Understanding Imposter Syndrome can Remove Self-Imposed Road Blocks

Kim Meninger

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If you feel undeserving of your success, worry that you'll be exposed as a fraud, or attribute your accomplishments to luck or timing rather than your abilities, you may be suffering from Impostor Syndrome. Impostor Syndrome is a term first used by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 to describe the feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt that many people feel even in the face of conflicting evidence. Research shows that approximately 70% of people will experience Impostor Syndrome at some time in their lifetimes.

Interestingly, those most susceptible to Impostor Syndrome are successful, high-achieving individuals - the folks you would imagine would be least likely to struggle with confidence issues. The late, award-winning poet Maya Angelou, Margaret Chan, Chief of the World Health Organization, and even world-renowned scientist Albert Einstein had been known to battle Impostor Syndrome, to name just a few.

Impostor Syndrome seems to strike most commonly at times of transition, as individuals who have achieved high levels of success in one role now advance to the next step. When they transition to college, high-school valedictorians who had a reputation for being the smartest student in the school now find themselves in a sea of other valedictorians, leading them to doubt their place in the group. Or professionals with a strong track record of success in one role get promoted to the next level and then doubt their ability to match their success in a new, more challenging position.

While once believed to occur most frequently among women, researchers have since concluded that women and men are equally vulnerable to these disruptive feelings of self-doubt. Impostor Syndrome may, however, manifest itself differently in each gender. For example, men tend to feel less comfortable sharing these feelings with others, leading them to suffer in silence more often than women do.

Impostor Syndrome Is Not a Disorder

Despite its name, Impostor Syndrome is not a psychological disorder or mental health condition. It simply reflects the way in which we perceive ourselves in relation to success or failure. It tends to be deep-rooted, influenced by childhood experiences with parents or other strong role models, such as teachers or coaches. Those who were showered with praise, even in undeserving situations, have difficulty reconciling a parent's perfectionistic image of them with the harsh realities of their school or work environment. Alternatively, children who receive no recognition at all for their efforts also often grow up feeling that they're not good enough.

Impostor Syndrome also affects those who feel different from those around them - for example, a female in a male-dominated company, or an individual representing an ethnic or racial minority. They often feel pressured to perform at the highest level not only to prove themselves but also to positively represent their entire group. This sense of operating under a spotlight, or with increased scrutiny, contributes to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.

You Can Manage Impostor Syndrome

Because Impostor Syndrome is deeply rooted, it can take time to overcome. Superficial behavioral changes are often insufficient to reframe the underlying mindsets that trigger these feelings. However, with increased self-awareness and a commitment to change, you can effectively manage disruptive feelings.

The first step to overcoming Impostor Syndrome is to recognize its existence. So many sufferers don't even realize that there is a name for their experience. Simply understanding that your feelings are real and commonplace gives you the comfort of knowing that you are not alone.

Acknowledging your feelings to others is another powerful tactic. Too many individuals struggling with Impostor Syndrome experience an added feeling of shame. An unwillingness to share your concerns with others burdens you with the weight of a deep, dark secret. Once you reveal your fears and doubts to others, the weight is lifted, freeing you from the shame and isolation that previously haunted you.

While there are many other important and effective strategies to combat Impostor Syndrome, the most critical, and most challenging, is a willingness to revisit your childhood experiences for clues to the origins of your feelings. This reflection on past events can help you to recognize the underlying roots and reframe them through the eyes of a mature adult, rather than those of a child.

Impostor Syndrome's Unwitting Benefits

As troublesome as Impostor Syndrome can be, it does have its benefits. High success rates among those who struggle with Impostor Syndrome indicate that these feelings of self-doubt may motivate these individuals to work that much harder to achieve their goals. Rather than succumb to these fears, they redouble their efforts, leading to remarkable accomplishments and successes. By applying proven strategies to manage Impostor Syndrome, these talented, high-potential people strengthen their confidence and self-image, leaving them poised for even greater success.

WITI - Women in Technology Boston networking meeting, October 20, 2016, "Fight 'Impostor Syndrome' to Build Your Confidence and Career." The event was held at TrueMotion, 186 Lincoln St., Boston.

Kim Meninger is a certified executive coach and owner of Executive Career Success. She partners with women and minorities in the high-tech industry to help them become more confident, visible and influential leaders. She's on the WITI Boston network's leadership team.

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