If you feel inadequate, that you don’t belong or like you’re about to be ‘found out’ at work, you may be suffering from a widespread psychological phenomenon. These feeling are typical of ‘Impostor Syndrome’. You’re in good company: imposter syndrome is ubiquitous, with Oscar winners, top athletes and bestselling authors all confessing to experiencing it. There’s a perception that imposter syndrome affects more women than men, but it’s not a gendered phenomenon: perhaps women are just more comfortable talking about it.
Imposter syndrome has three defining features
1. A feeling that other people have overestimated your abilities
2. A fear that others will discover your true failings
3. A persistent tendency to put successes down to external factors, such as luck or disproportionate effort.
Imposter syndrome can affect your sense of self, how you behave and your confidence in your abilities.
One of the driving factors behind imposter syndrome is critical thinking. We often give too much weight to our thoughts and fall into the trap of believing they are true. However, just because we think something, that doesn’t make it a reality. We often distort our thinking unknowingly.
Ways that we distort our thinking
We often jump to conclusions and predict adverse outcomes without evidence: for example, assuming that doing a presentation when we feel nervous, means it will go badly.
We can over-generalise: thinking one set-back means a whole project is doomed, for example.
We can fall into all-or-nothing thinking: believing if we’re thrown by one question in a job interview, this wipes out the smart answers we provided to all the other questions.
We can use mental filtering: glossing over good feedback and dwelling on the negative in an appraisal, for example.
We can personalise situations, assuming responsibility and blame for things beyond our control, such as our department’s poor annual performance.
We can also think in terms of ‘should’ and ‘ought’: believing we should click with colleagues despite having nothing in common, for example.
Actions to ease imposter syndrome
It's in our power to address these issues to help relieve the negative effects of imposter syndrome and build confidence. Here's a few ways you can take it on:
- Identify the feelings — notice when you feel like a fraud and note the sensations
- Do a reality check — challenge your assumptions and acknowledge the difference between feelings and reality. Writing a list of your skills, qualities and accomplishments can help
- Talk about it: if you share how you’re feeling, you’ll soon realise you’re not alone
- Recognise your successes: don’t write them off as good luck or hard work. Your skills and abilities enabled you to achieve what you did
- Remember nobody is perfect: accept that failure is part of life and likely to happen at some point. Look at it as an opportunity to learn rather than as a reflection of yourself
- Stop comparing yourself to others: instead, compare yourself to past versions of yourself and recognise the progression
- Learn to accept compliments and praise — resist the urge to be self-deprecating and let the approval sink in.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can also help with imposter syndrome. CBT works by encouraging us to see ourselves and the world around us in a more positive, realistic and useful way. Therapists can help replace negative core beliefs and critical self-talk with a more constructive, rational mindset. For example, did your boss really ignore you? Is it possible they didn’t see you? Even if they did ignore you, does that mean anything? Perhaps they’re just busy.
Imposter syndrome doesn’t have to hold you back. While it can be challenging and you may never overcome it completely, with the right tool-kit, it can be managed and channelled positively. Having imposter syndrome means you’re likely to feel a constant urge to do your best, fine-tuning your performance as you do so — imposter syndrome can inspire the best version of you.
Last updated Wednesday 3 April 2019