Impostor Syndrome: Getting Real About Feeling Fake

The phenomenon of impostor syndrome first appeared in a 1978 paper published by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes. Today, we’re just beginning to understand its implications and how it affects men and women alike. 

As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, we want to help you make sense of your own impostor feelings so you can manage them and thrive in your career and your life.

Do I Have Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor syndrome might sound like a diagnosis when, in reality, it’s something that many, if not all of us, face at some point in our lives. This phenomenon usually manifests as self-rejection or a feeling that you’re not as qualified as others perceive you to be, despite being a successful and effective professional. As a result, you cannot accept your achievements because you don’t feel like you have earned them. 

What Impostor Syndrome Is

When looking at what impostor syndrome is, we realize that it is a phenomenon triggered by certain situations, such as a meeting with members of leadership, receiving harsh criticism, or comparing your work to someone else’s. It might not be present consistently, but it does persist despite having several achievements under your belt. 

Contrary to outdated misconceptions, both men and women can be equally affected by impostor feelings, regardless of their level of success. Fortunately, this is a personal mindset that can be rewired and managed with discipline and self-awareness.

What Impostor Syndrome Is Not

It’s important to clarify that imposter syndrome is not a diagnosable mental health condition; however, it can have implications for your overall mental health if it’s not managed correctly, leading to anxiety, depression, and low self-confidence. 

Self-doubt can be another factor, but some self-doubt can drive you to assess your abilities and potentially work in your favor to help you evolve as an individual. However, even in the face of achievements and accolades, excessive self-doubt may be a sign of impostor syndrome creeping in

Causes of Impostor Syndrome

The Pressure to Succeed

Impostor syndrome is a cycle that tends to be paired with success. When you reach a certain level of success or achievement, and you feel that you don’t deserve that success, impostor syndrome can set in. 

Additionally, in today’s society, it seems like those who work non-stop are the ones who benefit the most. With this comes the pressure to be the best and outwork your peers. As a result, you compare yourself and your work to others and view any flaws with a level of scrutiny that creates and feeds your impostor syndrome. 

Another similar cause of imposter syndrome is perfectionism. It can make you feel like your work is never done or never good enough, sometimes creating more work for others and impeding progress altogether. 

The more you focus on reaching the “perfect” outcome, the higher your chances of experiencing burnout, making you less effective to your team.

When Your Skills Are Challenged

With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, there was a massive and almost immediate shift to online. One can imagine that this impacted those who are less digitally literate more than digital natives. Of course, those who were negatively impacted are the same qualified professionals with the same track record, but the struggle to adapt in a virtual workspace could promote impostor syndrome. 

As a result, they question if they have the skills to perform, which creates doubt and introduces a host of insecurities. In addition, remote work and restructuring organizations caused by the pandemic likely contributed to imposter syndrome. 

A more common cause of imposter syndrome is not having the same formal training as your peers. Being a self-taught professional with no formal education can undoubtedly cause you to second guess your abilities, especially if your colleagues have specialized degrees or certifications that have helped them grow in their positions.

When You’re the Only One

Feeling like a fraud can be magnified if you’re unrepresented in your group. Being the only person of color or having a unique background from the rest of your peers can enhance those voices in your head telling you you’re not good enough or that you don’t belong. That’s one of the many reasons why representation, diversity, and inclusion are essential within organizations. 

The unfortunate reality about impostor syndrome is that it will always be there, but it can get better.

6 Tips for Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

When you’re stuck in your impostor syndrome daze, it’s important to remember that it’s a mindset, not a diagnosis. Nevertheless, you can get through it—here’s how.

Know you’re not alone. Impostor syndrome affects men and women equally, from graduate students to CEOs. Feeling like an impostor doesn’t mean you are one. 

So if you’re ever in doubt about your performance or where you stand, voice your concerns with a trusted peer or advisor. Sometimes, just talking it out can silence the nagging imposter feeling. 

Find your community for collaboration. Go one step further and find your community! Connect with peers and experienced professionals in a collaborative way. 

Be vulnerable, learn something new, and bask in your network of like-minded people who share your interests or professional background.

Don’t compare yourself to others. This is likely one of the more common causes of impostor syndrome. The next time you start comparing your work to someone else’s, remember that your success is in your hands, and you can make it happen. 

Be okay with asking questions. Our biggest downfall is thinking we need to know everything at any given moment. 

As soon as you realize that you don’t have to have all of the answers and you begin asking questions, you’ll learn to rely on your colleagues and others for help, minimizing your chances of burnout in the process.  

Understand the value of feedback. Feedback is the stepping stone to growth. It’s how you understand your strengths and weaknesses. 

Focus on what makes you feel empowered and redirect any negativity to improving yourself based on that feedback.

Fill in existing skill gaps. If feeling like you’re not well-versed in a particular subject makes you feel like a fraud, it can help to revisit your skill set to see where you can improve. Then, as you learn more and hone your craft, you’ll build the confidence to thrive!

Join the Discussion

On April 30th, 2021, Loyola University Digital Skills Bootcamps hosted an Impostor Syndrome Panel titled Am I Good Enough to Be Here? 

Panelists discussed what it means to feel like an impostor at work, how it affects our interactions with others, and how to make it through to the other side of paralyzing self-doubt. Watch the entire panel discussion here

*If you or someone you know are struggling with mental health, you can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357. The service is confidential, free, and open 24-hours a day, 365 days a year.

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