What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a feeling that you’re not as competent or worthy or valuable as other people and that you might get ‘found out’ at any minute. Here are some of the internal scripts that people run in their heads which point to them possibly experiencing imposter syndrome, see if you feel any these are familiar…

  • I don’t deserve this, there are other people much more talented than me

  • I feel incompetent in my new job

  • I can’t believe I have this job, surely someone is going to come along in a minute and tell me that they’ve made a mistake that I need to leave my role straight away

  • I feel like a fraud at work

  • I can’t do this, I am way out of my depth here, and everyone knows it.

You know, sometimes, it may be in a way that you are an imposter, or at least not as much of an expert as others may think you to be.  And this to some extent can be healthy, as it can be a sign of humility, of recognition that other people are talented and that our own talents have limitations. In this way, imposter syndrome is almost anti-narcissism, the opposite of arrogance and can keep us grounded. But it can become less healthy if it routinely starts leading to us feeling anxiety, limits our performance or enjoyment of our day-to-day, or if it leads to a tendency towards perfectionism or what some might call ‘completion anxiety’. Often, people who present with imposter syndrome believe that everyone else’s work is so much better than theirs and so feel the need to spend longer and put in more effort to ensure that their work meets the right standard, when actually the standard they’re using is at a far higher level than other people’s expectations.

“People who present with imposter syndrome believe that everyone else’s work is so much better than theirs and so feel the need to spend longer and put in more effort to ensure that their work meets the right standard.”

Paul Brewerton — YC Co Founder

When did it arrive?

The term ‘imposter syndrome’ was first used in the 1970s after a study undertaken on some women’s self-acknowledged sense of inferiority as professionals. And it’s been a focus of research ever since. It might reassure you to know that 70% of us experience imposter syndrome at some point in our lives.  And although the research started with the assumption that this was a predominantly female phenomenon, males and females are actually about equal in experiencing imposter syndrome. However, women may talk about it more than men.

What can you do about it?

There are three things related to imposter syndrome that we’d like to cover here. In each case, we’ll explain why it happens and how you can better deal with imposter syndrome caused by this factor. They are: 1. Dealing better with new situations, 2. The perils of comparison, and 3. Focusing on the negative, not the positive. Here’s some more on each of those…

  1. 1

    Deal better with new situations

    First, new situations – things you haven’t experienced before.  Classic examples are: presenting to a large group of people, changing company, changing role, or super-classic, moving to a more senior managerial role. These things may challenge us at the level of personal identity because we feel that we aren’t up to the job…we can’t be, we haven’t done it before, or we haven’t done much of it before. We may start to doubt ourselves with thoughts like, “Well they may think I can do this, but do I believe it?’ Maybe they’ve got it wrong and have too much confidence in me.”

    There is an element of reality here but often it can get skewed out of proportion and before you know it, you’re in high anxiety self-doubt mode and that may actually impede your performance, which then becomes self-fulfilling as you don’t perform to your potential and you may end up feeling that you were right after all to feel like an imposter.

    To combat this, think about similar situations you have experienced before. What went well, what didn’t, what you learned. Then think about how you can apply that experience and learning to this new and novel situation.

    Also, when we actually are less competent in new situations, which will inevitably be the case sometimes, try not getting too heavy with self-criticism but recognise that this is to be expected.  Think about the amount of new information we have to take in when we find ourselves in a new role, team or organisation. It can take 3 to 6 months to really start to feel confident in a new setting, so make sure that you recognise that and celebrate the wins, and mainly the learning, along the way.

  2. 2

    The perils of comparison

    Humans are social animals, and we make a lot of judgements by comparing ourselves with other people, rather than focusing solely on ourselves as our own benchmark. Sometimes this can be helpful, as it may help us strive to be better by outperforming others. But much of the time, it can be detrimental as we can often make inaccurately positive judgements about others and inaccurately negative judgements about ourselves.  This overfocus on comparison has reached new heights these days thanks in part to social media. Be wary of it; social comparison as they say, is the thief of joy.

  3. 3

    Getting better at focusing on the positive, not just the negative

    Often people disregard successful outcomes and overemphasise, or even ‘catastrophise’, negative outcomes, without checking reality.  This may have come from parenting or early experiences because ‘Negativity bias’ is everywhere and is hard to resist. So a common exclamation from someone might be: “Wow I can’t believe how well that went, the right words just tumbled out of my mouth, I was kind of shocked.” Well there’s clearly a disconnect there between feeling competent (which that person didn’t) and being competent (which they were).

    One way to help with this is to place equal weight on positive feedback as on negative feedback as it comes to you, because we do tend to focus more on the negative. So writing down the positive as well as the negative feedback that you receive and keeping it somewhere so that you can look back on it will help you to see reality better, as well as better seeing your progress.

Final thoughts

Finally, to bring all this together, a shout out to strengths – when we’re clear on our strengths…what we enjoy, what energises us and when we are at our best – this can help hugely with us not feeling imposter syndrome, because we know who we are and who we’re not, we can get help in areas that we know we need rather than feeling we have to be perfect or an all-rounder. And strengths can also give us a feeling of confidence and reassurance that we have tools we can take into new environments that we can use to get the best possible result even when we’re putting ourselves under scrutiny or pressure.  So knowing and using your strengths really has the potential to deal head on with any sense of imposter syndrome we may be feeling.

Whatever you do to combat imposter syndrome, know that you’re not alone, these feelings are common, natural and by applying some of these tips, you can have a say in keeping them away.