Imposter Syndrome: The Silent Career Killer

by / Friday, 04 September 2015 / Published in Psychology

Woman with imposter syndrome presenting to colleagues

When observing highly successful individuals, it’s easy to assume they are confident and comfortable in their jobs. However, some professionals and leaders actually feel inadequate and unsuccessful, despite significant evidence to the contrary. These individuals may feel like a fraud or that they don’t deserve the position they hold at work.

Psychologists call this common phenomenon imposter syndrome. It can affect professionals across all industries and have serious effects on a person’s daily life, both at work and at home. Some call it the silent career killer. But with the right change of mindset, imposter syndrome can be overcome.

Overview of Imposter Syndrome

Most people would admit they’ve felt like an “imposter” sometime in their lives. Why is it so easy to feel this way? And who does imposter syndrome usually affect?

What Is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the face of information to the contrary. People with imposter feelings experience chronic self-doubt and feel like an intellectual fraud. Imposter syndrome can happen to just about anyone, and a common set of emotions are associated with imposter syndrome.

The concept originated in a 1978 journal article written by Georgia State University psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who immediately found a greater prevalence in high-achieving women.

Causes of Imposter Syndrome

Most experts believe that imposter syndrome is typically caused by cyclical societal norms and expectations. Imposter syndrome is an ever-present phenomenon and a severe manifestation of self-doubt. In the case of women, imposter syndrome is often linked to the lack of women in high-level jobs.

Researchers have found that two main types of family dynamics can contribute to feelings associated with imposter syndrome. Families often label children with particular expectations, and children carry such labels and expectations well into adulthood. The “sensitive” child may end up doubting her intelligence and any achievement that she receives. The same can be said for a child who is perceived as “perfect” or “superior.” This child could grow up believing that she is only average and not worthy of her successes.

Who Has Imposter Syndrome?

It’s likely that most high-achieving leaders have experienced imposter syndrome at one time or another. Feeling inadequate is a natural part of life that happens to everyone, from college students to CEOs of major corporations.

As mentioned, imposter syndrome is especially common in high-achieving women. The research conducted by Clance and Imes in the 1970s has implications for women in 2015. During their study, Clance and Imes observed symptoms of what they called the imposter phenomenon in more than 150 women. More recently, the imposter issue has been cited by prominent women like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan and actress Emma Watson.

Women are more likely to have symptoms of imposter syndrome for a few reasons. Studies show that women tend to attribute their successes to external factors — like luck or outside assistance — while men are more likely to recognize their inner talent. University of Connecticut researchers who study gifted and talented students also found that girls and women are more likely to blame failures on their internal issues, while men blame failures on factors outside their control. These differences between women and men can explain why women may feel inadequate at work.

How Imposter Syndrome Affects Your Mind and Work

Imposter syndrome can have a constant effect on daily life. When people continuously feel inadequate, it can severely impair how they interact with others. Imposter feelings can be split into four subcategories.

Feeling Like a Fake

This is the standard basis of imposter syndrome, where people feel they do not deserve their success or current position. They also believe that they are deceiving others with their success and thus harming them.

People with imposter syndrome fear that they will be “discovered” or “found out,” which they try to avoid. Some imposters appear to have extremely outward-facing personalities, making up for their inner feelings. By being more active in their work environment, individuals with the syndrome believe they can prevent being “unmasked” for the fraud they believe they are.

Attributing Success to Luck

When asked about their success, people with imposter syndrome are likely to attribute achievements to luck or other external reasons. Imposter syndrome prevents people from recognizing their own abilities, even when others point them out, and they would likely call their success “a fluke” or say they were “lucky.” They fear that in the future they will be unable to succeed and will be discovered as an imposter.

Discounting Success

Beyond using luck in their reasoning, imposter feelings lead people to attribute success to things other than themselves. Common sayings include success not being “a big deal” or “unimportant.” Even when major projects are completed, someone with imposter syndrome will minimize the accomplishment if at all possible. People with imposter syndrome also have a difficult time accepting any sort of compliment or praise.

Using Charm

Among women, there is a common belief that “charm” is a primary reason for success. This is especially common among women who almost exclusively work with men. An imposter may believe that her ability to charm male counterparts is the major reason for her success. This can evolve into women seeking out romantic relationships with supervisors to continue on their path to success.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome can affect anyone. If you feel like it’s affecting you, moving beyond it can help you become a better all-around person. Here are a few ways to overcome feeling like an imposter in any aspect of your life.

Accept Your Role in Successes

The first step to believing you are not a fraud is to internalize the role you played in successes. Take the opportunity to understand that when something good happens, you had a part to play in it. There are always outside factors that affect you, but the key is to recognize that you did something to contribute to your success. If you need to break it down to a basic point, you said “yes” to taking an opportunity that led to a success when you could have said “no.”

Focus on Providing Value

People with imposter syndrome are often concerned with the results of their contribution. Instead of obsessing about how you will be perceived, focus on genuinely helping others. Try to make an offer that will be useful for the advancement of the project. It could be as simple as offering to lend a hand where you might not usually. This puts you in the position to succeed and receive the support of others. It may be small, but making a valuable contribution can go a long way toward giving you confidence.

Collect Positive Feedback

Having a hard time thinking positively about your successes? Creating a record of compliments and positive comments can give you a boost when you need it, from emails from coworkers to your year-end review. Keep the nice things said about you, and you’ll be more likely to realize you are not a fraud. This helps you be able to accept compliments in the future as well.

Talk to Someone About Your Feelings

Keeping your sentiments to yourself can be as harmful as anything. It is imperative that you find a person to open up to and trust, whether it’s a friend, family member or coworker. This person can help you overcome your imposter feelings and will likely tell you how you are not a fraud. Such confidants might even tell you they have similar feelings about themselves.

Recognizing Imposter Syndrome in the Workplace

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Imposter syndrome is a constant in workplaces. Psychologists, counselors and other mental health professionals should understand how to help people overcome imposter syndrome. Business leaders should also be aware of imposter syndrome and how it may be affecting their employees. Touro University Worldwide offers online psychology programs at the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral levels as well as online business programs, including an MBA and a master’s degree in industrial and organizational psychology. Learn more today about starting or continuing your education and advancing in your career.

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