The hackneyed phrase mocks me from its framed perch above my workstation. Shoulders slumped, head in my hands, I ponder feigning a migraine to escape the looming client presentation that has me questioning every career choice I’ve ever made. Sure, three-plus decades of progressive experience testifies to my expertise; but the razor-tongued bully in my head is unimpressed. “Who wants to listen to YOU?!” she smirks, as I recoil in a confidence-shattered heap.
Sound familiar? Turns out this type of self-sabotaging discourse is pretty darn common. A study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that a whopping 82% of the U.S. population frequently experiences periodic feelings of fraud, commonly known as Imposter Syndrome.
According to Psychology Today, a simple definition of Imposter Syndrome is the belief that you are undeserving of your achievements and the esteem your contributions have garnered. And, because you believe you aren’t as competent or intelligent as others might think, you live with an underlying fear of being “found out.” Think of it like being trapped in an endless episode of Hunger Games, where you are always trying to stay one step ahead while everyone around you is watching and waiting for you to expose how inept you really are. Yikes!
The phrase Imposter Syndrome is not new. It was initially coined to describe the mental state of high-achieving women in the 1970s. In recent years, the term has gained traction, with Ted Talks and numerous books written on the subject. Statistics show that while Imposter Syndrome is still more prevalent among women (especially women of color), men can also suffer from this undermining mindset. In terms of the personality traits more likely to present with symptoms, some studies suggest Imposter Syndrome is closely related to perfectionism and a perceived pressure to perform.
While negative self-talk is certainly linked to feelings of low self-confidence, a 2019 Imposter Syndrome Research Study found there’s a clear distinction between Imposter Syndrome and occasional lapses of confidence. The difference? Self-confidence is linked to what we believe we can and can’t do, while Imposter Syndrome is more about who we think we are (or are not). Confidence is about ability. Imposter Syndrome is about identity.
Take my client presentation anxiety; based on past experience, I know I can deliver an effective client presentation. But, when my toxic inner narrative shouts: “Who are you kidding? Everyone attending this meeting knows way more than you!” I’m suddenly cowering and confused, sure that any previous success I’ve had was pure luck. Basically, I’m gaslighting myself.
While Imposter Syndrome is not officially recognized as a psychological diagnosis, it can still be assessed based on common symptoms and behaviors. In the workplace, it may manifest as:
If you or a colleague regularly exhibit these feelings or behaviors, Imposter Syndrome may be to blame.
Overworks and overcompensates to hide insecurities.
Tends to set lofty goals and then feel crushed when they fail to achieve them.
Always learning but never satisfied with their level of competence. Tends to underrate their expertise.
Highly self-critical; always feel that their work could be better. Focuses on flaws instead of strengths.
Prefers to work alone and may see asking for help as a sign of incompetence.
If you have earned the responsibility of leading a team, there’s a good chance your career path has been marked with at least a few episodes of Imposter Syndrome. Use this to your advantage. Leverage your personal experience and lessons learned to lead your team with emotional intelligence and empathy.
Occasional bouts of self-doubt or anxiety over a pressing deadline are normal human emotions and don’t always signal Imposter Syndrome is at play. But, when these types of feelings overwhelm or impact productivity, practicing positive self-talk and employing effective workplace strategies can help you and your team beat this insidious enemy at its own game.