What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome was first coined in 1978 in a book called ‘The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women’ by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Innes. It affects both men and women and links in particular with high achievers. 70% of people, both men and women, apparently experience this at some point during their careers. I suspect that most of you will have experienced it too and I wonder whether your experience is similar to mine? Where do you think it stems from?

In this blog, I will explore: my own personal experience with Imposter Syndrome, the potential causes, what the current research says, how to recognise it, and most importantly, how to overcome the imposter phenomenon!

My Personal Experience with Imposter Syndrome

The first time I actually recognised myself experiencing Imposter Syndrome was in my first standalone Learning and Development role. I was sitting in a sales training planning meeting with a number of senior managers when the Managing Director (MD) turned to me, and without an ounce of sarcasm said, “Let’s find out what the training expert thinks we should do”. I squirmed internally at the term ‘expert’ and spouted something fairly commonsensical. Although, in my opinion, this was not expert knowledge, the audience seemed happy with my response. I breathed a sigh of relief about not being ‘found out’ on that occasion!

Reflecting on this objectively, it’s interesting to note that I felt so excruciatingly uncomfortable, yet I had spent 5 years in sales or training roles. I had a master’s degree in organisational psychology (with a specific module on Learning & Development) and had as much common sense as anyone else around the table – yet I felt like an Imposter.

In later life, I was lucky enough to be able to buy a fairly iconic house in the village that I live in – largely because unfortunately my Dad died, giving me access to funds that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. We’ve been there ten years now and I have only recently started saying ‘Thank you’ if someone admires the house as opposed to explaining how we came to live there and didn’t really deserve it. That is what Imposter Syndrome is; it’s the sense of not being worthy enough to be in a position or perhaps, more importantly, to be recognised by others to be in that position. Personally, it’s a feeling that I don’t deserve being given recognition or an accolade by others – it’s about feeling like a fraud and that I might get found out.

The Causes of my Imposter Syndrome

There are a few possible causes of my Imposter Syndrome. It could be related to my mother who had a tendency to compare any achievements I had with someone else – if I got 100% in a test she would ask “What did XYZ get?” and she also felt it was “rude to boast or show off”. So I feel that I always need to downplay recognition for fear of my mother’s voice telling me I am showing off. I also feel I have a deep-seated fear of failure and if I am put up on a pedestal then the distance to fall and the associated humiliation is high.

We can define Imposter Syndrome as:

  • A belief that others have an inflated view of your abilities or skills.
  • Intense fear you will be found out as a fake.
  • Attributing success to factors external to your own skills or talent.

What does current research say?

As mentioned earlier, research from 2011 suggests that approximately 70 percent of people will experience at least one episode of Imposter Syndrome in their lives. It’s a phenomenon or experience as a reaction to particular stimuli and events. One survey in the UK with more than 1000 people who have been in work more than 3 years found that 85% felt inadequate or incompetent at work and 39% thought that one day their boss or colleagues would find out they were underqualified despite experience/qualifications, yet only 25% were aware of Imposter Syndrome.

The Impact of Gender Norms

My quick poll, courtesy of the HR Ninjas, drew more than 140 responses. About 90% were female and the results showed that 66% said they experienced it a lot; 24% a little, 7% not really and less than 1% not at all. These figures are high. However, it does not just apply to women – in 2018 researchers had an article published in the BPS Journal that claimed that Imposter Syndrome may hit men harder than women, triggering more anxiety and worse performance – a difference they suggest is due to traditional gender norms that place a greater expectation on men to be more competent than women.

There are some interesting follow-up studies where researchers carried out follow-up research putting people through a test and then telling some of them that they had got the first five questions wrong and then monitoring the impact on how they proceeded with the second half of the test. Overall, they found that men had more extreme reactions to these stimuli and sometimes appeared to self-sabotage in the second half of the test, possibly to provide an explanation for their underperformance. Women appeared to increase effort and did better than males when given negative feedback. Potential explanations all point at gender norms –  is it more acceptable for women to fail? Or are there lower expectations because they aren’t expected to achieve in the first place?

Is feeling like an Imposter is normal?

