How to overcome Impostor Syndrome

Have you ever felt like you’re masquerading as someone more competent than you truly are, fearing that one day you’ll be exposed as a fraud? If so, you’re not alone. Research shows that this phenomenon plagues seven out of 10 of us at various stages of our lives and careers. It’s the persistent belief that your success is not deserved, attributing it instead to luck or other external factors.

In this month’s article, we explore the impact of impostor syndrome and, most importantly, how to beat it.

Cara McCarthy and Rose Padfield

Recognising the signs

The term ‘impostor phenomenon’ was coined in 1978 by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance. It was thought to primarily affect high-achieving women, but subsequent research has revealed that it can impact anyone, regardless of gender, in any field.

The manifestations of impostor syndrome can vary widely, but there are common indicators affecting one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Recognising and acknowledging these signs is the first step toward addressing the issue.

  • Persistent doubt about your abilities: Despite evidence of success, you can’t shake the belief that you’re not as competent or as intelligent as others perceive you to be.
  • Difficulty accepting praise: Compliments on your performance or achievements feel undeserved. You fear that accepting praise will set expectations you aren’t able to meet.
  • Undermining your achievements: You downplay your successes, feeling they’re not a big deal or are something anyone could have accomplished.
  • Attributing success to external factors: You credit luck, timing or other people for your achievements, rather than acknowledging your own skills and effort.
  • Difficulty internalising success: You struggle to feel genuinely competent, despite a track record of achievements, and you fear that you won’t live up to future expectations.
  • Fear of being exposed as a fraud: You have an underlying anxiety that others will eventually discover that you’re not as capable or knowledgeable as they first thought.
  • Fear of failure: The thought of failing, making a mistake or not meeting expectations can be paralysing, leading to procrastination or avoidance of challenging tasks. To cope, you might tend towards overworking, perfectionism or self-sabotage.
  • Emotional distress: On a deeper level, impostor syndrome can give rise to feelings of anxiety, low self-esteem, depression and frustration owing to the negative thoughts and behaviours it promotes.

If you recognise a persistent pattern of any of these signs in yourself, remember that experiencing impostor syndrome is more common than you might think. Many hugely successful people, including Michelle Obama and Tom Hanks, have spoken out about their own self-doubt. Even the great Albert Einstein referred to himself as an ‘involuntary swindler’ shortly before his death.

Gender differences in the experience of imposter syndrome

Impostor syndrome affects both men and women, but research and anecdotal evidence suggest that it can manifest and impact in different ways, influenced by societal expectations, gender norms and individual experiences.

How women might be affected: 

  • Often entangled with societal messages about perfectionism and the proving of one’s worth in male-dominated spaces.
  • Can manifest in a frequent questioning of abilities and achievements.
  • More likely to struggle with vocalising achievements owing to a fear of being seen as too assertive.
  • Tend to seek and require more external validation of capabilities.
  • Commonly attribute success to luck or external help, rather than their own skill or hard work.
  • May be less likely to apply for promotions or negotiate for higher pay. This in turn contributes to gender disparities in leadership and salary, which could then affect self-confidence and self-esteem in a negative cycle.

How men might be affected: 

  • Feel pressure to embody traditional norms of competence and confidence.
  • Find it challenging to express doubts or seek help, fearing it might be seen as weakness.
  • Tend to internalise feelings of being impostors, increasing stress and anxiety.
  • In competitive environments, feel a strong pressure to outperform peers, which can heighten impostor feelings.
  • May use coping strategies, such as overcompensating through work, to mask feelings of inadequacy.

In addressing impostor syndrome, it is crucial to consider these differences, promoting an environment where both men and women feel supported in discussing their experiences and seeking help. Encouraging open conversations, fostering mentorship and building confidence through skill development can help to mitigate the effects across the board.

The impact of culture on impostor feelings

Research into how some people from ethnic minority backgrounds experience impostor syndrome sheds light on the interplay of factors that can exacerbate these feelings, making their experience distinctly nuanced compared to their peers.

