The Oxford English Dictionary defines Impostor Syndrome 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.’ The term was first cited by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in their article ‘The Impostor Phenomenon’, which focused on the prevalence of Impostor syndrome in high-achieving women. More recent research has shown that Impostor Syndrome can be an issue for men, as well as race, sexual orientation, accent and class.
Impostor Syndrome is the sense that you don't deserve your success. It convinces you that you're not as talented, creative and effective as you may appear. It is the suspicion that your success down to fortune or good timing and is accompanied by the fear that, one day, you'll be exposed as a fraud.
Impostor Syndrome involves a constant fear of exposure, isolation and rejection.
It can strike at moments of potential success, starting a new job, gaining recognition or promotion, taking on extra responsibilities, starting your own business, or even becoming a parent.
These beliefs can propel you to work even harder, to avoid being ‘shown up for what you really are’. This can lead to further success and recognition, while still feeling like a fraud. More seriously, they can lead to you lowering your ambitions, to the point that you could revise your goals and aim lower. This may end up with you preventing yourself from achieving your true potential.
What are the symptoms of Impostor Syndrome? To start, it often shows itself when someone has a consistent lack of self-confidence. This can also apply to those who are perfectionists, who, despite their success, still feel what they’re doing isn’t ‘good enough’. This can cause some people to work harder to prevent being ‘exposed’, while leading to a negative cycle of hard work, dis-satisfaction, fear and lower self-esteem.
Those with Impostor Syndrome tend to play down their achievements. Think of the team member who is ‘just doing my job’, or the wonderful meal that was ‘just something I threw together’. Negative self-talk can even lead some to dismiss compliments about their good work and focus on the belief that they are simply lucky. Ultimately, many with Impostor Syndrome refuse to own their success.
If you lead a team, watch out for the effect Impostor Syndrome can have. Notice the team members who don’t accept praise, who avoid new tasks or challenging roles, or compare themselves less favourably to others.
Here are some tips to combat Impostor Syndrome:
The likes of Albert Einstein and the writer Maya Angelou have spoken of their own Impostor Syndrome. When people speak out about it, many others breathe a sigh of relief that it isn’t ‘just them’.
Have a separate book or place where you record each success you’ve achieved and the skill and effort it took. Read your testimonials and letters of recommendation. This is proof of your talent! – it’s good to regularly remind yourself of it. Own your successes!
Seek out someone who can guide you through your moments of feeling inadequate and help you work through intimidating situations.
Learn to stay factual about what you do well and what you need to develop. Use this evidence to improve your decision-making around accepting or declining new tasks, projects and roles. Notice how your strengths make you feel about yourself.
Remember the bike you learned to ride as a child? There’s a possibility that when you try something new, you may initially fail. Allow a bit of room to make mistakes, learn from them and praise yourself as you improve.
There’s a balance to be struck between Impostor Syndrome and smug egomania. Stay authentic, recognise your successes and admit to your weaker areas.
Impostor Syndrome is a self-fulfilling thought process, where we doubt our own intelligence and skills, convincing ourselves we are a ‘fraud’. Talk to others about how you feel, set realistic goals, accept mistakes, while taking the responsibility to learn from them, understand your strengths. Accept worthy praise and own your successes.
Want to know more? Check out these books:
Rob Moore: ‘I’m Worth More’
Sandi Mann: ‘Why Do I Feel Like an Impostor?