Many people, especially women and people of color, experience self-doubt and think they don’t deserve the success they’ve achieved. Known as “imposter syndrome,” this view of self can be debilitating if left unchecked. Here are ways to combat it.
Is “imposter syndrome” real? Unfortunately, for many people it is. I have worked in corporate America, advanced to executive-level leadership roles, and participated in leadership support groups for women and people of color. Based on my experience, I can attest to the anxiety-inducing effects imposter syndrome can have.
Imposter Syndrome Defined
Introduced in 1978 by two psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, this phenomenon was then defined as a self-perceived fear of intellectual phoniness. Though popular culture frequently adopts the term imposter “syndrome,” the terms “phenomenon” or “experience” are more appropriate as they don’t connote a clinical diagnosis or suggest permanence.
Understanding of the phenomenon has expanded over time to include feelings of not belonging, undervaluing your competence, and attributing your success to luck or other external factors. The experience is pervasive: A 2020 study in the Journal of General Medicine found that up to 82 percent of respondents faced feelings of impostor phenomenon, including that they hadn’t earned what they had achieved.
Factors like race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, and age affect the likelihood that a person will experience imposter phenomenon. For example, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) who work or study in predominantly White environments wrestle with impostor feelings at higher rates, either contending with feelings that they don’t belong or that they’re products of affirmative action, according to Kevin Cokley, Ph.D., a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied impostor phenomenon since 2013.
Impact and Effects
There can be no meaningful discussion about imposter phenomenon and how it holds women and other individuals back in their careers without consideration of workplace culture and climate—meaning what an organization values in principle and, more importantly, in action.
Imposter phenomenon is common in times of uncertainty or significant change. In work settings, it often coincides with taking a new job, being promoted, or being given responsibility for leading a high-profile project. Despite their qualifications, many professionals reported experiencing anxiety, self-doubt, and exhaustion from doubling and tripling their efforts when taking on new responsibilities. These feelings are often hastened by passive-aggressive, undermining, and sometimes hostile behavior of colleagues who are uncomfortable (subconsciously or not) with the authority of a woman or BIPOC individual in a leadership position.
In these circumstances it’s vital for organizations to have resources in place to support the success of new leaders. Cultivating an inclusive culture focused on equity and belonging, instituting mentoring programs for new leaders, and holding individuals accountable for toxic behavior are some of the ways that imposter phenomenon in the workplace can be mitigated.
An Action Plan
If you are experiencing imposter syndrome, remember that you are not alone. Feelings associated with imposter phenomenon can affect people in various aspects of life, such as work, academics, romantic relationships, and friendships. Here are some tips for handling it.
- Gain perspective. Share your experience with people you trust. They likely see you differently than you see yourself, and their feedback can be helpful with truly understanding the value of your skills and accomplishments.
- Reframe negativity. When you recognize that you’re engaged in negative internal thoughts and put-downs, acknowledge them, let them go, and replace them with, “I can, I will, and I have” statements. These allow you to anticipate the positive result you want to experience.
- Prioritize progress over perfection. Striving to be perfect focuses on achieving an unattainable result. Progress focuses instead on learning, growing, and improving as a complete person while you work toward accomplishing your goal.
- Recognize that failure is OK. Sheila Wellington, a business leader and think tank executive once said, “At the end of the day, it’s not how far you fall but how high you bounce.” Failure offers many lessons, not the least of which is how to succeed.
- Celebrate success. The times we live in value speed, instant gratification, and moving on to the next thing. Allow yourself to experience the benefits of taking time to reflect on what you’ve accomplished, how it makes you feel, and any lessons learned. Don’t be too quick to consider what’s next when you haven’t spent enough time with what’s now.
Although individuals can take steps to change how they think about themselves, employers share responsibility for combating imposter phenomenon in the workplace. It is a business imperative for leaders to create more inclusive work environments where people of every race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, and age believe in their own ability to lead and succeed.