Have you ever sat in a meeting and wondered, why did they hire me? Have you felt inadequate on the first day at your job? This feeling may be more common than you think, especially among accomplished women in your life.
This feeling is called imposter syndrome. The term defines where, no matter how much you’ve succeeded in your professional life, and despite all external evidence of your accomplishments, you still feel that you don’t deserve the success you have. You feel like an imposter.
Imposter syndrome is widespread and can apply to people in both their professional and personal lives. Studies have shown that regardless of role, there’s always that tendency to doubt whether we belong.
“They’re Going to Find Me Out”—Where Imposter Syndrome Comes From
Elizabeth Cox points out in her TED Talk that even people at the height of their accomplishments struggle with imposter syndrome. Maya Angelou wrote: “I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” Despite all her successes, Jodie Foster is still worried that she’ll be forced to give back her Oscar.
But why is this feeling so prevalent, even among such acclaimed people like Angelou and Foster?
In her TED Talk, Cox references the work of psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes who studied what they coined as the “impostor phenomenon” among female college students and faculty. Through their work, they concluded that the issue was far more widespread than they initially expected. Continuing from their work, studies have shown that imposter syndrome occurs regardless of gender, age group, race, and career field.
As psychologists and researchers further studied the issue, they have found that some of the reasons behind the development of the syndrome include the following:
- “They’re just as good as me, so why am I here?” – People highly skilled in their field often think others are just as skilled. This can lead them to believe they don’t deserve the opportunities or rewards they receive.
- “How much is good enough?” – There’s no threshold where one can be accomplished or skilled enough to resolve their imposter syndrome.
- “No one else feels this way.” – There is also pluralistic ignorance, which is the phenomenon where every individual in the group doubts themselves privately but doesn’t think that others feel this way. This is often the result of people not voicing their concerns and doubts.
- “It’s probably easier for everyone else.” – Without communication, it becomes far more difficult to assess how hard our peers are working, how difficult they are finding their tasks, or how much they may be doubting themselves.
Risks and Complications with Imposter Syndrome
As individuals deal with self-doubt and persistent feelings of being an imposter, they may discover that there are more issues connected with those feelings. For example, because some people feel like they’re an imposter, they may become perfectionists and create a whole new level of stress as they strive for extremely (and often impossibly) high standards.
Alongside perfectionism, they may become totally involved in work to make up for perceived low self-worth. Becoming a workaholic, where you always stay later than everyone else at the office, strain your personal relationships by the amount of time and stress you take for your work, and sacrifice any sense of calm and contentment when you’re not working, often exists with imposter syndrome.
Ways to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
“Okay, I know it’s all in my head, but what do I do?”
First thing first: admit that you have imposter syndrome. This can only be addressed within yourself. When people feel like imposters, they’re more likely to hold back, fearing that their ideas and contributions aren’t good enough. When you feel like you don’t deserve your success, you may not apply for better jobs or push for a higher position within your company.
“But how can I admit it? They’ll all find out I can’t handle my job!”
To help you recognize your own doubts and fears, reach out to a mentor or trusted peer. When others are willing to talk about their own feelings and struggles, it can become easier to be open about ours. Hearing someone you respect, and trust talk about their own issues with imposter syndrome can help you identify and acknowledge those feelings in yourself.
When you recognize these feelings, then you can start to overcome them. The following are steps to help you get started on overcoming imposter syndrome:
- Pause: When you catch yourself feeling like an imposter, pause a moment and acknowledge those feelings.
- Forgive: Allow yourself to take a moment and forgive yourself for having those feelings.
- Connect: In that moment, connect to the vision that you have for your life.
- Question: After you have given yourself time to acknowledge, forgive yourself for those feelings, and connect to the things that drive you in your life, ask yourself, what is the story I am telling about myself, about other people, and how it all works? If you find yourself constantly doubting yourself and feeling like an imposter, find a story that better serves you.
- A Different Perspective: When thinking about a new story to tell about yourself where you are the hero and not the imposter, try spending some time of your day having your thought process reflect this new story. Rather than “they are going to find out” try “I am contributing the best I can, and they appreciate my work.”
- Reflect: When you start to see yourself in a more positive light, think about how that new mindset affected your work and how you felt throughout the day.
- Repeat: Repeat the six steps above as needed.
Regardless of how it manifests itself, imposter syndrome can seriously impact your career and personal life. Learning to accept imposter syndrome is the first step toward success and contentment.
Imposter syndrome can be a major problem for professionals in leadership positions. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The first step toward overcoming it is to recognize its signs. SMU CAPE’s Women in Leadership Certificate program can help you tackle the challenges of leadership, including overcoming feelings of doubt, to reach your full potential as confident, successful leader.