By now, most people have heard of imposter syndrome. But what is it really? And how many people struggle with it?
Imposter syndrome can strike in any area of life, but it's particularly insidious in the workplace. It robs sufferers of confidence, self-esteem and even progression opportunities. Research suggests that up to 70% of people have experienced imposter syndrome at some point1. So, if it's something you struggle with, you can rest assured that you're not alone.
Luckily, understanding imposter syndrome is the first step to finding strategies to live with it. Life coaching services like those provided by Fingerprint for Success (F4S) can help you overcome your feelings of imposter syndrome and regain your confidence.
Research into what we now know as imposter syndrome (or impostor syndrome, depending on which spelling you prefer) was first undertaken by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in the late 1970s. The pair studied what they referred to as the 'imposter phenomenon' as it presented in women2.
Clance and Imes found that very successful women often felt their success was undeserved. For their research, they spoke to many high-achieving women. Imposter syndrome was rife among them. For example, some of the women were sceptical of their admission to grad school. They believed their admission resulted from an administrative error rather than their talent2.
While imposter syndrome affects both men and women, it still tends to be more prevalent in women.
Imposter syndrome often affects individuals who are objectively successful. They are often well-regarded by their peers. Despite this, affected individuals experience feelings of unworthiness. People with imposter syndrome may feel that their success is undeserved or that it is the result of good luck, accident or good timing. People with imposter syndrome may fear being 'found out'. They feel a sense of doom that their peers will discover how undeserving they are of their success at any moment. People with imposter syndrome may struggle with a fear of failure. These feelings affect their professional and personal life.
For individuals experiencing imposter syndrome, navigating the workplace can be tricky. Despite their success, they may feel they could be 'caught out' at any moment, leading to anxiety and high stress levels.
So, how do you know if you're experiencing imposter syndrome? There's no definitive way to know, but you can start by asking yourself these questions. If they resonate with you, you may be experiencing some symptoms of imposter syndrome.
In the workplace, answering yes to these questions could have many flow-on effects. You might be unwilling to take on new responsibilities. Or you might experience high levels of anxiety when faced with new tasks.
Many different types of people struggle with imposter syndrome. Some might assume that only perfectionists have feelings of imposter syndrome. Yet, this is not the case.
In perfectionists, impostorism tends to manifest as a fixation on the little things. A big presentation may have gone well. Still, the perfectionist may fixate on a single inconsequential thing that went wrong. Subsequently, they may feel as though this minor flaw derailed the entire presentation.
Those with natural talent may feel disappointed in themselves when they need help with a new task. They might feel that needing help undermines their natural talent.
Individuals with significant expertise don't necessarily fare any better. They may measure themselves against their peers and find themselves lacking. This could be because their skills are niche, or they may feel that despite their expertise, they are not as skilled or talented as their peers.
Imposter syndrome also affects those who seek to 'have it all'. This is often the case due to harmful stereotypes that are impossible to live up to. For example, working mothers may feel pressure to be perfect parents and perfect employees. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy on one or either front.
Marginalized communities may feel significant pressure to 'prove' themselves against negative stereotypes. This can often lead to feelings of imposter syndrome.
Given how many people imposter syndrome affects, it's worth considering the causes.
Research indicates that imposter syndrome is most often felt by individuals who differ from their peers. First-generation college graduates and women in high-tech careers often fall prey to imposter syndrome. This could be because there are few mentors and peers in their environment they can relate to3.
Imposter syndrome is common among underrepresented groups. Among college students, African American, Latine and Asian American students were most likely to experience imposter syndrome. These groups have been historically underrepresented among college alums. They have faced significant discriminatory access barriers. Research suggests several reasons why imposter syndrome may be more prevalent among these groups. They are more likely to face barriers to financial aid, have to work to support themselves and endure negative stereotypes3.
People suffering from other mental health conditions may be more likely to face imposter syndrome3. These include conditions such as social anxiety disorder, ADHD or depression.
If you're struggling with imposter syndrome, know you're not alone. Some of the most successful people have discussed their struggles with imposter syndrome. These include Albert Einstein, Serena Williams, Jennifer Lopez, Natalie Portman, Lupita Nyong'o and Tom Hanks4.
Workplaces in which employees feel unsupported or undervalued can create feelings of imposter syndrome, as can overly critical workplaces. Unhealthy workplaces can also promote negative feelings in individuals about the nature and value of their work.
Imposter syndrome can affect many areas of an individual's life. These include relationships, academic pursuits, parenting and employment. A constant feeling of being an imposter, or fraud, can limit an individual's quality of life. In the workplace, imposter syndrome can manifest in many ways, mainly through3:
In these cases, imposter syndrome can foster a vicious cycle. You may not want to step up for leadership opportunities, which in turn may make you feel like more of an imposter. Feelings of burnout can also lead to more feelings of impostorism. For example, you might ask yourself how all your colleagues handle the stress when you seem unable to. The truth is that your feelings of impostorism are not based on reality. More often than not, it's your brain distorting reality to fit into your existing negative thinking patterns.
