Do you have imposter syndrome at work? 5 tips on how to overcome them

Meeting over lunch

Have you ever attributed success in your job to just sheer luck rather than acknowledging it as the result of all your hard work and efforts? Many high achievers – in fact 40% of high achievers deal with the thought of being a fraud in the workplace, according to Dr Valerie Young. In clinical terms, this is referred to as ‘imposter syndrome’ whereby one believes that they are inadequate despite evidence that shows that they are successful in their field.

What is imposter syndrome?

The Harvard Business Review defines imposter syndrome as a “collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success”.  In fact, ‘imposter syndrome’ is a term that was first introduced by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in 1978 in their research paper evaluating why high achieving women attributed their success to luck rather than their accomplishment. This clinical term has today extended to include men as well. In fact, many world leaders experience imposter syndrome no matter the industry they are in.

Starbucks’s former CEO Howard Schultz admitted in an interview with The New York Times that he sometimes felt undeserving and insecure. Academy award-winning actress and Harvard graduate Natalie Portman also shared that even as a child, she questioned her worth. At the 2015 Harvard commencement speech, she shared that “Today, I feel much like I did when I came to Harvard Yard as a freshman in 1999. I felt like there had been some mistake, that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company, and that every time I opened my mouth I would have to prove that I wasn’t just a dumb actress”.

What causes the imposter syndrome?

Researchers have identified that imposter syndrome can be situational and can stem from an individual’s background and personality traits. According to psychologist Dr. Renee Carr, childhood experiences can make one pre-disposed to imposter syndrome. On this note, Cara Maksimow, LCSW raised that millennials are at a higher risk of experiencing imposter syndrome due to the added pressures of social comparison within the digital age.

"Pressures to perform at a higher level to get ahead are more demanding now than ever before and yet, failure is not something many millennials have had much experience with. In the age of 'everyone gets a trophy' and overprotective parenting, kids grow up without grit, and are less able to handle the higher expectations and pressures and increases in anxiety, stress and insecurity about performance," added Maksimow.

How does imposter syndrome manifest itself?

Those inflicted with imposter syndrome find it difficult to digest that they are successful in their own right. They suffer from self-doubt, anxiety, lack of self-confidence and frequently feel that they are not as competent as they are perceived to be by other people. Research has found strong correlations between perfectionism and imposter syndrome – most commonly amongst women and academics. Dr Valerie Young explained this further and stated that women are more prone to downplay their accomplishments to luck rather than skills. Maksimow also shared that women tend to experience more self-doubt in industries that are more male-dominated. Maksimow’s research indicated that in the long run, imposter syndrome can impact one’s mental health as there is the constant anxiety of being exposed as a fraud one day. If not treated early on, such anxiety could lead to depression.

What are the types of imposter syndrome?

Dr Valerie Young’s book on imposter syndrome covers the five different types of imposters:

  • The Perfectionist – Perfectionists are high achievers who set the bar impossibly high for themselves. The inability to achieve this goal typically triggers self-doubt and celebrating achievements is rare as they believe they could have done better.
  • The Superwoman/Superman – People experiencing this measure competence on how much work they can take on and excel at. They need to be the best at work, at home and in other aspects of their life. They convinced themselves that they don’t deserve the external recognition for their work and as such, feel that they need to work much harder than their colleagues to keep up with the ‘facade’. However this is just their insecurity getting the best of them and overloading themselves with work could take a toll on their mental health and personal relationships.
  • The Natural Genius – People who are often told they are a ‘natural genius’ sometimes associate this with how fast they work, rather than their efforts. As a result, they feel embarrassed when it takes them a long time to master a new skill or fail to ace a new job on the first go.
  • The Soloist – People who refuse help from colleagues in fear that their seemingly fraudulent competence will be uncovered.
  • The Expert – Experts want to amass as much knowledge as possible. However, they experience fears of not knowing enough and that they would be exposed as being inexperienced.

Are you one of the above? Here are 5 tips on how to overcome imposter syndrome

  1. Recognise that negativity is not reality

Our emotional state affects our perception. It is therefore important to become aware of our emotions and identify the trigger points that make us doubt ourselves. Awareness is key and next time you have thoughts like “I’m a fraud” or “it’s just luck and good timing” – remind yourself that this is not a fact and just the inner critic in your head trying to bring you down.

If you are anxious about a promotion and feeling you didn’t deserve it, remind yourself that you’ve had some degree of success in your life that you are attributing to luck. Instead of dwelling on thoughts of being a fraud, try to practise gratitude instead and be proud of what you have accomplished in your career and the opportunities coming your way as a result.

  1. Keep an inventory of all your achievements

Consolidate all your achievements in a notebook. Whenever you feel overwhelmed with self-doubt, consult your list of achievements and all the positive feedback that you’ve received in the past. Reaffirm to yourself that you are where you are today thanks to your unique set of skills and experience. You deserve every bit of external validation you’ve received.

  1. Practise positive affirmation

You can change the way you think and practise positive affirmation whenever negative thoughts infiltrate your mind. By reaffirming that you are capable to make great decisions, you are preventing your brain from defaulting to a negative thought cycle.

  1. Have an open dialogue with your colleagues

Do not isolate yourself from receiving positive feedback from other people. Focus on building relationships with your co-workers so you have people you can lean on for support. Who knows – your colleagues might also be experiencing imposter syndrome and you can help one another out.

  1. Be kind to yourself

Instead of telling yourself that you are a deception, remind yourself that it’s only human not to know everything and to have areas to improve on. Rather than labelling your areas of improvement as failures, reframe them as opportunities to learn.

Let us know what strategies work for you

Young said that “the only way to stop feeling like an imposter is to stop thinking like an imposter” and we couldn’t agree more. We encourage that you take credit where it is due and rather than condemning yourself for not succeeding at a job right away, remind yourself that you have the skills and experience for the job and therefore have the ability to tackle the task at hand.

At Progressive Recruitment, we make sure that we recognise our people’s efforts and that our candidates and clients are satisfied with our service. We also encourage our clients to give recognition where due in their organisations. If you are looking for your next opportunity or if you are a client looking to hire, contact us by filling up the contact form below. 

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