Imposter syndrome; who, me?

If you have not heard about imposter syndrome, the chances are you may have felt some of its effects. Imposter syndrome basically makes you feel like you are not as competent as others think you are. Think back, have you ever:

  • Thought your achievements are due to luck?
  • Feared that your colleagues will discover you are a fraud?
  • Responded to positive feedback with “oh, you’re just being nice”?
  • Told yourself you “got away with it” when you succeeded?
  • Turned down an opportunity because you would have been exposed as inadequate?

If you have answered yes to any of these, you are not alone! High achievers such as Michelle Obama and Sheryl Sandberg have shared their thoughts and feelings when their imposter shows up.

"I still have a little impostor syndrome, it never goes away, that you're actually listening to me.”

Michelle Obama

Who experiences imposter syndrome?

The paradox of imposter syndrome is that it is often experienced by highly capable people. However, they seem unable to acknowledge and own their capabilities. Believing they will be unmasked; they can be driven by anxiety to strive and overwork.

Back in the 1970s when the term first appeared in the work of Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance, it was thought that imposter syndrome was experienced only by women. More recently it has been recognised as something all of us can experience. See Health Education England’s Chief Information Officer’s account of his experience. I like his comment that he is ‘not cured his imposter syndrome but made peace with it.’

Why do we need to tackle our inner imposter?

  • We could hold ourselves back and not make our full contribution.
  • We can have low confidence and self-esteem.
  • We might procrastinate only to make up for it with over-work.
  • We may suffer stress and burnout.
  • We could become a perfectionist manager, nit-picking others’ efforts.

What causes imposter syndrome?

As with so many of our ingrained ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, experiences in childhood can loom large. High expectations of success and perfection follow us into adulthood. This can often become personality traits, such as perfectionism and striving to improve.

Being the first in your family to go to university, particularly for those studying science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) subjects that can have a competitive culture can create imposter syndrome too.

Another cause could be comparing yourself to others, this can spark feelings of inadequacy, amplified by social media.

10 steps to make peace with your imposter syndrome

  • Check what output your manager needs when they delegate: a first draft, a summary, or a detailed proposal? Do not deliver a dissertation if simple points are all that is expected.
  • Take a tip from Sheryl Sandberg: “Done is better than perfect.”
  • Identify your strengths and use them well. A free questionnaire is available on VIA Institute on Character.
  • Ask for feedback: what worked well? What (if anything) can be improved? Take constructive feedback professionally, not personally.
  • Take credit gracefully rather than brushing it off; as soon as possible note it word for word.
  • Gather your evidence: reflect on your good work, positive feedback, and results. Then, if your imposter shows up you can prove them wrong.
  • Work with a mentor to get a broader view of your workplace and/or your profession.
  • Let go of those crushing comparisons.
  • Build your buddy network; people you can trust to support you and who you can support in return.
  • Stop telling yourself you will be ‘found out’ and start telling yourself that you are steadily improving.

Final thought

Please look after yourself. If your imposter is constantly giving you negative thoughts and feelings which are causing a persistent low mood, seek support from your friends, family, and peers.

Sometimes it helps to have others reinforce that you are amazing.

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Dawn Sillett

Dawn Sillett

I got into L&D after complaining about the lack of training at my then employer; my boss told me, "you just got yourself a night job!" It wasn't long before I decided to make the night job the day job. Fast-forward 20 years and I'm still loving seeing those lights go on when people figure things out and feel good about themselves as they learn. Moving from F2F to virtual has been testing, yet a great learning process. Most clients are in the creative/media sector, from first jobbers to directors.