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Feel like you’re suffering from imposter syndrome at work? Here's how to deal with it!

Feel like you’re suffering from imposter syndrome at work? Here's how to deal with it!

Artwork by: Antonina Kasyanikova

  • What is imposter syndrome?
  • What causes imposter syndrome?
  • What does imposter syndrome feel like?
  • 5 Types of imposter syndrome
  • The Perfectionist
  • The “Super Man or Woman”
  • The Natural Genius
  • The Soloist
  • The Expert
  • How to overcome imposter syndrome at work
  • Why imposter syndrome matters
  • Key takeaways:

Former first lady Michelle Obama said, “I still have a little impostor syndrome…I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is.” If you feel like you’re suffering with imposter syndrome, you’re not alone. In this article, we’ll discuss what it is, and how you can overcome it to reach your career potential.

“I have no idea what I’m doing. My bosses probably know it too. How long until they figure out that they made a huge mistake in hiring me?”

Most of us have felt insecure in our jobs from time to time. But for some people, this type of thinking becomes a near-constant inner monologue that creates a negative, fearful mindset that makes doing their jobs with any level of confidence almost impossible. The feeling of being a career charlatan or having our shortcomings broadcast to the whole world (or even just the whole office) gives rise to feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and lack of confidence. This is all part of something known as imposter syndrome. This can have a significant impact on a person’s career, making progression and productivity a real concern.

In this article, we’ll discuss the phenomenon of imposter syndrome in the workplace, including:

  • What is imposter syndrome?

  • Five types of imposter syndrome

  • Recognizing the signs of imposter syndrome

  • Causes of imposter syndrome

  • Breaking the cycle of imposter syndrome

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome, while not an official psychological diagnosis, is feeling like a fraud or a pretender in an area of your life, even if you've achieved success. A person experiencing imposter syndrome does not feel secure or capable and fears being exposed as a fraud.

The term imposter syndrome was first coined in the 1970s by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance. It is caused by a sense of inadequacy in the workplace, despite being viewed by others as proficient.  Imposter syndrome is more common than people think because it's something that people don’t want to talk about because they’re either ashamed or afraid of admitting what they view as weakness.

What causes imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a form of cognitive distortion, which creates an overwhelming sense of doubt about one's skills and achievements, others' opinions of them, and even their record of success. But what causes it? It's not just a matter of low self-esteem and usually stems from a variety of factors.

For example, your family history may play a role if parents or other family members were judgmental, fault-finding, or disparaging. Outside influences can play a role as well. If someone is part of a community or friend group that equates self-worth with achievement, it can lead to imposter syndrome. Also, people are often driven by the need to belong. People with imposter syndrome are afraid of being found out and expelled from their social group or workplace. This includes anything that makes a person feel different from his or her peers, such as language, gender, and socio-economic status. 

Finally, personality traits can be a factor too. Some people are more prone to feelings of doubt and fear of failure, which can increase in times of stress. Unfortunately, this can lead to a vicious circle because people with imposter syndrome might shun opportunities that would allow them to excel.

What does imposter syndrome feel like?

Most of us feel doubt about our work performance or ourselves from time to time. So how do you know if you have imposter syndrome? Typical characteristics might be:

  • A sense of self-doubt

  • Feeling burnt out

  • Thinking that your contributions don’t matter

  • Fears that you’re not living up to other’s expectations

  • Impractical or unviable expectations

  • Regular self-sabotage

  • Attributing success to luck or other people’s efforts

Expert Tip

Don’t confuse imposter syndrome with bias or discrimination. Feeling like you don’t belong (or even actual exclusion) might be due to systemic bias in your workplace. Imposter syndrome is internal; discrimination is caused by others' beliefs, attitudes, and actions.

5 Types of imposter syndrome

In her book, “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer,” Dr. Valerie Young identifies five types of imposter syndrome

The Perfectionist

This person has to make sure that everything they do is perfect. They are always striving for more success, more prestige, and better outcomes. This person is never satisfied with achievements.

The “Super Man or Woman”

This type goes above and beyond regularly to attain the approval and admiration from colleagues and demonstrate invincibility.

The Natural Genius

The Natural Genius is a perfectionist and needs to get things done quickly and accurately — the first time. This type finds feedback or criticism of any kind to be threatening because if something wasn't done 100 percent correctly the first time, it represents failure.

The Soloist

The Soloist, like the Natural Genius, likes to work without any help from others. In fact, asking for help makes a soloist feel vulnerable because it exposes weaknesses, such as gaps in skills or knowledge. 

The Expert

This type of imposter syndrome involves having  all the information, skills, and experience before even attempting a task. Experts can’t fathom the idea that knowing everything right away isn’t expected of them.

How to overcome imposter syndrome at work

Imposter syndrome isn’t a career-ender, because it can be overcome. While it might take some work, there are several things you can do if you feel you are suffering from imposter syndrome. First, confront your feelings. Recognize your self-doubt, and work on achieving your goals and facing your feelings. And remember that you’re not alone — almost 82 percent of people deal with imposter syndrome.

Next, you might consider therapy. A specific type of therapy called compassion-focused therapy can help people stop blaming themselves, reduce negative self-criticism, and develop a sense of self-worth. Consider group therapy; it can be helpful to talk to others who are struggling with the same issues.

Finally, it may help to adjust your thinking. Negative thoughts can be damaging. Instead of dwelling on why things are always going wrong, figure out what steps you can take to solve a problem, which will help boost your confidence and lead to success.

The SBNRR technique can be used to help you deal with negative feelings and become more mindful:

  • Stop: Take a moment to reflect. 

  • Breathe: Take a deep breath and let go of any negative self-talk or feelings.

  • Notice: Take note of your feelings, how your body feels, your surroundings, other people, and what's happening at that moment.

  • Reassess: Appraise your circumstances and what’s causing you to feel like an imposter.

  • Respond: React with intention. You’re more likely to deal with the situation objectively and constructively once you’ve taken a moment to think.

Why imposter syndrome matters

Some people use imposter syndrome to increase their motivation to succeed, but it usually leads to a sense of unyielding anxiety and stress, which can worsen over time and lead to depression. The problem is that doing something well doesn't help your feelings and belief that you don't belong, as the more you achieve, the more you feel like a phony. But remember that these feelings don’t come out of nowhere — it means that you’ve had some success, but are not taking ownership of it. Impostor syndrome can prevent you from living your life and achieving the career success you desire. To break the cycle, try to transform negative feelings into a sense of gratitude for all you’ve accomplished. 

Not sure about the next step in your career? For help, check out our Career Pathways tool.

Key takeaways:

  1. Imposter syndrome involves feeling like a fraud in an area of your life, even if you've achieved success. 

  2. Impostor syndrome is not just a matter of low self-esteem and usually stems from a variety of factors.

  3. Imposter syndrome usually leads to a sense of unyielding anxiety that can hamper your career.

  4. To deal with imposter syndrome, confront your feelings, adjust your thinking, and consider getting outside help.

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