Everybody encounters the occasional spell of self-doubt – but sometimes, those feelings of inadequacy linger and limit you. Do you ever experience an inescapable feeling that you don’t belong, that you aren’t qualified, or that your successes aren’t your own? That’s imposter syndrome rearing its ugly head.
The term has been in use since the 1970s, when clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes first coined it to refer to describe intense feelings of inadequacy among a sample of high achieving women. Subsequent research has found that imposter syndrome doesn’t discriminate, affecting 70% of people.
Despite its pervasiveness, this phenomenon receives surprisingly little attention – especially when it comes to the workplace, where growing demands and competition induce paralyzing performance concerns. Imposter syndrome increases stress levels and makes individuals feel more isolated, contributing to lower overall employee wellbeing. It also instills a fear of failure which kills the kind of risk-taking behavior that is critical for successful innovation.
Whether you’re an employee or an HR director, prioritize understanding and addressing imposter syndrome to better position you and your team for success.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
While imposter syndrome plagues people at all stages of their careers and across all industries, it doesn’t always manifest in the same way. Author of the award-winning book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Dr. Valerie Young identified five main types of “imposters:”
1. The Perfectionist
Perfectionists focus on the “how” – how something is done, how it turns out, and how it measures up. They struggle to recognize their successes, instead preoccupying themselves with how things could’ve been done better. Inordinately high standards cause minor imperfections to become major obstacles to this high achiever’s mental health.
2. The Expert
While perfectionists are obsessed with processes, experts fixate on knowledge – specifically, what and how much they know. Being perceived as inexperienced is an expert’s worst nightmare – to such a point they may struggle with asking for help. No amount of training or certification will stop experts from feeling they don’t know enough.
3. The Soloist
Soloists believe accomplishments are theirs if they’re theirs alone and struggle to feel validated by team efforts. Simply put, they feel they must achieve on their own and view needing help as a sign of weakness.
4. The Natural Genius
Like perfectionists, natural geniuses feel shame when they don’t produce at an unrealistically high level. They aren’t used to struggling – competence is innate for them. When things don’t come easily or quickly, the natural genius experiences crippling self-doubt and feels like a fraud.
5. The Superhero
Superheroes react to feelings of inadequacy by pushing themselves to do more and work harder. They focus on how much they can accomplish, aiming to juggle and excel in as many roles as possible, and feel shame when they fail to live up to any one of their many roles.
If you see yourself in any of these types, don’t worry: you’re not alone, and you can take actionable steps toward overcoming imposter syndrome. Check out these five tips to get started.
5 Tips for Managing Imposter Syndrome
1. Focus on You
If you’re constantly thinking about how others perform, you’ll fall down a rabbit hole of comparisons and struggle to dedicate time to your own performance. Calibrate your frame of view to yourself by refraining from evaluating others’ accomplishments.
Not comparing yourself to others is easier said than done, but even small steps make a big impact. Try strategies like:
- Paying attention to how you view yourself
- Detoxing from social media and other triggering stimuli
Incidentally, zooming out can help you to concentrate on what matters most. Try to quell the internal dialogue that pits your accomplishments against your teammate’s by reminding yourself you’re all on the same team. Once you accept that you aren’t competing with others, you can move onto challenging yourself in beneficial, healthy ways.
2. Define Personal Success
Success is a broad, ambiguous, difficult to measure concept. The only real way to know how you’re measuring up is to use reasonable, effective metrics, so take the time to define what success means for you in specific, actionable terms.
Start by answering these questions:
- What do I value most?
- What am I most passionate about?
- What do I want to achieve next?
From an organizational perspective, defining success means radical transparency about expectations. Initiatives like career pathing, where employees and career coaches work together create a career development plan within the organization, help to facilitate workplace success.
3. Track Strengths and Accomplishments
Folks who experience imposter syndrome feel inadequate because they habitually relegate successes to external factors and failures to internal ones. If you’re having trouble recognizing your strengths and accomplishments, spend time thinking about it. Ask yourself:
- What makes me feel confident?
- What am I certain I’m capable of?
- Which accomplishments make me proud?
Write it down somewhere on a sticky note or in an Asana list and let your list grow. Next time you’re feeling like an imposter, ground yourself in reality by focusing on areas where you feel confident. Remind yourself of your strengths and capabilities to fend off unnecessary negative thoughts.
Employers must also take initiative on making sure employees feel affirmed in the workplace. Employee recognition initiatives and regular performance reviews allow workers to feel appreciation and accurately gauge their performance.
4. Seek Opportunities to Grow
You might notice gaps in your skillset when tracking your strengths and accomplishments. Rather than view them as shortcomings, relish the fact that you’ve uncovered an opportunity to grow and progress.
You’ll probably find that there will always be lots for you to learn. Try not to get overwhelmed – and don’t get carried away with acquiring new skills and certifications like The Expert. Remember: expertise isn’t a stage you reach, but a goal towards which you work.
Try to place checks and balances on how you compete with yourself by making sure what you’re learning has an appropriate ROI. If the cost of acquiring a new skill is greater than its benefit, consider delegating or outsourcing help.
5. Raise Awareness
Talking about your weaknesses and insecurities is difficult, and it can seem like you’re letting the curtain fall and revealing an illusion. But adopting a ‘fake it til you make it’ attitude only fosters cultures of artificiality and exclusion. Find comfort in the fact that most people experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives and break the silence on it.
Organizations should take the lead on talking about imposter syndrome, as they have the greatest power to make employees feel comfortable discussing their experience. Raising awareness for mental health concerns helps foster inclusive cultures of belonging and productivity.Summing Up Imposter Syndrome at Work
It’s normal to experience feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt – but if those feelings are consistently holding you back, consider making the necessary changes to manage them.
Cultivate a healthy internal dialogue by breaking negative behaviors like setting unrealistic expectations and relegating personal successes to external factors. Focus instead on grounding yourself in reality – the reality of your own personal achievements, the reality of failure, and the reality that you aren’t alone in occasionally feeling like a fraud.