What is Imposter Syndrome?

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Ever heard of Imposter Syndrome? Whether or not you have, you may have experienced it. Whilst not extremely well-known, it’s estimated that 70% of people experience some symptoms of Imposter Syndrome during their lives. With this in mind, it’s possible many of us have had experiences, thoughts or feelings that we couldn’t put a name to. But may have been related to Imposter Syndrome. Encapsulated by feelings of inadequacy and guilt at deceiving others. And striving for perfection and fears of being discovered as ‘not good enough’. Imposter Syndrome can have a profound impact on our mental health. It can create a pressure cooker of discomfort which can lead to depression, anxiety and burnout.

The History of Imposter Syndrome

We’ve not been talking about Imposter Syndrome for very long. But it is gradually becoming part of our zeitgeist. Famous people, primarily famous women, have begun to speak about their own feelings of Imposter Syndrome. Which may surprise us given the professional achievements and fame they have acquired. Included in this list are Hollywood actors Charlize Theron and Viola Davis, business leader Sheryl Sandberg and political figures Michelle Obama and Sonia Sotomayer. Despite the acclaim these women have accrued, it may be unsurprising that Imposter Syndrome is reported more by women. Of course, this may be because men do not feel like they can talk about these feelings.

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However, the original research, undertaken by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, focused on a group of professionally impressive women. Their hypothesis stated that “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience imposter phenomenon persist in believing they are really not bright”. To many of us it may be shocking to discover that Imposter Syndrome can impact people at all life ages and stages, of all sex and gender too. Regardless of professional, academic or personal achievement. In short, those who experience Imposter Syndrome feel a conflict between the way they are seen by others and the way they view themselves. CEO, Lou Solomon, describes Imposter Syndrome as the feeling of having “snuck in the back door of life’s theatre” in her TED talk on the subject.

How to Help Ourselves

In a later blog post I will explore the 5 types of Imposter Syndrome which bring together the various experiences of Imposter Syndrome and catergorize them into 5 overarching sub-groups. Alongside this explanation I will consider how we may recognize Imposter Syndrome and why we may experience it. But for the end of this post, I want to consider how we can help ourselves overcome feelings of Imposter Syndrome. Whilst many of us may not reach the criteria of Imposter Syndrome, we may have associated thoughts or feelings which may hold us back or limit us in certain ways. As well as negatively impacting on our mental health and sense of self and confidence.

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  • If you experience negative or critical thoughts such as “I can’t do this” or “everyone else is better at this than me” or “they’ll find out I’m incompetent and fire me” question where these thoughts are coming from. Just because we think them does not mean they are true. Call them out as the fiction they most likely are.
  • Those experiencing Imposter Syndrome often hold themselves up to an impossible idea. Whose ideal or idea of success is this? Does it serve you or lead to unhappiness? Rethink what success may mean to you and make it attainable and measurable.
  • Comparison to others is the surest path to disappointment and low self-esteem. There’s no surer way to feel like an imposter. But remember we all start at different places with different resources. No two journeys are the same so it’s impossible to make a true comparison.
  • Many of us with Imposter Syndrome view weakness as a negative. Fearing that people will uncover we’re not as perfect or competent as they think or assume we are. But weakness is the place that we grow from. It’s vital to help us progress, we push progress forward when we ask for help, rather than holding it back. For example, if we ask for help we will do things right the first time and we will do it well confident in what we are doing. If we don’t, we are more liable to make mistakes, waste resources or have to repeat it thereby wasting time too.
  • Balance the negatives with the positive. Acknowledge your effort and your successes and progress. Make a big deal of them even if it’s a small win which no-one else applauds. They may not know what a big deal it is for you. Make sure you honour it by celebrating.
  • Be kind to yourself by sharing some of the kindness you undoubtedly share with others with yourself. If you are beating yourself up, ask “would I speak to a friend that way?” it’s unlikely that you would.
  • If you need a boost talk to your friends or support network. Have someone you can share your fears with and commit to listening to their compliments or assurances. If you’re not in the right place to believe them, maybe write them down or save them for later.
  • Talk about Imposter Syndrome with others, if 70% of us experience it, we all need to talk about it more and feel like a community, less alone and who can support each other.

What are your thoughts on Imposter Syndrome? Have you experienced it or heard about it before? What do you think helps to overcome these feelings? Let us know below

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5 thoughts on “What is Imposter Syndrome?

  1. Imposter Syndrome is no joke, that’s for sure! I have experienced it many times but didn’t know there was a word for it until recently. To help me overcome my feelings, I talk to my support network of close friends. They can usually talk me through it.

  2. It’s a real phenomenon and it can prevent us from living our best life. Thanks for sharing the backstory of it and the research. It’s useful to give context and expand our understanding 💜

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