Updated: Jun 26, 2022
I often work with outstanding professionals who experience Imposter Syndrome. Some are women, but not all: this feeling is not gender-specific. The irony is that the greater their capabilities, the greater the feeling that they are a fraud. They become paralysed by fear and dedicate massive energy to doing even the smallest things. As a result, they become exhausted, and by working on insignificant things, they minimise their contribution to the organisation and impact their career. They end up hiding, hoping nobody notices they are a fraud.
Most people have experienced such a feeling throughout their careers. I have felt it through school, university, and most of my career, especially when taking big leaps forward or new stretching roles. This feeling was the source of some dark and stressful days when I had no idea about what was going on. I became determined to identify root causes and, most importantly, what I could do about it.
I have summarised my findings on what is going on in the minds of the people experiencing Imposter Syndrome, together with reflecting questions to help manage it.
1. Difficulties in internalising their achievements: These people are perfectionists and credit their success to luck, serendipity, perseverance and other people’s contribution. The syndrome appears to have roots in childhood: in people whose parents have been overinvested in their achievements, who noticed them only when they excelled and in firstborn children with greater expectations from parents. Interestingly, it also manifests in children who have surpassed their family of origin and were not expected to succeed.
2. Unrealistic expectations: They subjectively compare themselves with an idealised image of who they should be. The expectations they have of themselves are higher than anyone else’s. When asked whom they compare themselves to, their first answer is that the comparison is with their idea of themselves or the job description. When exploring deeper, they realise they unconsciously compare themselves to more senior people: bosses, peers, mentors or teachers.
I wrote down a few examples of unconscious comparison:
▶ If all peers and mentors are men, the unconscious conclusion is that being a woman is not enough.
▶ If leaders around them have multiple years of experience in a role, the unconscious conclusion is that being a young leader is too little.
▶ If most team members have studied a specific domain, they may conclude that hands-on experience is less valuable.
3. Ignoring the actual evidence: They ignore objective evidence of what makes them successful and why they are in the role: their results over time, hands-on experience, their competence, their skillset and their credentials.
4. Devaluation of their differentiators: They miss out on their differentiators: how they look at things, their creativity, their resilience, their vulnerability, their network and connections. They believe these capabilities are not valuable because they can’t see these differentiators in the people around them. These are what make them stand out.
If you experience Imposter Syndrome, ask yourself these questions and write down the answers. If you feel resistant to these questions or believe they don’t apply at all to you, that’s often a sign that you’ll get value when identifying the answers.
Who am I comparing myself to? Whom do I believe I should be? The answer is usually one or two names.
What history of experience and contribution makes me eligible for this role? Look at actual facts, not your interpretation of the facts.
What are the unique and rare skills that I bring to the table? Look at what others come to you for and what they appreciate you.
Who can help me manage these feelings? Working with professionals like a coach or a therapist can help.
How can I build a trusted circle to regularly give me an accurate perspective?
In the long run, the impact of imposter syndrome can become paralysing and a self-fulfilling prophecy. Taking small steps to manage it can spare yourself, your team and your organisation from the negative effects that come with it.
Believe you have much to offer, and with the proper support from experienced professionals, you can make your vision a reality.