Blue Beyond Consulting

Who Do You Think You Are?

Uncovering the root of Imposter Syndrome

“She believed she could, so she did!” 

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.

 

 

Come out, come out, whoever you are!

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!

 

 

 

Who’s at risk?

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.

 

 

 

The ability versus identity crisis

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.

 

 

 

Exposing common symptoms

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:

  • An inability to internalize achievements 
  • Regularly downplaying accomplishments
  • Fear of being exposed as inexperienced or untalented
  • Fear of getting feedback
  • A reluctance to ask for help
  • Avoiding stretch assignments
  • Overworking to the point of burnout to prove you’re “good enough”
  • A failure to start or complete projects on time

If you or a colleague regularly exhibit these feelings or behaviors, Imposter Syndrome may be to blame.

5 Imposter Profiles

Overachiever

Overworks and overcompensates to hide insecurities.

 

Goal-obsessed

Tends to set lofty goals and then feel crushed when they fail to achieve them.

Subject Matter Expert

Always learning but never satisfied with their level of competence. Tends to underrate their expertise.

Perfectionist

Highly self-critical; always feel that their work could be better. Focuses on flaws instead of strengths.

Solo performer

Prefers to work alone and may see asking for help as a sign of incompetence.

 

Cultivating coping strategies

  • Compare feelings to facts. Make a simple two-column list — on one side, write: “Reasons I am an imposter” and on the other side, “Evidence that I am competent.” Often, simply getting your fears and your accomplishments out of your head and onto a piece of paper can quiet the ruminating inner critic.
  • Reframe the opportunity. Perhaps the truth is you are venturing into unknown territory. For instance, in the case of a stretch assignment, there is likely a learning curve. Admitting your inexperience and a willingness to learn can help turn intimidation into curiosity and even enthusiasm.
  • Practice self-compassion. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling like a fraud. Once you understand where the doubt and inadequacy come from, you can focus on learning new skills and cultivating a growth mindset.
  • Seek trusted feedback. Make a practice of getting feedback from people you trust and respect. Regular, meaningful feedback can help you stop worrying about what everyone really thinks about you.

 

 

 

Tips for people leaders

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. 

  • Foster psychological safety. Build trust with your team by leading open discussions about the correlation between self-doubt and success. Ask open ended questions and share details from your own career journey. This helps normalize the fact that fear is a part of the process, NOT proof of inadequacy.
  • Practice deep listening. Use at least a portion of 1:1 time to get to know your team members. High performing teams thrive on exceptional communication. Plus, engagement and productivity tend to improve when people feel understood, validated, and connected. 
  • Model stress management. Instead of planning back-to-back meetings, build in breaks to give everyone a chance to decompress. This is especially important if your team is fully remote – Zoom fatigue is real.
  • Recognize accomplishments and be specific. Instead of just praising a team member’s outcome, reinforce the thought processes they used. Research by psychologist Carol Dweck shows that praising effort (“You worked really hard on this”) instead of focusing solely on achievement helps spur self-esteem and inhibit impostor syndrome.
  • Use feedback effectively. Empowering your team through effective feedback and honest assessments ensures expectations are clear and reduces unnecessary anxiety. Susan Tardanico, CEO of the Authentic Leadership Alliance, notes “It takes emotional honesty, introspection, and feedback from others to achieve the self-awareness and self-acceptance needed to combat Impostor Syndrome.” 

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.

Written by Trudie Mitschang, Blue Beyond Consultant

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