In the first part of our series on Imposter Syndrome, we explore what Imposter Syndrome is and how it affects us. Next week, we will share tips on how you can work towards overcoming this syndrome for yourself.
Have you ever felt like a fraud at work? That your professional success is based on luck? Or you have crippling self-doubt or fear of failure in the workplace?
If you answered yes to these, then welcome to the Imposter Syndrome Club. It’s not an exclusive club and it definitely doesn’t have many perks, but the upside is, once you understand why you’re in the club, you can work on overcoming the syndrome.
Over the years, I have definitely had moments when I suffered from Imposter Syndrome. Interestingly, these moments have tended to be in the lead up to important events or meetings and it’s left me feeling anxious and indecisive. Most recently, when I was launching Meritos these feelings were activated in a serious way. Thoughts would run through my head like, “everyone will laugh at you” or “you don’t know what you’re doing”. However, in reality this couldn’t be further from the truth. When Meritos launched, I received an overwhelmingly positive response and to be honest the thoughts going through my head were simply not true. Despite all the positive feedback during my career and even though I believe my career success has been a result of hard work and personal drive, these feelings of Imposter Syndrome would affect me.
So what is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter Syndrome is a term that describes the psychological experience of feeling like a fake and that your success is undeserved. It is the perception of how you think others see you, not how they actually see you in the workplace. It creates a situation where you feel crippling self-doubt, you fear failure and you undermine any praise given to you. Basically, you believe the stories you keep telling yourself even though evidence to the contrary proves your self-narrative wrong. If you are such a fraud, then why did you receive the promotion or win the award?
Dr. Valerie Young an expert and author on the topic has categorised this syndrome into five types:
If you fit into this category then you love setting excessively high goals for yourself that almost inevitably leads to failure or creates a situation where you experience major self-doubt. You also love controlling situations and will often try to micro-manage so the job is done right.
Those who fit into this category try to manage their fear of failure and self-doubt by working harder and longer than others to prove their worth. Often they’ll stay late, feel stressed during downtime about work and sacrifice hobbies and passions for work.
The natural genius
People that fit into this category not only set impossibly high goals but expect they will achieve them easily and quickly on the first try. So if it takes them a longer time to master a task they feel shame or anxiety.
If you fit into this category you feel like you need to go it alone to prove your worth. If you need to ask for help or cannot work independently then the fear of failure takes control.
People in this category measure themselves against what and how much they should know. For example, they would be unlikely to apply for a position unless they met every single requirement. Or, in their current role, they often feel like they still don’t know enough to merit the opportunity and they are unworthy.
A study conducted in 2016 by researchers at the University of Salzburg in Austria discovered that 70% of people have experienced this syndrome at some point in their career. So I was definitely not alone. Another study led by a team of US and German researchers in 2018 revealed that traditional gender norms may place a higher expectation on men to be competent in the workplace. As a result, Imposter Syndrome could affect men more than women. Traditionally, this has not always been our understanding as research in the 1970s suggested that Imposter Syndrome was experienced predominantly by women. However, the 2018 study was interesting because of the contrasting difference between men and women. When given negative feedback and confronted with feelings of Imposter Syndrome, women increased effort and performed better than men, who decreased their effort and performed worse.
This research made us think, so we put a call out to our followers to see if anyone was willing to share their experiences and we received many responses. One person even began to feel high levels of anxiety just admitting that imposter syndrome was something they suffered from. All respondents were managers, head of their departments or regions, owned their own business or were operating within a highly competitive niche market so despite feeling like an imposter or unworthy they have all been extremely successful in their careers. I’ve listed some of the questions we asked and their responses below the blog. Their answers were very similar and often they admitted that their negative self-talk was always proven wrong.
Imposter Syndrome is something many of us have experienced at some point in our career and talking about it and sharing our stories is one way of supporting each other during these moments. Our next blog will explore more research around the syndrome and also offer practical strategies to overcome these feelings.
If you’d like to share your experiences of Imposter Syndrome, please complete our quick online survey or comment on our social posts. We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences too.
When was the last time you felt like a "fraud" or imposter at work?
Today! I work in such a niche field, every job is so highly coveted. At the moment I’m working on a number of events for a festival and I had this sudden wave of "how did I get here? Am I good enough? Am I tracking okay? What if I fail?"
What day is it? But seriously, it's not really such a part of my life now, but over the years, I have been in some roles and some situations where the voice inside my head has been loudly saying "how did you possibly get here", and "get ready for them to find out you have no idea what you're talking about". Interestingly, I don't think anyone, outside my own head, would suspect this of me because I have always had a very confident manner and I am assured in my responses.
This happens regularly. It may be while I’m in a team meeting where I often look around at my team and think “they’re here because they are experienced and capable. How did I get here?”
What are some of the thoughts that go through your head when you’re suffering from Imposter Syndrome?
You aren’t smart enough, you don’t know enough to be doing this and at the level you’re at, the others at this same level are so much smarter than me – why would people want to follow me?
Visions of events failing, the disappointment of my mentors who have helped me get here. Shame. My arts career is over.
Usually along the lines of ‘I’m not as experienced as everyone else in the team, I’m not sure how I got here (to my current position), am I considered a valuable part of the team?’
Were you able to overcome these feelings?
Yes. I take deep breaths and start using techniques I've learnt to question these thoughts, and to which I have no evidence for. I try to remember praise, take deep breaths, and put upbeat music on which makes me smile and tap my feet and get back to work. So basically I distract my inner imposter demon.
Yes. I soon realised that I can't know everything that is related to Marketing. I cannot be a specialist in each area, but am a great generalist and leader.
There have been plenty of times where I have overcome these feelings, however it is something I’m constantly working on while at work. This usually involves taking a step back, taking a breath and trying to centre myself. Other times it has been harder and will hang over me for a while and then eventually go away. I guess you can say it’s a regular battle.
Most importantly, I don't think you should ever verbalise uncertainty of your abilities to your colleagues. Keep your own counsel if you're feeling overwhelmed and underqualified. Talk to trusted friends and family, or professionals, to help you work through the feelings of inadequacy, but don't let it be obvious in the workplace. Get in and just get the job done. People who seem self-assured and get the job done get promoted.
Why do you think you suffer from this?
I think that I have very high standards for myself. Often with events and programs, I'll get praise and then I'll start listing the things that went wrong, but the experience by the audience and artists was fantastic. My industry is small, it's incredibly competitive. I've not gotten jobs because everyone who applied is over qualified and have 10 -20 years more experience than me, and that's difficult. So it slowly eats away at you.
The expectation to constantly prove yourself to your team or manager can lead to feeling insecure about your abilities and contribution to the business. Also knowing that people can judge others so quickly and harshly adds to these feelings.
Its human nature to compare to others and we only see one version of others – but obviously see all aspects of ourselves so we feel we are undeserving.
Past experiences with previous employers. Fear of failure.
About the author
Chris Morrison is the founder and Director of Meritos, an executive search and recruitment business working with purpose-driven organisations. If you're interested in connecting with Chris, you can find him on LinkedIn here. You can also reach him on 02 9055 6836 or via email at email@example.com