Imposter Syndrome and How We Can Overcome It (Part 1 of 2)
Have you ever thought ‘am I truly deserving of my position?’, felt like you don’t quite fit in the large shoes you’re supposed to fill, or that you’re somehow pulling the wool over the eyes of your peers, colleagues, and supervisors? Or maybe that you just ‘got lucky’?
This feeling of being a fraud and lingering doubt, that you somehow tricked and are still tricking the people around you, is actually something many of us will experience at one point or another throughout our careers or indeed, lifetimes. In fact, you’d be surprised to know that even those you admire have also felt the fear of being exposed as an imposter.
This is part 1 of a 2-part blog, exploring what imposter syndrome is, the history and research behind it, and who it affects. Having both experienced and observed imposter syndrome throughout my academic and professional journeys, I was really keen to delve into this topic and find out why so many people, especially those who would be considered highly accomplished, experience imposter syndrome, how it comes about, and the various ways in which it manifests.
Imposter syndrome — finding it difficult to acknowledge or internalise our achievements and doubting our abilities despite compelling evidence — is quite a common psychological experience in academia and across many other professions.
‘How am I here?’ is something I catch myself asking often, especially as an early career researcher surrounded by highly esteemed academics and professors. I am a bit too familiar with the thought that my successes aren’t due to my abilities, qualifications or achievements, that maybe I am fooling everyone around me and one day I’ll be found out.
In fact, when asked how I landed my role as a Research Assistant on the eBRAIN Study at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, one of my instinctive answers is ‘I got super lucky!’. But in answering so, I fail to recognise all of the hard work and effort exerted leading up to securing this role, which I am so grateful to have.
The Imposter Phenomenon
The imposter phenomenon, first coined and identified by psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes in 1978, theorised that women alone experienced imposterism. Through clinical observations during therapeutic sessions with high-achieving women, they found that despite objective evidence of their successes, the women they interviewed still believed they were imposters and feared having this intellectual and professional fraudulence discovered. The women experienced anxiety, depression, dissatisfaction with life, a lack of self-confidence, and frustration having not met their own high standards of achievement.
The never-ending self-doubt brought on by imposter syndrome can damage both our professional and personal lives, as these constant feelings of inadequacy act as barriers within our relationships, jobs and our personal self-esteem, diminishing our enjoyment of life. Failing to internalise our successes or abilities adversely affects how we see ourselves and can hinder our growth.
Why do we experience imposter syndrome?
We can experience imposter syndrome for a number of reasons. One, which I recognise personally as one of my strongest catalysts for imposterism, is achievement and intelligence being linked to social contexts, family environments, and perfectionism.
Growing up in an environment where there is immense value and pressure placed on grades and achievement can lead to feeling like an imposter later on, particularly when parents or guardians are conflicting in their extreme praise and criticism, wavering between the two. This external pressure to do well isn’t confined to our homes.
“People often internalise these ideas: that in order to be loved or be lovable, ‘I need to achieve,’ it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.” — Dr. Audrey Ervin
Today, there is intense societal pressure caving in on us from all angles, whether it’s seeing our peers’ and colleagues’ achievements plastered all over social media or the wave of entrepreneurial hustle culture that has gripped newer generations through stories of seemingly overnight success. Social platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram have made it a lot easier to see how well others are doing in their careers and personal lives. The problem truly arises when we equate our success and achievement with our self-worth, seeking approval and love through our accomplishments.
For those of us who suffer from perfectionism (guilty!), we create a distorted and unrealistic definition of competence. We know that perfection is unattainable, yet we strive for an unsustainable level of capability, stretching our capacity to its limits and again, feeling like an imposter when things go awry.
Who does it affect?
Anybody can view themselves as an imposter if they struggle to internalise their achievements. However, imposter syndrome disproportionately affects high-achieving people, such as those within academia or high-pressure corporate environments, who find it very difficult to accept their accomplishments. Being chosen for an award or to give a presentation can spur those thoughts of ‘Why me? Surely there’s someone more qualified for this?’ and it can be challenging to believe that you are an expert in your field or someone who is worth listening to. I definitely struggled with this belief throughout my academic career, questioning my own knowledge and skills, despite tangible evidence.
It has also been found that women, particularly women of colour, women in minority groups, women working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields, and international students, are more likely to experience imposter syndrome. I didn’t find this too surprising, considering the overwhelming pressure on women to prove themselves, especially in a professional environment, living up to the standards we perceive of our male counter parts.
“A sense of belonging fosters confidence. The more people who look or sound like you, the more confident you feel. And conversely, the fewer people who look or sound like you, it can and does for many people impact their confidence” — Dr. Valerie Young
“Women, women of colour, especially black women, as well as the LGBTQ community are most at risk. When you experience systemic oppression or are directly or indirectly told your whole life that you are less-than or underserving of success and you begin to achieve things in a way that goes against a long-standing narrative in the mind, imposter syndrome will occur” — Brian Daniel Norton
“We’re more likely to experience imposter syndrome if we don’t see many examples of people who look like us or share our background who are clearly succeeding in our field” — Dr. Emily Hu
Patterns in people who experience imposter feelings
Dr. Valerie Young, an imposter syndrome expert, has identified a number of patterns in people who experience imposter syndrome:
Perfectionists set extremely high expectations for themselves, feel like failures even if they meet majority of their goals, and small mistakes will result in them questioning their ability or competence
Soloists feel they have to complete tasks on their own, and struggle to ask for help as this means that they are indeed a failure or a fraud
Experts feel they need to have all of the information and knowledge before starting a project, constantly look for new qualifications or training to help them improve, feel they need to meet all criteria in a job specification in order to apply, feel hesitant to ask questions or speak up in meetings in fear of appearing unintelligent
Natural Geniuses think they aren’t good enough when struggling with work or having to exert extra effort, are accustomed to skills and capability coming easily so when hard work is required, this is confirmation that they’re a fraud
Superhumans push themselves to their limits work-wise, working harder than those around them to confirm they aren’t imposters, feel they need to excel in all aspects of life: work, relationships etc., feel stressed when not accomplishing something
You may see some of your own imposter tendencies in these patterns — being able to acknowledge how our imposterism manifests is always a good starting point to tackling it.
So, now we know what imposter syndrome is and how to identify it, how exactly can we begin to overcome our imposter syndrome? In part 2 of this 2-part series, we we will explore the various ways we can overcome imposter syndrome, the research supporting these methods, and what leaders can do to help alleviate feelings of imposterism within their teams.
‘The Impostor Test was developed to help individuals determine whether or not they have IP characteristics and, if so, to what extent they are suffering. After taking the Impostor Test, add together the numbers of the responses to each statement. If the total score is 40 or less, the respondent has few Impostor characteristics; if the score is between 41 and 60, the respondent has moderate IP experiences; a score between 61 and 80 means the respondent frequently has Impostor feelings; and a score higher than 80 means the respondent often has intense IP experiences. The higher the score, the more frequently and seriously the Impostor Phenomenon interferes in a person’s life.’