Among other key themes emerging from the research, three in particular highlight the complex nature of impostor syndrome in these groups:

  • Cultural and family expectations can lead to increased pressure to succeed, amplifying feelings of fraudulence when successes are achieved.
  • Stereotype threat: The awareness of stereotypes about one’s racial or ethnic group can heighten anxiety and self-doubt. The fear of confirming negative stereotypes can be paralysing, making it harder for individuals to perform and thereby contributing to feelings of being an impostor.
  • Lack of representation: In environments in which ethnic minorities are underrepresented, such as certain academic fields or professional settings, the lack of role models who share a person’s racial or ethnic background can intensify feelings of isolation and of not belonging, reinforcing the idea that they are impostors who do not fit in.

Recognising this added dimension highlights the importance of cultural sensitivity and inclusivity in all spaces.

Strategies for overcoming impostor syndrome

The following practical steps, largely based on the excellent 3C’s model developed by psychologists and executive coaches Lisa Orbé-Austin and Richard Orbé-Austin, and which I use with my own coaching clients who are facing down their inner impostor, offer proven ideas to help you overcome self-doubt, take ownership for your successes and harness your greater potential.

1. Clarify

Acknowledge and name it: Recognising that what you’re experiencing is a common phenomenon can demystify the feelings and reduce any isolation and shame. Identifying the  patterns of your impostor cycle can empower you to take effective action.

Trace its origin story: Look back to discover the roots of these feelings, whether in your family dynamics, past achievements or educational experiences. For some, these patterns can be deeply ingrained and linked to past traumas. In such cases, working with a therapist can provide a safe space to explore these issues and develop strategies to overcome them.

Know your triggers: Identify specific situations, tasks or interactions that exacerbate your impostor feelings. Awareness of these triggers can help you prepare and respond more effectively, preventing automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) from taking over. These ANTs are habitual negative thoughts that pop into our heads in response to everyday life and, if left unchallenged, can make us feel anxious, stressed or depressed.

2. Choose

Practice self-disclosure: Talking about your feelings with trusted friends, mentors or professionals can offer validation and a different perspective on your achievements. Consider openly sharing your struggles, using vulnerability as a bridge to connect with others and lessen feelings of isolation.

Challenge automatic negative thoughts: Learn to identify and challenge the ANTs that fuel impostor feelings. By questioning the evidence for these thoughts and considering alternative interpretations, you can begin to break the cycle of self-doubt and shift your perspective on mistakes and failures. Instead of viewing mistakes as evidence of inadequacy, try to see them as opportunities for growth and learning.

Value and care about yourself: Practice treating yourself with the same kindness, concern and support you would offer to a good friend. This can help to reduce the impact of harsh self-judgement and the fear of failure.

3. Create

Build your dream team: Surrounding yourself with a supportive community can reinforce positive self-perceptions and reduce feelings of isolation.

Work with a coach: Coaching offers a safe and confidential space in which you can voice your fears without judgement, helping you to untangle the complex feelings of impostor syndrome, uncover the strengths you’ve been overlooking and develop strategies to embrace your successes with confidence.

Celebrate your successes: Regularly documenting your achievements, positive feedback and moments of pride can help to counteract the tendency to forget or dismiss your successes. Reviewing this diary can boost your confidence during moments of doubt.

‘Teach your inner critic to become your inner cheerleader’

Dr Lisa and Dr Richard Orbé-Austin

Encouragement on the path

If impostor syndrome is a familiar companion on your journey, you don’t need to tackle it on your own.

Both Cara and Rose are accredited coaches who work with many leaders to support their growth, effectiveness and wellbeing. By confronting your feelings of being an impostor with understanding, patience and strategic action, we can help you turn it into a stepping stone rather than a stumbling block on your path to achieving and celebrating your successes.

Contact us here to find out more.

Try this

Watch author and communications expert Lou Solomon’s honest, personal and entertaining TEDx talk titled The Surprising Solution to the Imposter Syndrome

Listen to Dr Lisa Orbé-Austin’s talk Thriving in the Workplace covering the impact of perfectionism and burnout on impostor syndrome, on the ‘Hello Monday’ podcast. You can also read the workbook she wrote with Dr Richard Orbé-Austin, Own Your Greatness, about overcoming imposter syndrome.

Related/further reading

If you found this information useful, you might enjoy our related articles:

Next month

We explore the neuroscience of decision making and how to get ‘unstuck’.

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