Confronting Imposter Syndrome

What is imposter syndrome and how to spot the signs? We explore the mental health condition that affects millions of people with tips to overcome it.

Every year in May the UK observes Mental Health Awareness Week. Whilst discussions around mental health and wellbeing should be had round the year – this dedicated time provides a renewed opportunity to turn our focus on some of the common challenges to our psychological wellbeing and explore ways to address them.

The theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2023 (15 – 21 May) is Anxiety with a focus on finding ways to #ToHelpMyAnxiety. We want to turn our focus on an issue that affects an estimated three out of five people and can be a major trigger for anxiety.

Imposter Syndrome is an experience that many of us battle with on the daily – whether you’re a seasoned professional or starting your very first job. It can take a toll on our confidence and become a significant barrier to success. Imposter syndrome can be particularly common among people who are returning to work after an extended career break. Fortunately, there are ways to overcome it.

In this blog we’ll look at:

What is Imposter syndrome?

Verwell Mind defines Imposter syndrome as, ‘the internal psychological experience of feeling like a phony in some area of your life, despite any success that you have achieved in that area.’ Imposter syndrome manifests as a persistent fear of being exposed as incompetent or unworthy of success.

The term was first coined in 1978 by two clinical psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. At the time, the condition was believed to affect professional women. However, subsequent research has revealed that both and men can suffer equally from it.

Whist imposter syndrome is not a diagnosable mental illness, it is a condition that can typically trigger an onset of multiple other issues including depression and panic attacks.

What are the signs of imposter syndrome?

Different people display different outward signs when experiencing imposter syndrome. People experiencing imposter syndrome may undermine their achievements, attribute their successes to luck or external factors, and constantly doubt their skills and knowledge. The most common signs are:

  • Lack of confidence
  • Setting unrealistic expectations
  • Anxiety
  • Sense of isolation
  • Undervaluing achievements

Lack of confidence

Self-doubt and a lack of confidence in one’s own abilities can often be seen as a sign of imposter syndrome. Self-doubt can cause a person to constantly second guess themselves and subsequently take a toll on their confidence and impede progress. This lack of confidence can be debilitating, preventing individuals from fully embracing their accomplishments and pursuing new opportunities.

Setting unrealistic expectations

Those experiencing imposter syndrome often place impossibly high standards upon themselves, believing that they must consistently achieve perfection in order to prove their worthiness. These individuals may set goals and expectations that are beyond their capabilities, constantly striving for unrealistic levels of success.

This self-imposed pressure only perpetuates feelings of inadequacy and fuels the belief that they are not deserving of their accomplishments. This in turn creates a vicious cycle of self-doubt and anxiety, as they continuously fall short of their own impossible standards.

Anxiety

People experiencing imposter syndrome frequently live with heightened levels of anxiety due to their constant worry about not meeting expectations or being discovered as undeserving of their achievements. This anxiety can manifest in various ways, such as feeling overwhelmed, experiencing self-consciousness, or having a fear of failure.

The fear of being exposed as an imposter can create a perpetual state of unease, leading to feelings of inadequacy and a constant need to prove oneself.

Sense of isolation

Those grappling with imposter syndrome often believe that they are the only ones experiencing these feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. This can lead people to withdraw from social interactions and refrain from seeking support. They may feel alienated and disconnected, assuming that they do not ‘belong’ in their professional or personal environments.

This sense of isolation can further reinforce imposter syndrome, as the lack of validation and shared experiences perpetuates the belief that they are indeed outsiders or frauds.

Undervaluing achievements

Individuals with imposter syndrome tend to downplay or dismiss their own accomplishments, attributing them to luck, external factors, or simply undervaluing their significance. They often believe that their achievements are not truly deserved or that they somehow fooled others into thinking they are more competent than they actually are.

This self-deprecation stems from an underlying belief of being unworthy or inadequate. Despite receiving recognition or praise, individuals with imposter syndrome struggle to internalize and accept their successes, perpetuating a cycle of self-doubt and self-sabotage.

What causes imposter syndrome?

A large cross-section of people suffers from imposter syndrome and so the triggers for each can vary greatly.

Competitive environments

A high-achieving environment can often trigger imposter syndrome in people. Very competitive workplaces, academic institutions or creative fields, where individuals constantly vie with and compare themselves to others can add pressured to meet unrealistic standards.

Starting a new role

Starting a new job or taking on a leadership role can also cause feelings of self-doubt and the fear of being exposed as an imposter. This is common among those returning to work after a career break. There are several reasons to take a career break ranging from childcare to health reasons, redundancies and more.

Those looking to return to work after a career break face many barriers to employment – from being overlooked for candidates with more recent work experience to being offered lower skill roles. According to a study by PWC, three out of five women returning to the workforce will move to a lower skill role. A lower skill role immediately reduces their earnings by a third.

Battling societal biases can undermine the self-confidence of someone trying to get back to work. So once they do land a new role, it can trigger feelings of alienation and not believing that they belong in their new job.

Cultural biases  

Cultural or societal factors such as stereotypes, biases, or marginalisation can contribute to imposter syndrome, as individuals from underrepresented groups may feel isolated and believe that they do not belong or are less deserving of success.

What are the different types of imposter syndrome?

Dr. Valerie Young, an expert in the field mentions five main types of imposter syndrome.

Type 1: The Perfectionist

Perfectionism is frequently identified as a significant indicator of imposter syndrome. Dr. Valerie Young, in her book on the topic, highlights that perfectionists tend to establish exceptionally high standards for themselves. Even if they manage to accomplish 99% of their goals, the slightest setback or failure can be perceived as a significant defeat.

