What is and how common is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as a “condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success”. The term itself comes from research by Clance & Imes (1978), which was focused on high achieving women. Since then, additional research by Bravata et al. (2019) shows that the issue is pervasive amongst the adult population. In fact, one study published in the International Journal of Behavioural Science found that 70% of adults experience feelings associated with imposter syndrome at some point in their lives, and 25-30% of high achievers regularly experience it.
It is one of the most common unspoken workplace issues today.
What does it look like in practice? Consider these simple questions commonly associated with imposter syndrome:
- Why should anyone even listen to me?
- Am I good enough to do this job?
- How do I complete when everyone knows more than I do?
Of course, we might have transient thoughts of this nature at times. It’s when they become prevalent that they are limiting.
So, two questions come to mind:
- Why does this phenomenon happen?
- What can we do to manage it?
Common triggers for imposter syndrome
Let’s consider high achievers. This group of people tends to set very high standards for themselves, in some cases to the extreme of being perfect or correct 100% of the time. This leaves little space for learning which, by definition, includes making mistakes along the way. When these minor learning errors occur, high achievers, tend to feel anxieties and doubt about their abilities.
If we consider a new company joiner. Individuals in this instance often fear making a mistake, not fitting in, not being able to succeed in the role, or fear having to step up and deliver (i.e.: responsibility for something).
We find similar patterns in children that feel pressure to make parents or teachers happy with their academic performance, or in athletes driving themselves relentlessly to be number one.
Consider the statements of public figures, which reinforce the stereotype.
Second place is just the first-place loser.Dale Earnhardt
There is no such thing as second place. Either you’re first or you’re nothing.Gabe Paul
All of this to say, the triggers are typically from within our own head. The good news is that, with an investment of time, we can change the dynamic. But how?
How we change the dynamic
We start with recognizing that only we control our mind, contrary to claims made by illusionists and magicians!
This means that we start by recognizing our strengths, accomplishments, and expertise. Why is this important? It sets the foundation for establishing that we have earned our place within the environment we are in. It has not been handed to us, donated, or otherwise gifted – we’ve earned it through hard work. Understanding this foundation helps to significantly diminish any feelings of being an imposter, we belong where we are.
Other steps to overcome the imposter syndrome
A few more simple steps can help, namely, we compete with ourselves (and not others) and we take the time to celebrate our accomplishments.
Looking at competition as a concept. When we take on a mindset of being an imposter, we often place ourselves under excessive pressure. Pressure to do everything perfectly, for fear that even a small mistake will lead to other people thinking we aren’t qualified or smart enough to do the job. We need to practice positive self-talk and visualization in these instances. We need to lose any self-criticism by asking ourselves: “Does this thought help me at this moment or does it make things a little bit (or a lot) worse?”
The third step that we can take to overcome imposter syndrome is taking time to recognize the things we accomplish before racing onto the next task. We need to be open to accepting positive feedback from others, without diminishing it in any way. Perfectionists are particularly susceptible to these challenges, which can lead to burnout. Taking the time to reflect on successes allows us to consciously undertake growth and add new skills to our toolbox. Growth naturally combats imposter syndrome.
We can combat imposter syndrome issues by bringing them into the light and removing the secrecy and shame attached to them. By sharing fears of uncertainty with people we trust, we have already started to banish them from our heads!
We can all change self-limiting beliefs once we recognize that we have them! Success in overcoming imposter syndrome occurs when we practice a few self-supporting skills such as adopting a growth mindset, using positive self-talk, and being mindful by celebrating our successes.
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Cartoon credit: Jorge Gabriel Cham