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Defining Imposter Syndrome and Learning to Harness Your Confidence

Imagine you just landed a new role – whether it be at work or in life. You’ve worked hard to get this role and have many successes to vouch for your abilities, yet you can’t shake the feeling that you’re an imposter. If you’ve ever felt like you’re still “faking it ‘til you make it”, despite your experience, education, and accomplishments, then you may have a common case of imposter syndrome. These feelings of self-doubt are not foreign to the human experience, but they can be inhibiting to your wellbeing and your ability to pursue further goals and accomplishments. We’re going to break down what exactly imposter syndrome is and how you can combat your feelings of doubt to recognize your greatness.

Imposter Syndrome – Yes, It’s a Real Thing

Originally coined in 1978 by psychologist Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, imposter syndrome – or phenomenon – is the internal perception of intellectual fraudulence, despite one’s academic and professional accomplishments. Today it is estimated that about 9%-82% of people may suffer from this experience of self-doubt. And yet, why aren’t we talking about it more?

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One answer to that question may be in the very experience of imposter syndrome itself.

When you feel doubt in your abilities, it’s common to worry that others will soon discover the “truth” about your fraudulence. Despite others being able to recognize and celebrate your accomplishments and qualifications, you tend to attribute them to external factors such as luck or chance, and attribute common mistakes to internal factors such as skill or intelligence. Under the assumption that everyone else is “legitimately qualified” except for you contributes to lack of sharing these feelings with others. But the reality is, most of those people who you uphold as “legitimate” are also secretly experiencing their own self-doubt!

Although there’s comfort in knowing most people feel like they’re the secret imposter, we should hold off on the celebrations. This internal experience, whether it lasts days, weeks, or years, can actually be extremely inhibiting to your work and personal life.

Experiencing imposter syndrome may:

  • Inhibit your overall work performance as you’re afraid of being unable to deliver.
  • Cause overall feelings of self-doubt.
  • Limit you from taking on new and exciting responsibilities.
  • Cause job dissatisfaction and burnout.
  • Lead you to avoid seeking out new opportunities and promotions.
  • Set unattainable goals and standards for their selves to subconsciously confirm that they are unequipped.
  • Cause mental health complications including anxiety, depression, shame, fear, frustration, and a lack of self-confidence.

It’s safe to say that managing work and life while experiencing imposter syndrome is no walk in the park. Before we get into discussing how one can cope and move forward, let’s first break down why you may be feeling this way.

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“Why Do I Feel This Way?”

Although Clance and Imes distinguished imposter syndrome as primarily impacting women in the workforce, both have acknowledged that the experience is universal and not limited to women. However, it is important to acknowledge the role that socialization and stereotypes against women in the workforce have historically had on women’s perception of their success and capabilities. The internalization of sexist stereotypes is believed to play a significant role in a women’s experience of imposter syndrome. This is also true for any group of people who experience stereotypes regarding ability, specifically racial and ethnic minorities. Furthermore, it’s important to consider how our personal experiences of the past have shaped our ongoing perception of our successes.

To break it down even further, expert Valerie Young has summarized 5 types of imposter syndrome patterns:

  • The Expert who doesn’t speak up, ask questions or jump into projects out of fear of embarrassment for not knowing all of the information.
  • The Perfectionist who sets such high standards that any minor error is perceived as failure and is attributed to their own lack of ability.
  • The Natural Genius who is usually naturally skilled at things and feels great shame and doubt when a task requires more time or effort than usual to accomplish.
  • The Superman/woman who feels they must succeed in all realms of life and feels stress and doubt when they aren’t succeeding or accomplishing a task in one area.
  • The Soloist who takes pride in their independence and feels shame and failure when they need to ask for help.

Although there’s no straightforward answer as to how one came to experience imposter syndrome, there are many different ways to begin to overcome these feelings.

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Embracing Your Excellence

Here are a few different ideas on how to get started on working through that feeling that you just can’t seem to shake.

Mindfulness is the ongoing process of simply being aware of your thoughts and behaviors. When you experience a moment of self-doubt or failure that leads you to feel distressed, upset, or ashamed, simply observe the types of thoughts and words that are automatically coming to mind. Picking up on the patterns of language and behaviors that are contributing to the cycle of self-doubt can help you recognize some of the key elements of thought that are holding you back. Next time you experience negative self-talk, try listening simply as a bystander to just recognize that voice.

Thought work is the active deconstruction and reframing of your inner dialogue. Although it takes a lot of work to change the existing patterns of dialectical thinking, with time, effort, and patience, it can be done… and it’s so worth it. Different thought work resources can help you get started on this journey. In short form, try asking yourself questions such as: “Is this feeling helpful?”, “Is this a fact or opinion?”, “What are some alternative explanations or potential solutions?” Sometimes even writing down the automatic dysfunctional thought and working through the questions on paper can help the process, especially when you’re just getting started.

Sharing your thoughts to your support system whether it’s anonymous, confidential, professional, or casually to friends and family can help ease the overwhelming feelings that accompany imposter syndrome. It can also be nice to say your thoughts or feelings out loud and gain a different perspective on your accomplishments. And who knows, you may come to find out that they’ve also experienced self-doubt and can lend a hand in working through its challenges. After all, the more we share our experiences, the better we can destigmatize obstacles of mental health and support one another. Mental health matters and we’re all in this together.

We hope that this blog provided some comfort, insight, and inspiration into taking on imposter syndrome and showing it who’s boss. Now it’s time to go out there and celebrate your successes and accomplishments because you’re the real deal.