And there are several ways to overcome these negative beliefs about yourself. 

1. Talk to mentors or colleagues. 

Talking to your colleagues or mentors can remind you that you’re not alone in your experience. It’s also helpful to be able to express ourselves. Consider asking for feedback or reinforcement on your work from these people if you’re comfortable. 

2. Remember what you do well. 

Take the time to think realistically about your abilities. Write down what you’ve accomplished and what you’re good at (even the small ones). Having trouble focusing on your successes? Try a Personal SWOT analysis. (Remember that we all have weaknesses too).

3. Recognize that no one is perfect. 

Remind yourself no one is perfect. You wouldn’t expect perfection from someone else, so why would you expect it from yourself? Practice not doing things perfectly, but rather, do something reasonably well. Don’t forget to reward yourself for your progress. 

4. Celebrate your successes. 

Those who experience imposter syndrome tend to be very driven and put a lot of weight on productivity. Before moving on to the next thing on your to-do list, take time to celebrate your success. 

5. Question and challenge your thoughts. 

Recognize the negative self-talk voices that arise when thinking about your work, strengths, weaknesses, etc. Take the time to think critically about those voices and challenge them. Remember that imposter syndrome is typically experienced by high-achieving individuals. So, the fact that you recognize it in yourself says something about you. Note, genuine imposters don’t have these thoughts. 

6. Stop comparing. 

A good portion of imposter syndrome comes from feeling not as successful as the people around you. Stop comparing yourself to others; their successes do not impact yours. Celebrate your teams’ success as well as yours. 

7. Talk to a professional. 

Talking to a mental health professional can help manage these feelings; they can help provide you with the tools to break the cycle of imposter thinking. 

Imposter Syndrome in the Workplace

Imposter syndrome can be experienced in several environments, such as school, at work, at home (feeling unprepared to parent, for example), and even in relationships (not feeling worthy of love). The workplace is the most common place situation to experience imposter syndrome and the most commonly discussed. 

In the short term, it may look like hard workers and high achievers. Initially, to leaders, this may seem like a good thing. But this type of pressure and overworking, even if self-imposed, can lead to burnout. 

Recognizing Imposter Syndrome in the Workplace

Leaders need to recognize the possibility of imposter syndrome in their teams as well as in themselves. Recognizing it early can prevent burnout and helps to maintain the overall psychological health and wellness of workers. 

How to recognize imposter syndrome? 

Familiarize yourself with how imposter syndrome manifests, as outlined in this article, and pay attention to these behaviours in workers. 

Make wellness check-ins a part of regular meetings. This provides an opportunity for workers to express how they are feeling in their work. Make sure to address workload specifically – take a temperature check with workers to see how they feel about their current workload. It is also essential to check in with team members who appear to be overachievers or often take on extra work. 

Managing Imposter Syndrome as a Leader

Although leaders should be paying attention to what’s happening in their teams, leaders themselves are not immune to the experience of imposter syndrome. In reality, leaders may be as, or even more, susceptible to experiencing imposter syndrome due to their role. 

When a leader experiences imposter syndrome, the entire team feels the effects. These leaders are less likely to communicate effectively, to motivate and reward workers, and delegate tasks. As a result, teams are less collaborative. 

Leaders can manage imposter syndrome both within themselves and within their teams by focusing on the organizational culture. 

1. Promote Problem Solving 

One important thing that distinguishes a person who experiences imposter syndrome from someone who does not is how they respond to difficulties. Creating a workplace culture where it’s encouraged to problem solve creativity will help to foster confidence. 

Having a leader who encourages problem-solving provides evidence to workers that the leader believes in their skill. This should also include encouragement of problem-solving among teams, not just individually. 

In problem-solving, it’s important to recognize effort and results and not reprimand workers for small mistakes or missteps. 

2. Foster Openness and Vulnerability 

Make vulnerability part of the organizational strategy. And create a workplace environment where it’s comfortable, safe, and expected to be vulnerable. Vulnerability helps to build empathy and authenticity in relationships which helps to foster healthy, collaborative teams. 

This includes openness and vulnerability from leaders. Vulnerable leaders are more transparent, which helps promote connection with workers and opens the channels of communication. 

In leaders, this can look like having difficult conversations that aren’t always neat and tidy.  Showing that uncertainty or challenges can be managed through collaboration and problem-solving and don’t need to result in panic. 

3. Encourage Questions

There are many instances where those who experience imposter syndrome are afraid to ask questions or speak up in groups due to fear of looking stupid. Encouraging questions and not making people feel stupid for them helps to combat this fear and perfectionism. 

So, make sure workers know it’s okay to ask questions. Asking questions acknowledges it’s okay to have gaps in knowledge. And reinforces that asking questions helps fill those gaps through collaboration and learning. This develops a culture of knowledge sharing rather than one of shame. Leaders can build question-asking time into regular meetings. They can also encourage this behaviour by thanking team members for asking questions. 

Leaders should also be unafraid of not having the answer to all questions. Instead, show confidence in their ability to find out the answer. 

Leaders should also consider how they put together teams. Teams should consist of complementary individuals with different skill sets to foster collaboration. 

Is The Term Imposter Syndrome Problematic?

Although imposter syndrome is not a diagnosis in the DSM-V, the term itself can carry some weight. The use of the word syndrome makes it easy to pathologize those who experience self-doubt. Moreover, self-doubt is common and often makes sense in the context of significant changes. Such as new roles, new projects, and changing expectations. The term imposter also holds a lot of weight. Labeling these feelings of anxiousness and doubt as such could add to the challenges a person experiences. 

The way we are currently thinking about imposter syndrome also tends to put a significant portion of the blame on the individual. It does not address the situations or environments that may encourage this type of normal thought process. It also does not address the biases that exist that make it more likely for some groups to develop imposter syndrome, such as women, people of colour, etc.

So, while addressing self-doubt can be helpful, it’s as important to address the organizational culture of a workplace. Doing so prioritizes workers’ psychological health and safety and creates more effective and cohesive teams. 

Final Thoughts

Imposter syndrome is common and personal doubt is even more common. If you’re experiencing feelings of doubt right now, know you’re not alone, and it’s not hopeless. Take some time to recognize your successes and your talents. With a bit of practice, you can become more confident in yourself and your work – no matter what position you hold. And remember, those who experience imposter syndrome are typically high achievers who doubt their success. Conversely, those who appear confident may not always be competent. 

Further Reading 

Top Leadership Styles and When to Use Them
The Characteristic Traits That Make A Great Leader
To Be, Or Not To Be, Aggressive in Leadership?

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