When mistakes occur, perfectionists often begin to question their fundamental competence, a thought pattern that easily aligns with the feelings associated with imposter syndrome. The relentless pursuit of flawlessness and the fear of falling short can intensify the belief that they are not genuinely skilled or deserving of their achievements.

By understanding the link between perfectionism and imposter syndrome, individuals can begin to challenge their unrealistic expectations and embrace a more balanced and self-compassionate approach to their accomplishments.

Type 2: Superhuman

Superhumans are individuals who push themselves to work tirelessly, surpassing the efforts of those around them, all in an attempt to validate their competence and dispel their imposter feelings. These over-achievers set exceedingly high expectations for themselves, striving for success in every facet of their lives, both personal and professional.

The pressure to excel in all areas becomes overwhelming, and any perceived weakness or failure in one aspect of life can trigger their imposter syndrome and cause burnout.

‘Superhumans’ have to recognize the importance of self-care, setting realistic expectations, and seeking support to break free from the cycle of constantly trying to prove themselves and embrace a more balanced and sustainable approach to their achievements and well-being.

Type 3: The Natural Genius

The ‘natural genius’ is someone who has consistently excelled academically throughout their school years, where success seemed to come effortlessly to them. However, as they progress in life and face new challenges, they inevitably encounter situations where achievement no longer comes as readily, and they must put in hard work and effort to attain their desired outcomes.

This shift from innate ability to requiring perseverance can trigger imposter syndrome in natural geniuses. They may perceive the struggle to meet their goals as a reflection of their inherent lack of ability, leading to feelings of inadequacy and the belief that they are not ‘good enough’.

Natural geniuses need to understand that everyone faces challenges and setbacks, and effort and growth are essential for personal and professional development. Acknowledging that struggle is a natural part of the learning process can help combat imposter syndrome and foster a healthier perspective on their abilities and achievements.

Type 4: The Expert

Experts typically like to do thorough research and accumulate extensive knowledge before starting a new project. They prefer to take time in upskilling themselves in order to gain expertise over a subject.

However, this relentless pursuit of becoming an ‘expert’ can trigger imposter syndrome, holding them back from applying for jobs or opportunities unless they meet all criteria on a job description. It can also stop them from actively participating and sharing their insights in seminars or discussions, from a lack of confidence in the perfection of their responses.

It’s important to recognise that developing expertise is a continuous journey, and no one has all the answers. Embracing a growth mindset and acknowledging that learning is an ongoing process can help alleviate the pressure of knowing everything all the time and overcome imposter syndrome.

Type 5: The Soloist

Individuals who feel that asking for help exposes their perceived phoniness are often referred to as Soloists, as described by Dr. Young. While it is commendable to be independent and self-reliant, Soloists take it to the extreme by resisting any form of assistance in order to prove their worthiness.

These ‘imposters’ find it challenging to reach out for help when they genuinely need it, as they believe that seeking assistance diminishes their own contributions or implies inadequacy in their skillset.

Accepting support doesn’t minimise their own abilities. Instead, it allows them to tap into collective knowledge, broaden their perspectives, and foster collaborative success. Overcoming imposter syndrome for Soloists involves understanding that seeking assistance is a part of the learning process that enables personal and professional growth.

How to overcome imposter syndrome?

It can be very isolating to live with constant feelings of self-doubt and thinking that playing catch-up with your own existing standards. However, self-awareness and finding the right support can help you overcome these feelings.

5 Top tips to deal with imposter syndrome

  1. Know you’re not alone

Firstly, it's important to recognise that you’re not alone. Impostor syndrome affects people across all levels and industries, and it's often the most accomplished and successful people who experience it the most. Knowing this can help you feel less isolated in your experience.

2. Challenge negative thoughts

Secondly, it's essential to challenge those negative thoughts. When you catch yourself thinking that you're not good enough, or that you're going to be found out as a fraud, stop and ask yourself if that's really true. Often, our thoughts are irrational and not based on evidence, and by questioning them, we can start to break the cycle of negative self-talk.

3. Focus on your wins

Another strategy is to focus on your strengths and accomplishments. When you're feeling like an impostor, it’s easy to overlook all the things you’ve achieved and the skills you bring to the table. Take some time to reflect on your achievements, and remind yourself of the valuable contributions you’ve made in the past. Taking pen to paper and writing an actual list can help you visualise your accomplishments.

4. Be kind to yourself

The most important aspect of self care is to show kindness to yourself. Understand that everyone make mistakes and it’s ok to fail. What is important is to learn from your failures and move on.

5. Talk about it

Talking to trusted colleagues, friends, or mentors about your feelings can help you feel heard and validated. You may also want to consider seeking professional help, such as coaching or counselling, to work through your thoughts and emotions.

Overcoming impostor syndrome can take time and effort, but by challenging negative thoughts, focusing on your strengths, and seeking support, you can build the resilience and confidence you need to succeed in your career. Remember, you belong here, and you are worthy of all the opportunities that come your way.

If you’re looking to get back to work after a career break but don’t know where to start, we want to hear from you! Our Returners Programme welcomes people with a career break of 12+ months.

Join one of our Open Mornings to find out more.

About Preeta Ghoshal

Preeta is a content writer with over 10 years’ experience across print, digital and broadcast media. She has worked extensively in multi-media content creation. Her work reflects a mix of subject matter research and storytelling to produce content that is both informative and easily digestible. She is presently providing content support to each of the FDM programmes and the wider marketing team.


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