Most people are likely to experience Imposter Syndrome at some point in their career and, it’s probably a really healthy way for us to keep our feet on the ground. If we do not experience it at all, then that is unusual. It is about having a balance or reality check and ensuring that our natural thoughts of the Imposter Phenomenon don’t hold us back. “Feel the fear and do it anyway type thing”. When launching the podcast I had a major internal battle about whether I had anything of any value to say and it feels so exposing. But I had to override this with my logical mind that everyone has something of value and no one knows everything. Over time, I have become more confident – although I still feel the pressure to do the homework on topics to try my best to deliver quality.

Some examples of situations where you may feel as though you are an imposter:

  • In a new role – particularly if you have been labelled as an expert or the clever one or having specific skills.
  • Change in circumstances e.g. return to work mothers, it is such an extreme life change- full-time parenting then back to work.
  • Joining a new group without knowing their skills or our skills.
  • Challenging a stereotype or gender norm – doing something different.
  • Being put in the position of an expert e.g. running a podcast, delivering a training course or being a speaker at an event.

In short, we cannot grow without moving out of our comfort zone. As soon as we stretch out of our comfort zone, we’re more likely to experience the Imposter Phenomenon. It’s like a self-protection mechanism to keep us safe. However, does it hold us back or is the sense of doubt disproportionate or over-inflated?

Signs that Imposter Syndrome is holding you back

  • Worrying that you are not living up to expectations.
  • Avoiding extra responsibilities because it may compromise the quality of other tasks.
  • Being stuck in an “Imposter Cycle”. Each time you achieve something you worry about getting found out.
  • Genuinely believing that your success is down to outside factors.
  • Self-sabotage. Undermining your own efforts to give a rationale for failure rather than risking trying hard to succeed and still failing.

The Five Types of Imposters

Dr. Valerie Young, considered by some to be an expert on the syndrome, has identified five types of “imposters”. They include:

The Expert

An “imposter” may be a perfectionist or an expert. The expert will not feel satisfied when finishing a task until they feel that they know everything about the subject. Experts continuously hunt for new information, which prevents them from completing tasks and projects. They may avoid applying for a job because they do not meet every requirement.

The Perfectionist

People who aim for perfection often experience high levels of anxiety, doubt, and worry, especially when they fail to achieve their extreme goals. Perfectionists are usually unhappy with their work. They tend to focus on areas where they could have done better rather than celebrate the things they did well.

The Natural Genius

Natural geniuses are typically able to master a new skill quickly and easily. They often feel ashamed and weak when they cannot because they are so used to success. People in this category fail to recognize that nearly everyone needs to build upon their skills throughout life to succeed.

The Soloist

The soloist may also be known as the rugged individualist. They prefer to work alone and tend to believe that asking for help will reveal their incompetence. A soloist will typically turn down help so that they can prove their worth as an individual.

The Superhero

Superheroes often excel in all areas, mainly because they push themselves so hard. Many workaholics are sometimes classed as superheroes. This overload of work will eventually result in burnout, which can affect physical health, mental well-being, and relationships with others.

How can we help ourselves and others with Imposter Syndrome?

  • Normalise it – talk about it – say if you experience it. Make it a natural thing to discuss or flag and also help others to challenge it. E.g. we all had to start somewhere – your experience is just as valid as the next persons.
  • Recognise achievements & successes – consistently and objectively. Be aware that some people are uncomfortable receiving positive achievement. Get them to acknowledge if they achieve a challenging goal and that it was their work that did it
  • Encourage well thought through risks – support people in challenging themselves to step out of their comfort zone. You should applaud the effort and risk, whatever the result. Focus on what you can learn and discourage perfectionism.
  • Challenge Imposter thoughts – Challenge the reality of the context for the thoughts. For example, where others have been in similar positions/took risks and succeeded. What’s the worst that can happen?

It may be beneficial to work with a therapist who is experienced in cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of therapy aims to improve coping strategies by challenging unhelpful thinking patterns.

Key Takeaways

Most people will experience symptoms of Imposter Syndrome to some degree. It is important to remember that perceptions do not always reflect reality. So, be your own cheerleader or coach and challenge that little Imposter on your shoulder and do the same for others. People who experience impostorism can overcome it by talking about their fears and challenging negative thoughts. Keeping a record of achievements and celebrating successes can also significantly boost self-esteem. It’s important to remember not about whether you are good enough, it is simply what you think. People who do not have imposter syndrome are no more capable, they just think different thoughts. We just need to learn how to think like a non-imposter.

Infographic: The Five Types of the Imposter Complex

Listen to the related HR Uprising Podcast on Imposter Syndrome