Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome

In this week’s WLA update we are focusing on the Imposter Syndrome. You can watch the video here:

Impostor syndrome – the feeling that you’re a fraud, and any day now you’ll be exposed – is presumably even more common than surveys suggest: after all, it’s not the kind of thing to which people like to admit. Indeed, it can be hard to tell when you’ve got it: those others might have a syndrome, your reasoning goes, but I’m genuinely out of my depth. It’s a classic case of “comparing your insides with other people’s outsides”: you have access only to your own self-doubt, so you mistakenly conclude it’s more justified than anyone else’s.

Imposter Syndrome Feelings

The impostor syndrome is where you feel out of your depth. It is that feeling that you have only achieved your success by chance and that there are better candidates out there somewhere. Hence you only got that promotion because that particular year there were fewer good candidates than usual, you won that 10k race because the best runner at your club was ill, etc….

Still, it’s no fun, and if new research is anything to go by, it might be harder to cure than anyone thought.

Imposter Syndrome
Imposter Syndrome

Two US sociologists, Jessica Collett and Jade Avelis, wanted to know why so many female academics opt for “downshifting”: setting out towards a high-status tenured post, then switching to something less ambitious. Contrary to received wisdom, their survey of 460 doctoral students revealed that it wasn’t to do with wanting a “family-friendly” lifestyle. Instead, impostorism was to blame.


They also uncovered a nasty irony. It’s long been known that impostorism afflicts more women than men. One of many reasons that institutions match younger women academics with high-ranking female mentors. But some survey responses suggested those mentors might make things worse, because students felt like impostors compared with them. “One said she suspected her mentor was secretly Superwoman,” Science Careers magazine reported. “How could she ever live up to that example?”

This is only one of impostorism’s frustrating ironies. Another is that true frauds and idiots rarely seem to experience it. (“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt,” said Bertrand Russell.)

Arguably the worst one, though, is that getting better at your job won’t fix it. Achieve promotions, or win accolades, and you’ll just have more cause to feel like a fake. Enhance your knowledge, and as you expand the perimeter of what you know, you’ll be exposed to more and more of what you don’t.

Impostorism, as Pacific Standard magazine put it recently, “is, for many people, a natural symptom of gaining expertise”. Move up the ranks and if your field’s even vaguely meritocratic, you’ll encounter more talented people to compare yourself negatively against. It never stops. “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find [me] out now,'” as some low-profile underachiever named Maya Angelou once said.

The only solution, many experts say, is for higher-ups to talk about their own insecurities much more. (“When people see those they respect struggling, or admitting they didn’t know everything when they started, it makes it easier to have realistic opinions of their own work,” says the Ada Initiative.

What are the possible solutions to the Impostor Syndrome?

Well, the first is to keep your head down and hope that you don’t get found out. Go off sick when you need to make a presentation, do the photocopying when the accounts are being read. It certainly is an option although as Brian Tracey says: “If you do you you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

Here are perhaps a few better suggestions:

  • Face into your concerns. This could involve talking to a confidant or a coach. They might help you highlight what you need to do or they might help you realise that there is no problem at all.
  • Realise this is common to SOOO many people. Almost without exception everyone I coach suffers from Imposter Syndrome.
  • Stop comparing yourself to others. Notice when you are doing and remind yourself that you are different and you have different gifts and you don’t have to follow their path.
  • Start building positive affirmations and telling yourself them over and over.

The key thing is to loosen the grip that the Imposter Syndrome has on you. You need to find ways to turn down that volume.

Here’s your assignment for this week:

Start and keep a file of the good stuff. You know the wonderful emails, great feedback, personal and team achievements. Anything that makes you feel good and reminds you of your successes. It works a treat!



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