It happens to the best of us, so how do you deal with this confidence crusher at work?
Have you ever had an overwhelming feeling that you don’t belong somewhere? Or more specifically, like you don’t feel as if you’re at the right point in your career? As if you’ve somehow faked your way here, and at any minute four FBI agents are about to storm into your office, announce that you’ve been found out and heave you out of there as quickly as possible? Well, you’re not alone.
Imposter syndrome is clearly defined as the ‘persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved, or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills’. But it can feel a lot stronger than that. If you’ve ever experienced it, which, let’s face it, a whole lot of us have, you’ll know that what’s known as imposter syndrome is different for everyone but for the most part, it leaves yous feeling like a literal fraud, like any success you have is down to mere luck. You know how it goes – you land a pretty dreamy promotion at work, and your first thought is that they must’ve been pretty short on decent candidates, right? You’re the first person to doubt your talents, abilities, and achievements.
Although imposter syndrome isn’t an actual disorder, the term was coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Ines in 1978 when they discovered that although certain people had the attributes and abilities needed to accomplish certain tasks, they had convinced themselves that they didn’t deserve any of their accomplishments.
“Last year, I was hired to work at a pretty big company, it sounded like my dream job. I studied hard throughout college, worked my way through internships, worked at a small business for a couple of years and I was finally where I wanted to be,” says Sarah*. “But every day I just felt low. I felt like I wasn’t good enough to be there. Even if I did do a good job at something, there would be a small voice saying ‘Well that’s only one small thing, what about everything else?’ I knew it wasn’t that I was doing a bad job, but more that I could, and should, be doing better.”
Nathalie Marquez Courtney, co-founder of The Imposter Project, says that imposter syndrome is actually pretty common. “It happens to lots of people, but women seem particularly susceptible to it. Everyone from Meryl Streep to Emma Watson and even Michelle Obama has talked about having to deal with imposter syndrome.”
Nathalie notes that there is a wide range of differences between feelings of imposter syndrome and realising you’re being discriminated against. “Some see it as a form of internalised sexism – for so long, women have been told we don’t belong in certain places. We have had to fight for so hard for our seat at the table, to be considered decision-makers. In many cases, you might be the only woman on your team, in a meeting, doing that job, and that can feel isolating and make you doubt yourself and your capabilities. It’s also important to know the difference between imposter syndrome – something that happens internally, that you can work to overcome – and inequality or discrimination where you work.”
When it comes to pesky imposter syndrome, there’s more than one type. According to expert Dr. Valerie Young, there are actually five types. The Perfectionists are those who set ridiculously high goals for themselves, then if they fail to reach those goals, experience major self-doubt, and worry about measuring up to others. The Superwoman/man cover up their feelings of inadequacy by working harder and longer hours to feel as if they’re measuring up.
The Natural Genius refers to those who experience the need to be naturally good at everything, then feel shame if they need to take the time to learn a new skill. The Soloist covers those who think asking for help will reveal their ‘phoniness’. And the Expert measures their worth on what and how much they know or can do, all while believing they’ll never know enough.
These feelings can creep up on anyone, whether you’re working a fast-paced 9 to 5 or juggling with thoughts of going back to college after a long hiatus. According to Nathalie, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to imposter syndrome, but there are ways to overcome it. “Imposter syndrome seems to show up in similar ways across a wide range of professions and people. Some have it worse than others – it might just be a niggly feeling of self-doubt that you push through or something that actually stops you applying for jobs and opportunities.”
“We launched The Imposter Project (theimposterproject.com) to try and find ways to overcome imposter syndrome. We photograph and interview women we admire (including doctors, actors, best-selling authors, radio presenters, chefs and business owners) who have accomplished amazing things and who you would never dream ever feel like imposters. They talk to us about how they cope and deal with their own imposter syndrome, and how they harness those feelings to help them create great work. Each response is different and inspiring in its own way.”
Sound familiar to you? Well, rid yourself of imposter syndrome in three steps.
Sometimes you may very well feel as if you’re the only one who may be going through something like this, but if you remember just one thing, it’s that you’re not alone when it comes to imposter syndrome. According to Dr. Valerie Young, 70% of people have experienced it at some stage in their careers, and that in itself helps reduce that ‘undeserved’ feeling.
It can be pretty hard to argue with facts, even in your own head. Look at what you have accomplished, whether that’s acing an interview or giving a pretty remarkable presentation (even if it was when you were practicing to an audience of your two dogs). When you look at what you have previously accomplished, it’s a lot more difficult to argue that you’re not up to scratch.
This one can take a bit more practice. Think of it as the ‘glass half full’ approach when it comes to, well, your thinking. The next time you feel those imposter syndrome thoughts creeping in, write one down. Then write the opposite of the thought down too. For instance, if you’re starting a new job, one of your first thoughts may be “I don’t have the right experience for this, it’s not going to work out.” Try “I have built up a lot of relevant experience, and anything that I’m not sure of I’ll be able to learn as I go.” It may seem cheesy, but research shows that reframing the thought in a positive way, your brain and body will begin to believe it.