You are successful.
You perform in all key areas professionally, and life in general.
But on the inside, there is a nagging feeling that makes you feel like a fraud. This self-doubt in high achieving individuals is known as imposter syndrome and is what sparks the downward spiral of poor self-esteem.
The phenomenon was first discussed in the 1970s but has only recently gained steam in academic publications as more people begin their display of intellectual self-doubt.
What is imposter syndrome
It’s not psychiatrically diagnosable, nor are there crystal clear guidelines to detect someone with imposter syndrome. However, we often associate it with people who strongly doubt their capabilities and agonize over the smallest mistakes which make them feel like a fraud.
The internal psychological experience is recognized as a problem in the medical world, but it can be tricky to identify one in the workplace because it lacks the traditional framework of a ‘syndrome’.
“It can often happen in workplaces, where you might have a competitive environment which brings out people’s lack of security,” said TEDx speaker and former acclaimed medical reporter Sophie Scott.
Its strain on mental health can’t be understated and it particularly affects high-achieving individuals who struggle to accept or see what they’ve accomplished. In fact, the Harvard Business Review states that 70% of people are likely to experience it at some stage in their life.
How to spot imposter feelings in the office
Think of an employee who sets exceedingly high standards for themselves, both at work and in their personal life – let’s name her Sarah.
Sarah has completed many successful projects that have driven commendable results and she is often recognized by her team as a key worker.
But when praised by team members or her manager, she responds with “I got lucky”, or “there were actually many mistakes”, as a method to downplay her accomplishments. Unless you’re dealing with a serious diplomat, then Sarah is a clear-cut example of someone with imposter syndrome.
Luckily, managers in the workplace can quickly pick up on this pervasive phenomenon before it exacerbates into something worse. According to author and keynote speak Clare Josa, leaders can refer to the four P’s of imposter syndrome:
Other than tumbling mental health because of self-imposed stress, the complication of imposter syndrome is equivalent to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who are stricken with perfectionism are driven by a profound fear of failure.
Their overwhelming concern about making mistakes and self-doubt manifests into a vicious cycle of repeating the same draining process. A perfectionist who is unable to meet their impossibly high standards becomes even more convinced they are an imposter, which only fuels the feeling of inadequacy.
It can be quite a toxic cycle.
It comes in many forms
Researcher Dr. Valerie Young suggests there are five types of imposters.
These individuals strive for flawlessness in everything they do and are deeply afraid of making mistakes. They often dwell on their errors and feel that anything less than perfection is a failure.
The expert feels like the need to prove oneself as the most knowledgeable and competent person in the room. These individuals are driven by an insatiable desire for expertise and may feel anxious or fraudulent when they encounter situations where they lack knowledge or experience.
People with this imposter syndrome simply doubt their own natural intelligence which leads them to believe they are a fraud. They often excel effortlessly in certain areas, but when faced with tasks that require effort or learning, they may doubt their abilities.
This imposter has two aspects. One, where if someone had received help to reach a certain status or position, they question their abilities since it wasn’t achieved ‘Solo’. On the other hand, a soloist can also be a person who strictly prefers to work alone because sharing tasks might reveal them as incompetent.
You must be the hardest worker and excel at the highest accomplishments in all aspects of life. If not, you’re a fraud.
Don’t confuse it with a condition only present in the workplace. You might be a ‘Superman imposter’ father, who sets unrealistic expectations on themselves for raising children.
But it’s not all negative.
“Imposter syndrome shows you really care about wanting to succeed in the environment,” said Scott. “If you didn’t care about your work or want to do well, you wouldn’t have imposter syndrome.”
Imposter feelings can become a form of motivation to succeed, but it’s not without the cost of several consequences in a professional setting. It can reach an extent where people stagnate in their own careers because of self-doubt and miss opportunities because they feel unqualified.
The imposter phenomenon is said to affect women more, which might perpetuate gender disparities in the workplace.
It’s a tough path to navigate but imposter syndrome can be tackled.
Look within yourself
Accepting imperfection is the most difficult task for someone with imposter syndrome, but this self-awareness is the first step in overcoming self-doubt.
Most academics recommend exploring the origins of why you feel like a fraud and dabble in the influences that may have contributed to these feelings. Knowing the root cause is the fastest way in addressing this conundrum.
“Your brain and body is always listening to what’s being said.
“Look at the facts of your success which show that you are worthy . . . and remember everyone has the right to success, even you,” said Scott.
Approaching life with an abundance mindset will shift everything for the better.
If you or someone you know is experiencing problematic anxiety from imposter syndrome, speak to your local GP and seek help.