It’s not new, and almost all of us have experienced it at least once. Imposter syndrome is defined as “the persistent inability to believe that one's success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one's own efforts or skills.” Some people battle those feelings of inadequacy throughout their lives; others for specific periods, like when starting a new job.
What is imposter syndrome?
Valerie Young, Ed.D., is a recognized expert on imposter syndrome. In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Young writes that even overwhelming evidence of their abilities isn’t enough to counter inner feelings of fraudulence. People who suffer from imposter syndrome “feel that they’ve somehow managed to slip through the system undetected; in their mind, it’s just a matter of time before they’re found out.
Success is dismissed as “merely a matter of luck, timing, outside help, charm—even computer error,” Young writes.
Who is at risk of imposter syndrome?
While anyone can experience imposter syndrome, certain groups are more at risk.
According to a study led by Elizabeth Canning, assistant professor at Washington State University, if you’re a first-generation college student, for instance, you have a greater chance of experiencing the syndrome than students who have university-educated parents. This is especially true if you’re pursuing a STEM career (one in science, technology, engineering, or math), because the level of interpersonal competition is fierce. When you’re already feeling like you don’t quite belong in an environment, having peers as rivals rather than supportive colleagues can exacerbate those feelings of insecurity.
Women are another group at higher risk for imposter syndrome. Rebecca Burn-Callander, Hoxby associate, writes that one theory for this is that women produce less testosterone than men, and so have less of the “confidence hormone” necessary to push through the syndrome.
Career coach Lisa Lewi s, founder of Career Clarity, has a different take: She tells us that a woman’s sense of integrity can actually be the issue.
“You want your reputation, your work product, and your title to match—so imposter syndrome crops up when you're afraid one of those things is out of alignment,” she explains. “It most frequently pops up when you are given a project or promotion that feels a little out of your league, because your integrity believes that since you haven't done the‘new’ thing before, you don't know with certainty that you can be in integrity with a high quality product.”
Career consultant Debra Cruz tells us she was a classic case of being “addicted to the validation that comes from working, and not to the work itself.” So, the external recognition and accolades she received fed her ego—but instead of internalizing and believing them, she says she simply viewed those compliments (“You really went above and beyond on that project”) as setting a standard of her work which she then had to maintain.
Imposter syndrome is not false modesty. And the syndrome certainly does affect men. In his TED talk, entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes, who is cofounder and co-CEO of Atlassian Software Systems, explains imposter syndrome this way:
“For me, impostor syndrome is a feeling of being well, well out of your depth, yet already entrenched in the situation. Internally, you know you're not skilled enough, experienced enough or qualified enough to justify being there, yet you are there, and you have to figure a way out, because you can't just get out. It's not a fear of failure, and it's not a fear of being unable to do it.
“It's more a sensation of getting away with something, a fear of being discovered, that at any time, someone is going to figure this out. And if they did figure it out, you'd honestly think,‘Well, that's fair enough, actually.’”
Can imposter syndrome hurt my career?
The answer to this question is a resounding yes, imposter syndrome can badly affect your career. Here are a few problems that arise:
Lack of advancement. If you don’t believe you’re good enough at your job, you certainly won’t apply for internal promotions. You may not even think it’s worth taking development training to learn new skills to future-proof your career.
Lack of initiative. If you think leadership is beyond your capability, you’ll have trouble showing initiative in your job. If your job entails managing a team, you may struggle to motivate and lead those team members.
Overcompensate. In order to make up for those supposed inadequacies, you overwork, don’t delegate and take on far too many tasks. You also don’t fight for raises and promotions that you would otherwise. Ultimately, all of this will lead to burnout.
Lack of engagement. When you figure you’re going to fail anyway, you risk losing the motivation to even try. In other words, those “I can’t do it” beliefs become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and because you expect to be fired at any moment, you might even quit.
The good news: You can beat imposter syndrome
Young says imposter syndrome takes various forms, depending on your personality, background, and current circumstances; still, you can beat it. And the best way to fight impostor syndrome is to adopt competence, which “doesn’t mean you need to know everything, to do it all yourself, or to do everything perfectly or effortlessly. Instead competence is being able to identify the resources it takes to get the job done.”
Another approach Lewis suggests in her own article is reframing the way you look at your work: “Your clients or boss don’t care about who you are inside as much as they care about what you do and how you show up.” And when you’re feeling insecure, review some of your work-related successes. For Lewis, these include:
I’ve had clients get raises of between 7 percent and 45 percent when I help them get new jobs.
I’ve coached over 400 individuals so far
I’ve been in business profitably for 4 years
Several of my clients have started profitable, sustainable service-based businesses
Also, try to look at your career as a journey. Some people will be further ahead in theirs, others are just beginning. We’re all at different places, but it doesn’t mean any one of us can’t accomplish our goals—or that you’re doing it wrong.
Talking to a trusted colleague can make you feel less alone. Discussing your concerns and getting feedback from someone who knows the job can be very helpful in making you realize how hyper-critical you’re being on yourself.
Become aware of what triggers your imposter syndrome, those feelings of phoniness and unworthiness when it comes to your achievements. Then learn which techniques best manage it, whether it’s reviewing your accomplishments and taking ownership of them, self-talk to get into the right mindset, or turning your attention outward and giving professional advice to someone else who might be struggling.
Read more: How to Find a Mentor & How to Ask