Imposter syndrome. It’s that feeling that you aren’t worthy. That you’re a fraud. That any day now, someone’s going to realize you’ve snuck into someplace you don’t belong, and you’ll be kicked to the curb.
Imposter syndrome causes people to struggle with confidence and self-worth. They tend to be high achievers, but the pressure they put on themselves comes with a price, which can impact their personal and professional lives.
As a leader, what is your role when it comes to imposter syndrome? Could your corporate culture be causing this debilitating experience for the people you lead?
In this article, we’ll discuss:
- What is imposter syndrome?
- How common is imposter syndrome?
- What causes imposter syndrome?
- How do you fix imposter syndrome?
- If YOU are experiencing imposter syndrome
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome may be one of the latest buzzwords, but the concept has been around since the 1970’s. When it was first identified, it was seen as something that affected chronic overachievers who struggled to fully own their successes.
Today, the concept is broader. We now define imposter syndrome 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.” (source) Imposter syndrome symptoms can include:
- Fear of being “found out” as a fraud or fake
- Sense of unworthiness
- Inability to objectively assess your competence, skills and abilities
- Overthinking details
- Self-sabotage (usually due to perfectionism and overthinking)
- Belief that you’ve “lucked out” or were only given your role because of tokenism, not merit
- Persistent belief that you aren’t up to the job, even in the face of evidence to the contrary
- An intense fear of failure
- Persistent sense of not belonging
Is Imposter Syndrome a Mental Illness? Is imposter syndrome an anxiety? Is imposter syndrome depression? Is it its own disorder? The short answer is, no. Here’s what WebMD says: “Although imposter syndrome isn’t an official diagnosis, many psychologists realize that it’s a serious form of self-doubt. People with imposter syndrome tend to have anxiety and depression, too.”
So, while imposter syndrome is not a recognized illness, it can be connected to a genuine mental health concern. As a coach, I am not a mental health practitioner and this site is not meant as a replacement for diagnosis or treatment. If you feel that that you may be struggling with anxiety or depression, please reach out to your health care provider ❤
How Common is Imposter Syndrome?
It gets talked about a lot, but just how common is it? We… don’t know. In fact, a 2019 study found that the prevalence of the syndrome ranged from 9% – 82%! That’s a huge range, and the difference seems to depend on the demographics of the people being studied. The study authors found that the occurrence of imposter syndrome is highest among people from ethnic minorities.
Essentially, the more marginalized a group is in society, the more likely people from that group are to experience imposter syndrome. The connection that gets talked about most often seems to be imposter syndrome and women, but as the above publication found, it can be experienced by both men and women, and it is ethnic minorities that are most at risk.
The fact that a google search of “imposter syndrome and women” returned over 3 million results, while a search of “imposter syndrome and ethnicity” returned under 500,000 should give a hint as to the deeply ingrained patterns and prejudices in western society that would lead people in ethnic minority groups to struggle with an experience marked by a sense of not belonging.
What Causes Imposter Syndrome?
Unfortunately, the main causes of imposter syndrome are systemic, meaning they’re built into the systems we live in, work in and grew up in.
This is especially true for women, people of color and other marginalized groups who often have their expertise and ‘right to be there’ called into question the moment they enter a room. It’s often a lifetime of having to prove your worth, of not being believed, of being praised only for accomplishments and berated for every misstep that leads to this extreme self doubt in adulthood. It’s great to say “believe in yourself”, but if everything and everyone around you is telling a different story, it’s not as simple as believing in yourself.
On top of that, there’s the scarcity of role models for anyone who isn’t white and male. It’s easy to visualize yourself succeeding and belonging when everywhere you look, people who look like you are succeeding and belonging. For everyone else, it’s hard to envision themselves succeeding in a world that seems to have no place for them. As clinical psychologist Emily Hu said in this article for BBC, “We’re more likely to experience imposter syndrome if we don’t see many examples of people who look like us or share our background who are clearly succeeding in our field.”
Essentially, what triggers imposter syndrome is having to exist in a world that doesn’t recognize you as worthy.
