How to combat imposter syndrome

Feeling inadequate despite evident success is a common experience for workers. Reframing your thoughts, keeping track of your accomplishments and finding a mentor could help you overcome these feelings
by Bethan Rees


Have you ever felt inadequate or that you don’t deserve something at work, such as a promotion? If so, you might be suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’. In the 1970s, psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance studied this phenomenon and found it “occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalise and accept their success” and who “often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud”, according to a gradPSYCH article by Kirsten Weir.  

An estimated 70% of people will experience this sensation at least once in their lifetime, according to a research article in the International Journal of Behavioral Science by Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander. And a 2019 survey of 3,000 people in the UK by Access Commercial Finance reveals that 66% of women and 56% of men have felt like a fraud in the past 12 months, according to an Investment Week article.

Reasons behind imposter syndrome can differ. Lauren Romansky, vice president of HR at research firm Gartner, quoted in a TechRepublic article by Macy Bayern, says causes can be “everything from anxiety, depression – there are even correlations with graduate degrees or family expectations”. The article also quotes Sam Parr, founder and CEO of newsletter business The Hustle, who says “these feelings are completely natural … everyone has them, even the people you admire most”.

Bayern notes that “not only can imposter syndrome be a negative force on someone’s attitude and mind, it can also impact their work. Feelings of inadequacy often end up making people believe in their insecurities, forcing their fears into realities”. So, how can it be tackled?

Identify the cause

What’s shaking your confidence? You’ve been hired on the basis that you can do this job, so why are you doubting yourself? “In most cases, the answer will be obvious: I don’t deserve to lead this project because so-and-so is more experienced than I am. I haven’t worked at the company long enough. I only aced my last project out of luck or good timing. That spot where you’re underselling yourself is likely the root of the problem,” writes Ximena Vengoechea in an article for The Muse. Once you have identified your problem with the situation, you can begin to look for a cure.

Dr Pei-Han Cheng, a psychologist at the Center for Counseling & Consultation at St John’s University in New York City, is quoted in an article for Monster, a recruitment company, written by Elana Lyn Gross. Cheng says: “When this type of thought surfaces, it is important to recognise it as a thought, instead of a fact.” She recommends making a self-affirming statement when these thoughts strike, such as, “I am having this thought because I am not feeling so confident of myself. The reality is that I have tons of education and experience. I also put a lot of effort into my work.”

Reframing your thoughts

An article for Time magazine by Abigail Abrams quotes imposter syndrome expert Valerie Young, who says the difference between people who experience imposter syndrome and people who don’t is how they respond to challenges. “People who don’t feel like imposters are no more intelligent or competent or capable than the rest of us,” Young says. “It’s very good news because it means we just have to learn to think like non-imposters.”

Abrams continues: “Learning to value constructive criticism, understanding that you’re actually slowing your team down when you don’t ask for help, or remembering that the more you practice a skill, the better you will get at it, can all help.”

Track your accomplishments

Keeping a list of what you’re good at and what you’ve done well can help ground yourself in reality, providing evidence as to why you’re qualified to do your job. “It’s easy to stay so focused on your to-do list, overflowing inbox, mistakes, and weaknesses that you neglect to focus on your strengths and accomplishments,” writes Gross.

Gross quotes Steve Pritchard, an HR consultant for clothing brand Ben Sherman, who recommends creating a folder where you can file positive emails you receive from colleagues and clients. Pritchard says, “This may help you to see a pattern where you are succeeding and where you may need to focus on developing within your role.”

Vengoechea echoes this, expanding on the email folder idea with an “accomplishments box”, which could be a physical box with written notes in, or a digital document. “Take a look at everything you’ve achieved, and reflect on all the hard work you’ve put in to get to where you are now. Embrace the fact that you got yourself to where you are. You’ve earned your spot – your accomplishments are proof of that.” You can then look to this box whenever you’re having a pang of imposter syndrome.

She adds: “Don’t doubt the intelligence of those who have promoted you, hired you, or offered you opportunities. They have made deliberate choices based on your experience and potential. You really do deserve to be there.”

Find a mentor

Having a workplace mentor can help you see through the fog of your imposter syndrome. In an article for Fast Company, Eric M Ruiz writes, “If you hold your mentor’s input in such high regard, shouldn’t their opinion about your potential outweigh your own doubts about it more often than not? After all, if you were right about your own inadequacies, what would that say about your mentor’s decision to stick with you?” Ruiz references an article in Pacific Standard magazine by writer Ann Friedman. She believes that imposter syndrome thrives when "there are few mentors to provide a reality check”, and Ruiz says that mentors “push us to believe in ourselves, even against our own internal objection”.

On the other side of the coin, Vengoechea suggests giving mentoring a go yourself: “You have expertise to share. Share [it] with someone who needs it. Not only will you realise how much knowledge you really do have, you’ll also likely uncover new strengths in the process. Mentoring can reveal skills you took for granted or mistakenly assumed came from luck. It’s empowering to know you are helping someone in his or her journey, too.”

Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome? If so, how did you overcome it? Leave your comments below.

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Published: 28 Feb 2020
  • Soft Skills
  • The Review
  • Career Development
  • imposter syndrome
  • mentoring
  • leadership
  • Career advice

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