What is Imposter Syndrome?
You might have heard the phrase ‘imposter syndrome’ used to describe those who feel out of place in their academic or professional environment, but what does that phrase really mean, and how can we recognize signs of imposter syndrome in ourselves and others? More crucially, how can we challenge these chronic feelings of inadequacy?
While the term has gained more exposure in recent years, the term ‘imposter phenomenon’ was used within psychology as early as the 70s. Coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, ‘imposter phenomenon’ was first described as ‘internal experience of intellectual phoniness’ as experienced by those with ‘outstanding academic and professional achievements’, while Audrey Ervin more recently summarized it as: ‘Chronic feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, and fraudulence despite objective success’. While Clance and Imes’ study was initially conducted with a focus on a subject pool of primarily white women in the United States, research has since been performed with much more inclusive groups with similar outcomes, and statistics now suggest that up to 30 of high achievers may suffer from imposter syndrome.
So, what does imposter syndrome entail and how can we combat it?
Recognising Signs of Imposter Syndrome
While many academics and professionals may experience feelings of inadequacy or low confidence at certain points throughout their career, it is the recurring and damaging elements of imposter syndrome that warrants it being considered a phenomenon of its own. Here are a few signs to look out for in yourself and your colleagues that would suggest the presence of imposter syndrome:
Feelings of Self-Doubt and Inadequacy
One of the most common characteristics of imposter syndrome is the self-doubt that clouds our ability to accurately assess and appreciate our strengths, achievements, and commendable qualities. Those who suffer from imposter syndrome believe that they have not earned their position or achievements and are convinced that their colleagues and peers are more qualified or intelligent than themselves.
It is not uncommon to experience a lack of confidence every once in a while, but one of the tell-tale signs of imposter syndrome is the frequency and intensity of the feelings, especially when these feelings begin to affect our self-worth and ability to carry out our responsibilities.
While it is not always possible to recognise negative thought patterns in others, one more identifiable sign is an excessive amount of negative self-talk, which may indicate that the person is suffering from imposter syndrome. If your colleague or peer appears to have a preoccupation with their own perceived inadequacy, or often negatively compares themselves to others, it is likely that they have found themselves trapped in a cycle of self-doubt.
In highly competitive fields, perfectionism can be rife. We may push ourselves to perform at a level of perfection that is unrealistic and damaging, which in turn holds us back from performing at the level we should be. Those with imposter syndrome may hold impossibly high standards for themselves and their work, and then become highly self-critical when they are unable to adhere to their own self-imposed expectations.
One of the ways in which imposter syndrome differs from general self-doubt is the extent to which it affects the sufferer’s daily life, and in particular their ability to thrive within their professional or academic field. Those who do not believe they belong in or deserve their position may become avoidant of their work and responsibilities, which further perpetuates the cycle of negative self-image.
Fear of ‘Discovery’
The most crucial defining feature of imposter syndrome is the fear that those around you will inevitably find out about your inadequacy; you believe that you somehow scammed your way into your position and that it is only a matter of time before this is discovered by your peers. This fear of ‘exposure’ often drives sufferers to push themselves too hard to compensate for their perceived misgivings.
How Can We Overcome Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome can be extremely difficult for those who experience it, but thankfully there are ways to challenge and overcome the phenomenon and redirect your energy towards positive self-talk, which in turn will enable you to achieve more in your field. Here are some ways in which you can challenge this cycle and overcome imposter syndrome:
Acknowledge the signs
As with most problems, the first step is being able to recognise that there is a problem at all. If you suspect there is a problem with your self-image at work, then reading up on the signs of imposter syndrome might be the beginning of overcoming the issue and taking a positive step towards a healthier mindset.
Be honest with yourself and others
Once you’ve recognised the signs in yourself, being open about the problem is the second step to take. While imposter syndrome is not a diagnosable condition, there are still plenty of resources for those who suffer with it, and talking to your peers or a professional about the issue creates an opportunity
Recognise your strengths
If you struggle to acknowledge your own achievements, then try to incorporate positive self-talk into your morning routine. Have reaffirming messages posted next to your mirror, around your desk, or on your phone so there is always a positive thought available to counteract the negative thought processes occurring in your own head. Acknowledge the hard work it has taken you to reach the position you’re currently in, and trust that you are exactly where you need to be.
Shift your focus
One method that parents often use to build a more concrete sense of self-worth in children is to congratulate the effort and work, rather than the achievement. If your confidence is easily shaken, shift your focus away from your title and qualifications and instead focus on the effort and work you do on a daily basis, and recognise the worth that comes from doing what you do every day, whether it results in external recognition or not.
Practice self-compassion and patience
Very often, we are our own harshest critics. While it may seem productive to be critical of ourselves, as we may believe it pushes us to try harder, it can often result in the opposite and get in the way of our progress in our professional and personal lives. Showing compassion to ourselves in the same way we show compassion to others fosters a positive relationship with ourselves and means we have more mental capacity for achieving our goals. However, it is also crucial to be compassionate to ourselves even if we aren’t achieving what we believe we should be. Our self-worth should not be entirely dependent on our productivity or career, especially when life is unpredictable and often uncontrollable. Recognising our inherent worth is an important step to building an unshakeable confidence that will help combat imposters syndrome in the long run.
If you suspect you’re suffering from imposters syndrome, and it’s getting in the way of your professional or personal development, then consider talking to someone about it – it can be a professional or simply a friend. In the meantime, try implementing some of the aforementioned techniques to build your confidence and combat negative cycles, so that you can continue to be the very best version of yourself.
Article written by Abigail Whitney of Likambi Global Publishing Ltd