What is the Imposter Syndrome?

Do you recognize this feeling? You are about to step into a networking meeting or planning a meeting with a potential client and you have this message popping into your head – ‘these people will realize I am not that good’ or ‘I can’t handle this, I am a fraud.’ Then you are not alone. For example, Liz Bingham, managing partner Ernst & Young , once thought to herself: “What are you doing here? What do you think you’re doing? You’re going to be found out.” Maya Angelou has been reported as saying “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find [me] out now.”

This is something that many people experience at some time and has been labelled the Imposter Syndrome by Clance and Imes (1978)  who believed that it was unique to women. There is some evidence to suggest that it is not unique to women, however it is believed to be less common in men.

Two US sociologists, Jessica Collett and Jade Avelis, researched the trend of women academics who were “downshifting”: ‘setting out towards a high-status tenured post, then switching to something less ambitious.’ The results of their survey of 460 doctoral students suggested that rather than this being about wanting a better work/life balance or having a more “family-friendly” lifestyle, ‘impostorism was to blame’. This was reported as often being exacerbated when these women were being mentored by a more powerful woman.

What causes the Imposter Syndrome?

The research suggests that some of the reasons for the imposter syndrome may be due to childhood influences and parenting. For example parents who repeat messages that you do not deserve this, or that they give praise when you kow it is not deserved.

However an interesting supposition is that those who experience the imposter syndrome tend to attribute their success to external factors rather than internal factors. That success is  somehow due to luck rather than their own ability. It was suggested by Clance and Imes that women have a greater tendency to do this and that this may be one of the reasons why women are more likely to fall into the category of the Imposter syndrome.

Societal pressures only adds to the problem. “In our society there’s a huge pressure to achieve,” Imes says. “There can be a lot of confusion between approval and love, and worthiness. Self-worth becomes contingent on achieving.”

It is also assumed that this syndrome is partially down to a sense of perfectionism which many people carry with them from their early days.

Overcoming the Imposter syndrome

Here are some suggestions for how to overcome the Imposter Syndrome

  • Keep a note of the positive feedback that you receive and re-read this when your confidence starts to diminish
  • Own your success, it is you who achieved this.
  • Talk to a mentor about your feelings; acknowledgement is the start to overcoming this.
  • Mentor less experienced or junior people to help you really feel your competence.
  • If you are mentoring more junior people and you have experienced the imposter syndrome then share this and talk about how to overcome it.
  • Accept that nobody knows everything and you do have a certain knowledge and expertise to offer the world. Make a note of what this is.
  • Stop comparing your self to others, you are unique. Acknowledge this!
  • Realize that no-one is perfect and good enough is already pretty good as an achievement, so celebrate this!

If you have experienced the Imposter Syndrome, and I certainly have, please share your comments.

Barbara is an executive coach, change and creativity facilitator and has launched RenewYou Personal Development workshops for women in France. These programmes are enabling and confidence boosting. For more information take a look here.