All that said, anyone can experience imposter syndrome at work. People who grew up in environments that put a high value on accomplishment, for example, can tend to feel like they’re “fooling everyone” if they aren’t working themselves to the bone. This is especially true in work environments where long hours and self-sacrifice are seen as indicators of success. These people can have a hard time doing anything with ease. If the work doesn’t feel torturous, they don’t feel they are worthy of recognition, or a successful outcome.
How Do You Fix Imposter Syndrome?
For the most part, it isn’t the person experiencing imposter syndrome that most needs to change. It’s systems that tell some people they’re less worthy than others that need to change.
There’s a great article in Harvard Business Review that digs into why we need to stop putting the responsibility for fixing imposter syndrome on individuals, particularly individuals who are part of marginalized groups. If it’s outdated, toxic ways of doing things that are at the root of the problem, then it’s those ways of doing things that need to change.
So, how do we go about fixing those things? As a leader, your greatest asset in driving change is how you choose to show up.
Here are a few things you can do as a leader to help shift your corporate culture into one where people truly feel valued and worthy, and are empowered to bring their full brilliance and potential to the work that they do:
- Educate yourself on toxic behaviors so that you notice them and address them. If this is something you’ve never done before, expect it to be a journey. Here are a few starting points:
- Learn how to have difficult conversations with anyone who is engaging in toxic behaviors
- Actively cultivate an environment where it is safe for people to speak their truth
- Make integration the cornerstone of your diversity & inclusion approach
- If you’re asking people to bring their authentic selves to work, make sure you lead that charge AND that your workplace actually embraces authenticity
- If you currently have a culture of overwork, start by addressing how you manage your own time, recognize that overwork is not just a contributor to imposter syndrome, but also to burnout, and then make changes within your team, department or organization – wherever you have the greatest influence.
- Practice openly embracing your mistakes to contribute to a culture of growth, discovery and learning, rather than the appearance of perfection.
Shifting your corporate culture will demand adopting new skills and habits, and guiding the people you lead to do the same. That will take time, awareness and commitment. Keep in mind that the true uphill battle of change often isn’t learning the new skill, but UNlearning old habits. Hold yourself accountable. Hold others accountable. Be persistent in cultivating an environment where belonging is the default experience.
If YOU Are Experiencing Imposter Syndrome
The honest answer to how to overcome imposter syndrome is that the systems around us need to change. Each of us can have a role in that, but at the day-to-day level, many of us need to know how to deal with imposter syndrome, while living in broken or toxic systems.
What you can do for yourself is to practice genuine self-care. In terms of dealing with something like imposter syndrome, genuine self-care is not face masks and spa days (although that can be great too). It’s cultivating habits, routines, networks and practices that fuel you from the inside and provide you with regular touchpoints that reinforce the fundamental truth that you are worthy of joy, success and respect, deserving of recognition, have a right to rest, and have immense value simply by being the wonderful human that you are.
Here are a few things you might explore:
- Become a mentor for others – Mentoring others can help you realize just how much knowledge you have, and what you’ve truly achieved and learned in your life.
- Find your ikigai – People with imposter syndrome can especially benefit from a solid understanding of what truly fuels them. It can help you to focus on what you’re good at, what you enjoy and what is meaningful to you, which can fill up your worthiness tank.
- Shutdown your Saboteurs – Your inner Saboteurs are those voices inside that fuel feelings of not being good enough, and will try to hold you back from your own brilliance.
- List your skills and strengths – Imposter syndrome can have you overly focused on your weaknesses, and ignoring your very real strengths, skills and abilities. Start shifting that focus by listing the things you’re good at and regularly visiting that list to bolster your confidence.
- Practice radical self-acceptance – All parts of you are worthy. When you live in a world that constantly tries to tell you otherwise, it can be so hard to fully internalize the self-worth that is your birthright. Keep going back to self-acceptance and try to surround yourself with people who truly support you and accept you exactly as you are.
- End each day with pride – At the end of each day, acknowledge 3 things that you are proud of. This helps to focus on what is working rather than what is not working, and brings your mind back to your inherent worth.
If you are in a leadership role and would like guidance in cultivating a corporate environment where belonging thrives, and imposter syndrome has no place, I invite you to connect with me.