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“I’ve been given a big project, but I’m worried I won’t succeed,” “Don’t congratulate me – it’s all about teamwork,” or “I could have done better.” If this sounds like something you’d say at work, chances are you’re no stranger to impostor syndrome.
It’s a now widespread psychological phenomenon that affects young and seasoned professionals alike. Common symptoms include exhaustion, anxiety disorders, stress, and even depression. To learn more about impostor syndrome, and to help you to quiet that inner critic once and for all, we spoke to Pauline d’Heucqueville. She’s an occupational psychologist and consultant at Stimulus, a firm that specializes in psychological well-being in the workplace.
Imposter syndrome in a nutshell
As highlighted by two American psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes, in 1978, imposter syndrome must meet certain conditions:
The inability to take ownership of personal achievements. This is common among those who find it challenging to accept direct praise: “I just got lucky. And it’s not like I did it all on my own.”
Feeling overrated and, as a result, that you’ve managed to hoodwink everyone around you: “It was nothing special. Anyone could have done it.”
Fear of being unmasked: “One day, everyone will see I’m a fraud.”
Impostor syndrome isn’t a mental illness in and of itself, and it can’t be attributed to a simple lack of self-confidence. For d’Heucqueville, it’s more about “a false perception of reality that diminishes the well-being and quality of life of those concerned.”
According to a study published by the Journal of Behavioral Science in 2011, some 70% of the population are affected by impostor syndrome. While it’s linked to a range of causes, impostor syndrome most often originates in childhood. If there was a discrepancy between how your performance was gauged at school versus how it was viewed at home, it could negatively impact your self-esteem. Some people may also struggle to evaluate their performance as adults if they were given excessive praise at a young age. It can also occur when someone has been on the receiving end of repeated negative messages from authority figures such as teachers and older family members.
But you can also develop impostor syndrome in adulthood when you lack feelings of legitimacy in the workplace. Those who are self-taught are more susceptible to a nagging sense of inferiority regardless of their career successes.
It’s also important to point out that women are more susceptible to chronic self-depreciation because of internalized stereotypes of inferiority. In a study by KPMG, 75% of the women executives who were surveyed reported having experienced impostor syndrome at some point in their career.
But when it comes to impostor syndrome, nothing is set in stone. With time, patience, and some sage advice, it’s possible to beat crippling self-doubt.
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A step-by-step guide for overcoming impostor syndrome
1. Create a success chart
One way to keep track of your day-to-day wins is to write them down on a sheet of paper. According to d’Heucqueville, “Concrete facts help put the brain’s automatic thoughts in check.” That’s because factual information is a particularly formidable weapon in the fight against impostor syndrome.
Your success chart might look something like this:
An account of the successful situation, such as a promotion or a congratulatory message from your manager.
The reason you’d normally give yourself for the win (thanks to your impostor syndrome). For example, you might be inclined to say it was all down to luck, chance, or that your superiors made a mistake in praising you.
Finally, write down the real reason for your success. Provide factual details such as the skills you used, the hours you put in, or your experience with similar situations.
This exercise can be repeated for a variety of situations. It can help you to take a step back from situations, recognize your wins objectively and without bias so that you can escape the irrational fear of not being good enough. Since impostor syndrome tends to make you see personal wins as depending only on external factors, it’s important to refocus your attention on your own abilities and skills. With a little practice, you’ll soon realize that luck – no matter how real – actually plays a minor role in success. This exercise is especially helpful with promotions at work. Although it should be good news, a career boost can cause anxiety in those already suffering from impostor syndrome because more responsibility raises the odds that you’ll be unmasked.
The purpose of a success chart is to close the gap between real and perceived skills and strengths. Let the facts speak for themselves, and you’ll see you deserve all the good things that have come your way.
