What is imposter syndrome and how do I deal with it?

Confused businesswoman annoyed by online problem looking at laptop

We’ve all heard the term “fake it till you make it”, but constantly standing in the way of successes can affect our careers massively. We’ll show you how to overcome the dreaded impostor syndrome so you can start appreciating your abilities going forward.

Nagging doubts that you’re not good enough to do your job. Feeling like your colleagues are onto you. Wondering if the company made a mistake hiring you in the first place. Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. Feeling as if you don’t have the skills to succeed in your role or that you don’t deserve any of your accomplishments is a surprisingly common phenomenon.

It’s known as impostor syndrome, and it can affect people across all sectors and in all job roles. It also creates some less-than-ideal effects and emotions – from anxiety and feelings of inadequacy to self-doubt and missed career opportunities, all of which can stand in the way of personal and professional growth.

So, what can you do if you feel these kinds of thoughts creeping in? Happily, there are plenty of ways to overcome the effects of impostor syndrome; we’ll take a look at the most effective strategies you can use below…

What is impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome relates to feelings of inadequacy and failure despite being, more often than not, intelligent, skilled and having objectively achieved professional or personal success. People experiencing imposter syndrome may feel like a “fraud”, be unable to enjoy or own their successes or doubt their own abilities.

Because they believe they’re putting on an act, those with imposter syndrome also feel as though there is a risk of being “found out” by their colleagues or superiors.

Shot of a young businessman looking tired while working in an office

What causes impostor syndrome?

Despite the powerful effects it can have, imposter syndrome isn’t an official psychological condition, so it’s unknown what causes it. That said, research has shown it comes from a combination of personality traits and behavioural causes, such as:

– Family environment: Your childhood may play a role. If you grew up in a family that emphasised unrealistic expectations and achievement or were particularly critical, then it’s easy to internalise the idea that you have to achieve.

– Social pressures: Surrounding yourself with social circles where approval is linked to achievement reinforces the idea that a perceived lack of success can affect our self-worth.

– A need to belong: If you’ve ever found yourself excluded from a group on the basis of things like ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status or religion, then the idea of not belonging can persist into other areas of our lives, even years later. This feeds into the idea that the impostor fears being found out and then excluded.

– Personality: There are certain personality types who are simply more given to experiencing feelings of pressure, doubt and failure more keenly. In such people, rumination, negative self-talk and a lack of confidence may be more common.

Shot of a young businesswoman looking stressed out while working on a laptop in an office

The common signs of impostor syndrome

Below, we’ll look at some of the most common features of imposter syndrome. If you find yourself routinely experiencing any of these, then take note.

Self-doubt: When feelings of self-doubt bubble to the surface, the anxiety it causes can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to succeed. So instead of seeing success at work as something achievable, it becomes an unattainable feat that’s fraught with risk.

Downplaying achievements: A degree of humility is realistic and admirable. After all, no one wants to be seen as arrogant or cocky in the workplace. But when achievements and goals are actively undermined, it suggests that person is undeserving of their success in the first place.

Believing success is down to other reasons: Crediting their success to external factors is another common sign of the impostor, often using phrases like “I got lucky”, “it was just a coincidence” or “my colleagues did most of the work” to downplay their performance on certain tasks.

Shot of a young businesswoman looking uncertain while using a laptop in a modern office

Self-sabotage: Impostor syndrome can also talk people out of bringing out their best. Instead of taking on tasks with enthusiasm, they kid themselves into thinking their work will be poorly done, careless or lacking in meaning. Left unchecked, this little voice can easily increase in volume, at which point, their predictions come true and create a vicious cycle.

Setting unrealistic expectations: Setting unrealistic standards is another common trait of impostor syndrome. Unfortunately, this approach creates the knock-on effect of the impostor also believing they’re unable to achieve them. The two-pronged nature of this kind of thinking causes their work to become more of a hindrance than anything else.

Burnout: In trying to push past what they perceive as incompetence, the impostor tries to do too much, too quickly. Their energy drained, their work begins to lack purpose. At this point, they become withdrawn, disengaging from their duties and feeling the effects of burnout in a big way.

How to cope with impostor syndrome 

Whatever signs and effects you’re grappling with, the methods below can help you to better deal with your impostor syndrome.

Separate feelings from facts

Impostor syndrome has a habit of blurring the distinction between facts and thoughts. So just because you’re fixating on a particular thought like “I’m not going to be able to add anything of value to this project” for example, it doesn’t mean it’s true.

When certain thoughts arise, observe them, recognise that they’re just thoughts and remind yourself that you’re capable of more than what you’re thinking.

Shot of a young businesswoman looking out the window in an office

Make a note of what you’ve accomplished

When you’re feeling the weight of the stress and anxiety impostor syndrome causes, it can be difficult to remind yourself of your positive attributes and accomplishments. Emphasise the things you’ve achieved, own the part that you played in their success and keep a record of them.

It could be a running list of things you’re proud of or saving an email from a colleague recognising your abilities. Whatever it is, use your achievements as a reminder of your ability and worth.

Try to avoid comparing yourself with others

Comparing your achievements and progress with colleagues can be especially draining, often leaving you feeling like you’re playing catch up with others’ perception of success. Creating your own realistic idea of success and measuring yourself against that can be a far more beneficial way of thinking.

Change the way you speak to yourself

The endless chatter of impostor syndrome makes it easy to fool yourself that you’re unworthy or lack the skill to do your job. To silence that voice, take whatever it’s saying and try to invert it.

For example, rather than thinking “people are going to find out that I’m incapable of my job”, change it to “I’m new to this role. There’s always a learning curve in the beginning, but I’m smart enough to get to grips with this new challenge”. Or, say you’re working in a team; rather than believing everyone is smarter than you, remind yourself that you have an opportunity to learn new skills from a variety of people.

Female manager leads brainstorming meeting in design office. Businesswoman in meeting with colleagues in conference room.

Say yes to new opportunities

It’s easy to shy away from opportunities when impostor syndrome has a hold on you. Many people experiencing it have likely turned down chances to truly grow in their career because they feel as though they wouldn’t do a good enough job.

With that said, accepting a challenge and then doing it well can be a real game-changer. Sure, it may be daunting to take on something you’re unsure about but consider this: you were asked to do it for a reason. Someone approached you because they believed you had the ability to accomplish the task successfully.

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