To look at Suzanne, one would think she had everything. She was attractive, self-assured, and handled her responsibilities with aplomb. Yet in our coaching session Suzanne confessed that, even though she was a highly respected leader who had the C-suite's ear, she felt like an imposter and worried that she would be exposed as a fraud.
Suzanne is not alone. Many women feel like this.
Even Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has said, "There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud." It is estimated that 70 percent of people (not just women) feel this way, according to a study in the International Journal of Behavioral Science.
"Impostor syndrome--the idea that you've only succeeded due to luck, and not because of your talent or qualifications--was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes," writes Abigail Abrams. The psychologists initially believed that impostor syndrome was experienced only by professional women, but this has been proven untrue.
Clance published a paper in 1993 acknowledging that impostor syndrome was not limited to women, according to Abrams, and later developed an online test for impostor syndrome. And some psychologists now believe that impostor syndrome is not a distinct, permanent condition, but a complicated state people experience when they are feeling stretched.
Who suffers from this condition?
"Imposter syndrome doesn't discriminate, and can happen regardless of the level of success a person has achieved in their field," writes Danielle Page, for NBCnews.com. According to Page, certain factors can increase your chances of experiencing impostor syndrome. Your gender is one of them. Women are socialized as little girls to be more risk-averse than little boys, and this socialization can show up in later years in work-related situations.
Then there are the perfectionists. Perfectionists live with the fervent desire for success, but they focus on avoiding failure, which often leads to procrastination and self-sabotage. "Perfectionism and impostor syndrome often go hand-in-hand," writes Melody Wilding. "Think about it: Perfectionists set excessively high goals for themselves, and when they fail to reach a goal, they experience major self-doubt and worry about measuring up."
How imposter syndrome could be hurting your career
Your struggles with impostor syndrome could be causing problems for you at work. Think about it. Are you sabotaging your best efforts? Are you overcompensating and working yourself to the bone? Do you hang back from the spotlight? Or do you set yourself up to fail by finishing a project late--or not finishing it at all? Each of these behaviors only serves to underscore your sense of not being good enough or knowing enough. And can lead to trouble with your team and potentially damage the trajectory of your career.
"Imposter phenomenon can also correlate to worse outcomes at work--perhaps due to these unhealthy working habits," writes Belle Cooper. "A study of over 200 professionals at the University of Salzburg found those experiencing imposter phenomenon tended to be paid less, were less likely to be promoted, and felt less committed and satisfied at work."
Imposter syndrome can turn into a cycle of self-doubt, self-monitoring, fear, and self-criticism, which can, in turn, cause you to overwork and suffer burn out or miss opportunities because you assume you aren't good enough.
How to turn it around
If any of this sounds familiar, and you think you may be dealing with impostor syndrome, try this: Think of yourself as a work in progress. Find someone you admire and ask them to go out for coffee. See if you can talk about your self-doubt and ask them how they handle their own. You may be pleasantly surprised at their answers.
Impostor syndrome doesn't have to last forever. There are a host of strategies and tactics you can employ to help you move through the imposter mindset and into a healthier and happier you. Try asking for feedback and really listening to both good and critical comments. Accept compliments with a gracious and straightforward acknowledgment, and stop being so afraid of failing or making mistakes. Someone who is a work in progress learns from doing things right--and from doing things wrong. You're going to be just fine, you'll see.
I gave Suzanne the following assignments in our last coaching session:
- Accept that you have those feelings instead of beating yourself up
- Overcome it by regularly reviewing your accomplishments (writing them down helps)
- Develop a script so you can at least "act" deserving and confident
- Ask for feedback often, the more you hear about the value you're bringing to others, the more you can internalize it
I'm confident she will work through each of them and, in time, her feelings of self-doubt will be a thing of the past.