2. Make a list of your everyday tasks
When someone experiences self-doubt on a regular basis, they tend to work a lot harder than necessary so as to hide what they feel is a lack of legitimacy. And even when they finish a project successfully and receive accolades for all their hard work, it only perpetuates and encourages the vicious circle of impostor syndrome. They essentially end up believing that their success is the result of extreme preparation and maximum effort.
For d’Heucqueville, you can avoid this trap by “listing your tasks in order of priority and setting up success criteria for each one so that the task can be considered completed.” For example, if your manager asks you to give a presentation summarizing your team’s results for the quarter, draw up a summary and stick to it. Avoid the temptation to go out and gather feedback from every single colleague while creating a 10-step plan for future goals. Keeping things simple will “save you from spending countless hours on a task to make up for your lack of confidence.” And if you’re still tempted to overdo things, get a reality check by talking to a trusted colleague.
As you proceed, it’s a good idea to cross off each goal to help keep motivation high throughout the project. This approach helps you see that an otherwise daunting task simply requires a set of micro-tasks to be completed and that the goals you set for yourself might sometimes be unrealistic from the outset.
3. Prove to yourself you aren’t an impostor
To end the self-sabotaging behaviors often associated with impostor syndrome, d’Heucqueville recommends getting to the root of the problem, which is that your perception of reality has become distorted. Here’s a short exercise you can easily put into practice:
Draw a line on a piece of paper
Write the word “impostor” on one side with the definition of the term and “me” on the other side with your skills, including soft skills, hard skills, life skills and areas of expertise.
Each day, think about where you would situate yourself on this line and why. Are you close to the impostor side? Or your real skills?
According to d’Heucqueville, the aim of this exercise is “to make you see your success objectively.” For many people suffering from impostor syndrome, they are their own worst enemy.
4. Expect success instead of failure
Procrastination is the favorite pastime of impostor syndrome. For example, maybe you fear being under the scrutiny of colleagues or superiors or are worried you won’t live up to their expectations. As a result, you keep putting off – sometimes unconsciously – the moment when you will start working on your project. But procrastinating only makes it more likely you’ll become overworked and pile on extra stress and anxiety. By reconsidering – not lowering – your standards, you can break free from the cult of performance that impostor syndrome has forced upon you.
Live each day with the mindset that you expect success rather than fearing failure. While this is easier said than done, positive conditioning is the key to maintaining a balanced relationship with your work. By moving from “I must not fail,” which implies a fear of being found out, to “I’m going to do what it takes to finish this task,” you can replace perfectionist and defeatist thoughts with a more positive, realistic, and less fearful way of thinking.
5. Put things into perspective
If you spoke to the people around you about feeling like a fraud, you’d likely discover you aren’t alone. You’d probably be surprised to learn that even the company genius is sometimes plagued by self-doubt. Accepting it fully and talking about it openly helps you to lighten your load. It can also put things into perspective, as many people experience impostor syndrome at some point.
Similarly, the next time you receive criticism at work, remember that perfection is not an attainable goal. And before you try to learn from your mistakes, consider whether the person giving you feedback is qualified to do so in the first place. Never forget that criticism itself is open to critique. Surround yourself with supportive people who have a realistic view of your skills and who are comfortable being honest about areas of improvement.
Finally, avoid what the social psychologist Leon Festinger termed “upward social comparison.” According to his theory, if you’re tempted to compare yourself to a colleague who has ten years more experience than you, stop yourself. Instead, use their example as a source of inspiration and motivation so that you can work on the skills needed to reach a similar level of expertise in the future.
If, after trying these suggestions, you find you’re still struggling to let go of impostor syndrome, it’s a good idea to seek guidance from a therapist or psychologist.
Through conditioning and repetition, you should be able to free yourself from the negative emotions that are distorting your sense of reality. And don’t forget about self-care. Regularly taking time off to relax or enjoy your favorite pastimes is essential not only to your well-being but also to the success of your projects.
Translated by Andrea Schwam
Photo: Welcome to the Jungle
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