I received a comment on Instagram from someone last week: ‘Imposter Syndrome has been disproven by a material amount of research. The corporate world is full of biases against women, which is holding women back. Let’s not place the blame on the victim.’
I was pleased to receive this message; I know I can be at risk of living in an echo chamber, where I’m hearing the same people touting the same views. I love being challenged – diversity of thought, experience and background is needed – and it led me to further reading and reflection.
But before we get into the conclusion that I came to, I’d like to share a bit more background on Imposter Syndrome, why it starts and how it is greatly exacerbated by workplace cultures, social media and external systems and structures.
So what is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon characterised by persistent feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt despite evident success. It is a condition that is created in childhood
Our early childhood environment
Pauline Clance and Suzane Imes wrote the first seminal study into Imposter Syndrome in 1978, which found that there are two different environments that typically lead to Imposter Syndrome; it can be created when we are compared to another sibling and we are always pushing ourselves to live up to their achievements; it can form when our parents or carers say that we are ‘perfect’ and that we learned to do things quickly and with ease.
When we get to school, we find that not everything is easy and for some things we do have to work hard, we have to persist and be resilient. This leads to feelings of fraudulence. Our parents told us one thing that we trusted and inherently built our sense of self-esteem, but the world and our environment is telling us another.
Our self-esteem, confidence and self-worth
The extent of our Imposter feelings – whether we feel them all of the time, some of the time or rarely – are a reflection of our self-esteem, confidence and self-worth:
● Our self-esteem is what we think and feel about ourselves.
● Confidence is feeling sure of yourself and your abilities. Think of confidence as competence in certain areas such as parts of your job.
● Our self worth is knowing that we are valued, worthy and lovable.
When we have Imposter Syndrome, we tend to not have a different perception of ourselves to reality: even when we achieve great things, we don’t believe it. So, we may have a sense of confidence in some things that we do at work, but we may have a poor sense of self-esteem or self-worth. All of these things are our internal barriers – it’s our own perceptions that at times can hold us back.
It’s also important to note that those people with Imposter Syndrome are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, high levels of stress and burnout. Often when I’m working with my clients they are experiencing these too and it’s often because the external environment they are in is challenging that includes living and working in a gendered society!
How many people experience it – is it real?
Yes, Imposter Syndrome is real and it is something that all people experience, irrespective of gender. There have been studies showing that some generations, such as Millennials (born between 1981 to 1994), experience it greatly.
A systemic review, published in The Journal of Mental Health & Clinical Psychology (US) in 2020 sought to test the validity of 62 studies into Imposter Syndrome, in which over 14,000 people were surveyed. Among the findings, the study showed that those with Imposter Syndrome have a high need to achieve in the workplace.
Here is an excerpt of the study: Crawford et al. found a significant relationship between Imposter Syndrome and self-reported conflict managing work/life balance among affected employees. However, they found that this relationship was minimized if employees perceived that they were given greater organizational support.
How Imposter Syndrome affects my clients
Typically my clients work in male-dominated industries (banking/finance, law, healthcare, mining, infrastructure and marketing). The culture and environment they are operating in is tough – they are typically the only female on a leadership team, or are the youngest person in the room (something I too experience in my corporate role).
Other times they experience feelings of inadequacy because they have been promoted into a more senior role above colleagues and may share doubts with me like: ‘They may have chosen me, but it’s hard to be credible when you’re a female who has been promoted from inside the organisation into a more senior role. It would have been easier to come in externally.’
The external environment plays a huge role – as cited by the person that sent me the comment on Instagram and as I’ve outlined above.
Some of the ways that the environment can exacerbate our Imposter Syndrome:
● Social media can create feelings of comparison and Imposter Syndrome – we feel that we have to have the latest fashion, throw extravagant birthday parties and look fit, healthy etc.
● We are also consuming content about other’s achievements, from promotions on LinkedIn; at a corporate workshop on the topic of Imposter Syndrome, a participant told me that LinkedIn is very triggering for them because of seeing former colleagues or university mates going into more senior roles or winning industry awards.
● Workplace culture has a huge impact on Imposter Syndrome: this might be from environments where failure is not accepted; feedback given is too generalised (people with Imposter Syndrome need very specific, clear feedback); working in alpha, male-style dominated industries with mantras such as ‘work hard, play hard’ including pulling an ‘all-nighter’ is the norm and receives high fives from colleagues.
Can you overcome Imposter Syndrome?
My answer is yes, and that it takes time but it is worth it. I’ve had clients tell me that they finally feel a sense of ‘freedom’. They also share with me that by being able to break through mindset barriers, they are more productive, focused and feel good about taking time off work – whereas they used to feel anxious taking it.
There are a number of ways that I work with women and organisations to help manage
● My Imposter Syndrome workshops, which focus on topics such as how managers can help team members with Imposter Syndrome, steps to start to overcome it and the link between burnout and Imposter Syndrome, which costs companies millions of pounds every year.
● Work one-to-one with me as I coach you to overcome your Imposter Syndrome, which will benefit you personally and professionally with immediate results (just after one session I can guarantee you’ll be feeling better) to long-term career outcomes.
● My group coaching, which can be especially helpful when hearing others’ experiences and can be run in a corporate setting. My course – see below – also includes recorded excerpts from my group coaching to help dial down some of your Imposter feelings.
● My 21 day Overcome your Imposter Syndrome online course includes tips and tools that work for my clients, as well as access to useful resources by other experts.
●Finally, I have my Imposter Syndrome free quiz: How Strong is Your Imposter?
You are able to overcome your Imposter Syndrome, but I believe that it takes a combination of factors to do this: we need external systems to change, including unhelpful workplace cultures and managers to have tools and resources, such as understanding how to give good feedback, especially to people with Imposter Syndrome. It’s something that I help women with everyday, it’s one of the most common reasons women get in touch with me and I want to help more corporate organisations in the coming year.,