Do you regularly find yourself doubting your abilities in your work role, comparing yourself unfavourably to your work peers, thinking how lucky you are to be in the role that you’re in, concerned you may not be able to prove your worth and investment to your employer, and worried that others might eventually find out your “dirty little secret”: that you’re not actually as good as they think you are? 😬 If so, you may be experiencing “Imposter Syndrome”.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome can be defined as “the inability to believe your success is deserved as a result of your hard work and the fact you possess distinct skills, capabilities and experiences. Rather, your inclination is to internalise that you got where you are by other means such as luck, or being in the right place at the right time.” 

Psychologists explain this by way of Attribution Theory: the tendency for some individuals to give credit for their success to external factors beyond their control (situational attribution), yet blaming failure on their own shortcomings, flaws and deficits (dispositional attribution).

“Success” could refer to the simple fact that you have a job at all, that an employer actually wants to pay you money for what you do, and not necessarily that you are a senior member of staff, well-paid, or holding a lot of responsibility.

It is relatively common early on in our careers, when we wonder just what we learned at school or university that will possibly translate into actual, useful skills; or when we receive our first promotion or transition into roles managing others or servicing key clients.

However, many people – and especially women – find themselves consumed with self-doubt, a sense of inadequacy, and lack of confidence, well into their professional careers. And these negative self-perceptions persist despite their experience, skill set, and obvious positive regard and feedback from their colleagues. Whilst others regard them as highly accomplished women, they themselves struggle with confusion about how they have reached the level they have. Their fear of being “found out” in terms of who they believe they truly are (“not good enough”), creates a chronic state of anxiety that impacts on many aspects of their wellbeing. It can lead to a degree of self-sabotage, in terms of actively avoiding positions of greater responsibility or of a higher profile, due to fear of failure; or adopting a self-deprecating and self-critical narrative so that their colleagues might, over time, lower their expectations of them.

The irony is, imposter syndrome results in us acting like imposters – pretending we are not as good as we actually are, and not being true to our authentic, fact-based selves. 

Research by KPMG in the United States (reported in Forbes, 2020) has found that 75% of executive women identified having experienced imposter syndrome at various points in their careers. Nearly 6 in 10 executive women stated that promotions or transitions to new roles were the times that they most experienced imposter syndrome. In addition, 74% of these women said they don’t believe male leaders have as much self-doubt as their female counterparts.

So why is imposter syndrome so much more prevalent amongst professional women than men? 

Imposter syndrome was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. In their paper, they theorised that women were uniquely affected by imposter syndrome. Whilst we now know that imposter syndrome is not limited to women, and that personality characteristics such as perfectionism and fear of failure, along with family expectations and environmental factors, can all contribute, it does seem that gender has a powerful part to play.

It seems that longstanding patriarchal social influences play a significant role in very fixed gender stereotypes that can continue to dictate what “feminine” should look and act like. Many of KPMG’s research respondents cited differences in how boys and girls were raised in childhood. At an early age, boys were encouraged to lead, demonstrate self-confidence, and display less emotion than girls. Girls were socialised to be caring, nurturing, and “other-focused”, and to put the needs of others before their own. 

Furthermore, women have also reported that the more successful they become, the lonelier it gets at the top, because there are few women in these top positions.

Moving beyond Imposter Syndrome

The good news is, it can be overcome! It is entirely possible to learn more skilful ways to both recognise imposter syndrome showing up in our professional lives, and to intentionally “act differently”.

The first step towards change is to start to notice – to really pay close attention to – examples of imposter syndrome in the way you think, feel and behave. For example, your manager asks you to take on a new task, and you notice a thought that “I’m really not good enough to do this”, “What if I let her down?” or “My colleague will do a much better job than me” – or you might actually say those thoughts out loud! These thoughts may be accompanied by a feeling of unease, discomfort, anxiety, or even guilt – “She’s asked the wrong person! If only she knew…” – along with an urge to avoid the task at all costs. Hence, your behavioural response might be to say, “No” to the request, or suggest that someone else might be better placed to pick it up.

Then, as you start to develop your awareness of these signs as they happen, you can consciously decide not to engage with your automatic thoughts, but instead form new and different thoughts – “Scary but exciting” or “I have the skills to do this” – and a different response “Sure, why not?”, to replace the automatic, default ones that have been showing up for years. New emotions to replace the old might be a greater sense of confidence, entitlement and deservedness. In doing so, you are opening yourself up to new opportunities to experience yourself as competent and capable – evidence that runs counter to the imposter syndrome story.

Ultimately, what is required in the longer term is for you to move away from the “not good enough” story, towards a new, dominant and more authentic narrative: one in which you are proud of your accomplishments and all the hard work, dedication and commitment you have brought to your job. In re-writing the script, and shaping this new narrative, it is vital to align with the facts rather than your thoughts (which are so often distortions of reality). It may also help to consider the fact that you are in a unique position to positively and powerfully influence your female colleagues (and daughters/sisters/female friends) who are watching and learning from you. Rather than brush off or minimise praise from a colleague or client – look them in the eye and thank them.