Everyone feels a bit uncertain at times or fearful of how they’ll measure up in a new role. But an ongoing sense that you aren’t qualified for your job despite your expertise, that your success is a matter of luck, or that others will soon figure out you’re faking it speaks to a deeper fear that can hold women (and plenty of men) back from the growth and advancement they deserve. When you learn how to recognize the damaging voice of Imposter Syndrome, you can see your skills with a healthy dose of reality.
Doing well on a college chemistry test provides a sense of objective feedback that achievement-oriented people can usually wrap their heads around. You prepare, practice and then deliver on test day with mastery clearly reflected in a grade. In the workplace, measures of your abilities can be more vague and even subjective, making it even more important that you know how to assess, internalize and accept accomplishments that result from talent, ability and reasonable effort.
Feeling like a fraud
Imposter Syndrome was first described in the 1970s by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance who observed deep fears of inadequacy among female undergraduates. Despite meeting external standards, they were convinced their success was due to luck or special circumstances and not their own abilities and competence.
At first, Imes and Clance thought that the experience was limited to women. But ongoing research has shown men experience the same feelings and worry. Certified executive coach and President of Harvest Your Potential, Inc., Mark Sadlek, sees women and men at the most senior levels of leadership who suffer from Imposter Syndrome.
“It often reflects the filters through which people look at the world,” Sadlek explains. “They have internalized deep beliefs that they don’t have what it takes in terms of background, education, financial backing or talent. But the vast majority do have the capacity to succeed in their role and have earned their way into it.” Unfortunately, believing you are unqualified can lead to underperformance through procrastination, perfectionism, excessively deferring to others and being unwilling to strive for bigger goals if success cannot be assured.
Afraid to fail
When strictly praised for results, rather than effort, we can quickly become frozen by fear and unwilling to risk missing the mark. Research with young children praised for being “smart” after accomplishing an assigned task compared to those who were praised for working hard to achieve the same outcome quickly revealed strong desires to maintain appearances. When offered a follow-up task that was easy or challenging, those praised for being smart more often chose the easy task they knew they could ace. Those praised for their effort, applied themselves to the more difficult challenge.
The pressure to perform can be especially daunting for members of minority groups. A study by the University of Texas at Austin found that differing in any way from most of your peers can increase feelings of being a fraud. Being the only woman, youngest person or the only person of color on your company’s management team can heighten feelings of doubt about whether you belong.
Face the monster
With most exaggerated fears, facing them can often knock them down to size. The earlier you can address feelings of Imposter Syndrome, the more you can enjoy your well-deserved achievements. Consider these approaches.
Talk to someone you trust. One of the greatest fears among those suffering from Imposter Syndrome is the threat of being found out. Admitting you feel like a fraud is a vulnerable act that requires deep confidence in the person you choose to tell. A trusted mentor is a good choice because they have a stake in your success, may have walked a similar path and are not competing for the same roles. They may be able to help you see how you have earned your success, and how much others value your achievements too.
Give back. Ironically, one way to form a better sense of your competence is by helping those coming behind you. When you teach and mentor others, you develop a more realistic sense of the many skills and competencies you have already mastered. You may also see the arc of your career more clearly and how you have changed over time.
Leave perfection behind. “Perfectionism is thinking in all or nothing terms where something is either 100% great or complete failure,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of Better than Perfect and former WFF Leadership Conference keynote speaker. Instead, she suggests looking for the positive motivation that often underlies your harsh inner critic. For example, instead of trying to be perfect, commit to striving for excellence. And understand that nearly everyone suffers from internal criticism.
Focus on what’s right. Sadlek uses Appreciative Inquiry, a process drawn from positive psychology, to help clients develop a more realistic assessment of their strengths. “I’ve had clients cry tears of joy at the end of a session as they realized for the first time how strong they really are, the depth of their leadership know-how and how much they have contributed to their own success,” he says. They can then use that new understanding to move beyond their feelings of fraud. “The greatest reward is to see people actually learn to enjoy the success they have earned.”