Imposter syndrome is not formally recognised as a mental health condition. It's not listed in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), so you can't receive an official diagnosis of imposter syndrome.
Researchers have developed methods to assess an individual's level of 'impostorism'3. However, imposter syndrome is most commonly self-diagnosed through symptoms and experiences.
Imposter syndrome often presents with other mental health complications. If these affect your everyday life, it's also worth seeking treatment for them.
There is no set course of treatment for imposter syndrome symptoms, but certain approaches may be beneficial.
Remember, imposter syndrome is not a sign of weakness. It simply means you're suffering from some cognitive distortion when accurately assessing your abilities. Many people struggle to understand the symptoms of imposter syndrome, so recognizing that this is an area you need support in is a great first step.
If you're someone with imposter syndrome, it might help to turn to a coaching service such as F4S. While not a replacement for treatment by a licensed therapist, coaching can help you to focus on your achievements and talents. People with imposter syndrome often can't break out of negative thinking habits. Coaching can be an excellent tool to train yourself to slowly put your fears into perspective.
Try F4S coaching programs such as:
Using a coaching platform such as F4S to understand your motivations is a great place to start. Your motivations are unique to you and tie into your strengths and weaknesses. They make you unique. Once you've completed the free F4S assessment, you can access your motivations via your dashboard.
Your motivations don't just make you unique; they guide your interactions with the world around you.
For example, some individuals need to read hard evidence that an idea can work before being convinced. For these people, making a list of their achievements may help them overcome imposter syndrome. Regularly reading your list of accomplishments may serve as positive reinforcement. Over time it will help shift your mindset away from negative feelings.
Understanding your strengths can help you find ways to apply those strengths to all areas of your work and personal life. Similarly, understanding your weaknesses can help put these into perspective. Nobody is naturally talented in every area, so understanding what you might still need to work on can be beneficial.
You can develop a realistic picture of yourself by understanding your strengths and blind spots. This is not always easy, and you might even find it confronting. However, it will help you build your confidence because you'll know what areas you excel in. There are plenty of tips and tricks to boost your self-esteem, so try a few and see what works best for you.
You like some variety, radical changes, doing new and different things in some of your work or business.
With a little bit of development you can become more socially aware of yourself and others.
F4S's AI-powered coach, Marlee, can help you set new goals for your personal and work life. Marlee offers coaching programs in a wide range of areas. These include:
Once you've reached a new goal, celebrate your success! And, of course, it's essential to ensure you're setting realistic goals, so don't get too carried away when making your plan.
Practising mindfulness looks different for everyone. Meditation might be the key to overcoming these feelings for some people with imposter syndrome. Allow yourself the space to examine your thoughts and let them pass you by. Meditation can be a powerful coping mechanism when you feel overwhelmed by the imposter experience.
Journalling is an excellent tool for supporting mental health and managing negative feelings. Journalling has been proven to have benefits for those experiencing common symptoms of imposter syndrome5.
Another great tool to have at the ready in times of stress is affirmations. You can use affirmations verbally, for instance, by telling yourself, 'I am enough' or 'I am worthy of my success' in the mirror in the morning. Another great option is to write your affirmations on sticky notes and leave them around your house or office. Making a cup of tea? Remind yourself that you've earnt your success. Brushing your teeth? Remember that you've worked hard to get to where you are. Affirmations may feel a little corny at first, but they work.
Take your pick - a coffee date with a friend, a walk in the park with a parent or mentor or a session with a licensed therapist. There's a good reason we feel better after a chat. Airing your feelings with someone you trust can help ease the burden.
If you work in a supportive workplace, you could consider confiding in your manager. Together you can work on strategies to help you manage your feelings. However, only do this if you're confident you'll get the support you need. The last thing you need is to feel worse about your feelings.
Remember, everyone questions their abilities from time to time. What's less common is experiencing an all-encompassing fear of being found out as a fraud. If this is the case, it might be time to consider whether you're experiencing imposter syndrome. While it can feel like an overwhelming experience, you can overcome imposter syndrome. Take steps to work on your overall mental health and remind yourself why you're worthy of success. You'll be fraud-feeling free in no time.
Answer the questions in our assessment to discover more about your motivations and blind spots. The F4S assessment measures 48 motivations (with 90% reliability) so you know exactly how to bring out your best.
Our expert coaches developed a program to help you increase your confidence to be in positions of influence and leadership.
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1. 'Imposter Syndrome'. Available at: Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/imposter-syndrome
2. Clance, P/Imes, S. (1978). 'The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention'. Available at: Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice Volume 15, #3, Fall 1978. https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/doc/10.1.1.452.4294
3. Bravata, D, et al. (2019) 'Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review'. Available at: J Gen Intern Med. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31848865/
4. Benisek, A. (2022) 'What Is Imposter Syndrome?'. Available at: Web MD. https://www.webmd.com/balance/what-is-imposter-syndrome
5. University of California - Los Angeles. (2007) 'Putting Feelings Into Words Produces Therapeutic Effects In The Brain'. Available at: Science Daily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/06/070622090727.htm
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