Impostor syndrome is a term we’ve all heard. What does it mean, where did it come from, and how can you (and your company) prevent it from impacting mental health?
What is impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon)?
Is it a mental condition? Well, no. At the moment it is considered a mental state, pattern of thinking or a psychological experience in which you have persistent feelings of self-doubt, negative self-talk, constant fear of failing and fear of being perceived as fraud (1). Impostor syndrome is when you are unable to internalise your accomplishments, despite your objective success and achievements. You feel that your success is undeserved, due to some luck, and have constant fear that others will find out you don’t know what you are talking about and expose you as fraud (2).
The symptoms that prevail in impostor syndrome can lead to increased anxiety and stress. It can also reflect a lot on your professional life and result in you missing career opportunities.
A brief history of impostor syndrome
The concept of impostor syndrome was conceived in 1978. Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes were first to identify it, and thought it was a form of anxiety that was unique to high-achieving professional women (2). But later it was discovered that this syndrome is common in all genders and in many professional settings (1).
If you feel everyone else but you have figured everything out, you’re wrong!
About 70 percent of people report feeling like impostors at least at some point in their careers’(2). Though it can strike high-achievers more often, the syndrome can affect anyone, regardless of social status and occupation.
How do you identify impostor syndrome?
The behaviour, feelings, reasoning and resulting beliefs all play a part in establishing impostor syndrome. The impostors’ cycle (figure 1) is an important characteristic of the syndrome explaining the mechanics of the vicious cycle based on negative beliefs about yourself.
Figure 1. The Impostor Cycle (redesigned and adopted from Sakulku & Alexander, 2011)
One way is when anxiety, self-doubt or worry makes a person over-prepare. When the goal is achieved there is a feeling of relief but positive feedback is discounted, as the individual believes that the result is due to very hard work which does not reflect true abilities. On the other hand, a procrastinator attributes their success to luck and thinks it does not reflect their true skills. Both pathways result in denial of one’s own abilities, leading to feelings of fraudulence as well as associated mental health symptoms. When new achievement-related tasks are faced, the negative feelings create more anxiety about it and reinforce the cycle. Such people often feel overwhelmed, disappointed and think of themselves as failures because they are unable to follow their ideal work pattern and reach their ideal goals (3).
Overall, the common characteristics of impostors syndrome are summarised below:
You attribute your success to external factors such as luck, help from others but not to your skills, intelligence and abilities
You discount praise and deny your competence
You are very self-critical and have high expectations of yourself
You are high-achiever but make unreasonably low assessment of your performance
Need to be special/best among your peers
You have a perfectionist tendency (though impostors compared to perfectionists, despite wanting to achieve perfection, openly disclose their flaws)
You have fear of failure- you compensate with overpreparation to make sure you don’t fail
You have fear and guilt feelings about success (that could lead you to rejection by others)
You fear that your success will lead to higher demands from people around you, which you won’t be able to fulfil and prove your phoney prophecy.
You are not enjoying your success and even worse, you feel uncomfortable about it. Your psychological wellbeing suffers as you experience anxiety due to your fears and perceptions. Also, your perfectionistic views amplify the feeling of inadequacy resulting in distress and depression. These feelings may make you avoid taking on new responsibilities and miss some great work opportunities.
Can impostor syndrome predispose you to burnout?
Totally! Impostor syndrome is tightly associated with job satisfaction, performance at work and burnout among employees of various professions. The feeling of inadequacy, resulting in ongoing stress, anxiety and fear can also lead to burnout symptoms which could include emotional exhaustion, loss of motivation and decrease in performance and satisfaction with your job. Long-term, it may be a cause of inability to reach your professional potential (1). (See more information on the burnout dimensions and mechanism in ‘The 5 Stages of Burnout’) And, importantly, burnout risks and symptoms can also manifest as physical ailments! Check this whitepaper for more information on how mental health is closely related to physical wellbeing.
What are some predisposing factors bringing you closer to adapting impostor syndrome’s pattern of thinking?
New challenges, such as getting a promotion. The new role can seem overwhelming which may trigger a lot of self-doubt and feelings that it is not deserved.
Family background and childhood environment such as being told or shown in different ways that your talents are inadequate compared to other family members.
Being a part of an ethnic minority group
Existing depression or anxiety
What to do about it?
Interestingly, lay articles are full of advice on how to treat impostors syndrome. However, the scientific literature has a gap on this and does not really have an evidence base to provide particular solutions upon. Instead, the mental health specialists are more likely to base their treatment on addressing the associated symptoms such as anxiety or depression, for which there is plenty of evidence (1).
Spend time on self-reflection and acknowledging your feelings and learn to reframe your thoughts
Break the silence and discuss this with people you trust, which may help you to get a more objective understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. You may also need to use a therapist's help
Avoid perfectionistic behaviour
Try group therapy. One of the common impostor syndrome features is a misperception that you are the only one feeling this way. Group therapy (with peers/co-workers) can become that safe place where you can share your feelings, recognise that it is a common problem and deal with it with support from others.
Recognise the impact of the syndrome when planning self-development activities, training, onboarding, career-development activities as well as when mentoring and coaching
Offer access to therapy
Offer resilience training
Create healthier culture and expectations, in which successes of employees are acknowledged and celebrated and mistakes are not interpreted as failures
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