Impostor syndrome is the experience of constantly feeling like a fraud, downplaying accomplishments, and always being concerned about being exposed as incompetent or incapable.
As a result, people with impostor syndrome engage in either overworking or self-sabotage.
Impostor syndrome affects high-achieving professionals who are seemingly successful. However, when experiencing impostor syndrome, you are unable to enjoy your success and believe that this success is precarious.
Research indicates that 70 per cent of all people have experienced impostor syndrome at some point in their lives.
Impostor syndrome is not a diagnostic classification but rather a group of thoughts, behaviours, and feelings that cluster together to create this syndrome and have a significant impact on your emotional functioning.
This syndrome can feed feelings of anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, and frustration due to the thoughts and behaviours that result.
Signs of impostor syndrome
Here are the signs that you may be struggling with impostor syndrome:
- You are high achieving
- You desire to be “special” or “the best”
- You deny ability and attribute success to luck, mistake, overwork, or a result of a relationship
- You discount praise, feeling fear and guilt about success
- You fear failure and being discovered as a fraud
- You do not feel intelligent
- You have anxiety, self-esteem issues, depression, and frustration from internal standards
- You struggle with perfectionism
- You overestimate others and underestimate oneself
- You do not experience an internal feeling of success
- You overwork or self-sabotage to cover the feelings of inadequacy.
It seems that men may be more prone to avoid situations where they might be exposed as a fraud and tend to compare themselves to peers with fewer qualifications. This allows them a protective mechanism that buoys their self-esteem, although it also leaves them underachieving.
Women with impostor syndrome, on the other hand, choose to remain in situations where they are constantly plagued by fraudulent feelings.
Four ways impostor syndrome can show up in your life
Researchers Clance and Imes noted that there were four particular hallmarks of impostor syndrome in the women they studied: diligence and hard work; intellectual inauthenticity; charm and perceptiveness; seeking mentorship for the purpose of external validation.
Each of these hallmarks are outlined below:
1. Diligence and hard work
In their seminal paper, Clance and Imes found that the women that they had observed used hard work and diligence as a cover-up for their perceived inadequacy. The women would engage in a cycle that looked like: worry about intelligence, followed by working hard and covering up, getting good grades or performance review, and obtaining approval.
Receiving the praise would result in temporarily feeling good and, at that point, once the good feelings subsided, they returned again to worrying about intelligence or ability to perform. Within this cycle, there is no internalisation of the successful experience. The accomplishment isn’t accepted as part of their identity or attributed much value, so the next time they perform, it’s as if the previous accomplishments never existed. Thus, the cycle begins again.
In more recent research, it has been revealed that people do not only engage in hard work in that second stage but can go in the opposite direction with self-sabotage. This is most commonly seen when someone with impostor syndrome procrastinates, usually due to anxiety about performance and perfectionism, as they attempt to unveil themselves as an impostor.
The belief is that the procrastination serves as a method to expose their status as an impostor, perhaps in hopes of releasing the stress and strain of it. However, they usually still perform well. But any mistake is interpreted as proof of their inadequacy due to their perfectionism, rather than as an artifact of being human, or of not giving themselves enough time to review the work.
The experience of self-sabotage can sometimes be hard to detect as it’s often connected to the performance anxiety, and this anxiety makes it difficult to tease out what has occurred. It can be seen in spontaneous and impulsive decisions to go against a plan, having trouble organising high-stress events, or other subtle behaviours that affect preparedness, confidence, and performance.
2. Intellectual inauthenticity
The second characteristic of impostor syndrome that Clance and Imes illustrated is intellectual inauthenticity, or the downplaying of knowledge, skills, or abilities, or not revealing true opinions of a situation in order to protect someone else’s feelings or preserve the relationship.
When someone with impostor syndrome behaves like this, it only furthers their belief that they have engaged in some form of deception, exacerbating the feelings of being fraudulent.
The kind of relationships that this intellectual inauthenticity might preserve are those with people who demonstrate narcissistic characteristics (e.g. needing excessive praise and not being able to tolerate critique or dissent) and/or have a fragile sense of themselves and their accomplishments. These can be dangerous people for those with impostor syndrome to connect with.
3. Charm and perceptiveness
Intellectual inauthenticity is often combined with a third behaviour, which is utilising charm and perceptiveness. In their ability to get people to like them and potentially advocate for them, those with impostor syndrome can feel like their ability to fool people extends beyond their intellectual capacity.
People with impostor syndrome can also exhibit high emotional intelligence. They are particularly keen at understanding what others need to make them feel valued and connected to them. They may utilise these skills, especially with mentors and senior leaders to generate positive evaluations of their behaviour.
However, a mentor who is not benevolent, and perhaps narcissistic, as mentioned earlier, may exploit their yearning for connection and praise to maximise their performance. The potential for a truly dysfunctional relationship is highly likely in these cases.
The person with impostor syndrome can find themselves in a situation where the mentor or supervisor makes them feel like they are truly an impostor and must constantly and unendingly prove themselves.
These types of relationships become very hard to break because the person with impostor syndrome may feel as if their ineptitude has been found out, so they continually seek some sort of validation from someone who will never or very rarely provide it, because it keeps the person with impostor syndrome working hard for them.
4. Seeking mentorship for the purpose of external validation
The final behaviour that maintains the impostor syndrome is seeking a mentoring relationship from someone, who is well respected in their field, industry, school, or office, in order to gain external validation. But this relationship may be fraught for the person with impostor syndrome for the reason discussed above, or because it can feel inauthentic if the person with impostor syndrome believes they charmed the mentor into positive feedback because they think it has been acquired through duplicitous means (e.g. through charm).
In addition, it has been shown that people struggling with impostor syndrome have lower levels of job and career satisfaction, yet higher levels of organisational commitment. So, while people with impostor syndrome tend to be more unhappy in their jobs and careers, they are also likely to commit to these places that are making them unhappy, perhaps in an effort to create some sense of stability and predictability in terms of evaluation.
Further, the research also indicates that people with impostor syndrome struggle with marketing themselves, which is critical for job searching or networking. Therefore, their salaries and promotions are usually negatively impacted, which can be seen in lower salaries and fewer promotions. It also shows up in being less optimistic about their career and being less adaptable when things go wrong.
Moreover, those with impostor syndrome are likely to have a reduced knowledge of the job market, which makes taking a leap to a new role when they are unhappy even more difficult.
Throughout our experience working with impostor syndrome, we have seen it show up in the following ways that affect professional development:
- Not understanding their worth (i.e. salary comps) in the marketplace
- Fear of negotiating
- Lack of motivation to leave stagnating roles
- Reluctance to vie for promotion
- Avoidance of high-visibility stretch assignments
- Difficulty networking and communicating their accomplishments to others
- Trouble envisioning their long-term career future.
All of these behaviours of impostor syndrome have a significant impact on career advancement, salary, and long-term earnings, but they can be reversed.
Ways to release perfectionism and overcome impostor syndrome
Here are some tactics you can employ to overcome impostor syndrome:
- Focus on “good enough” not perfect
- Recognise that perfectionism hurts you and those around you
- Be proud and accepting of your humanity
- Only compare yourself to you
- Find comfort in choosing your own path
- Learn to accept the beauty of compromise
- Choose standards that feel reasonable
- Appreciate that mistakes provide opportunity for growth
- Realise that perfection is unattainable and reaching for it makes you feel like a failure.
Hopefully, this makes it really clear why building your skills around dismantling the impostor syndrome is incredibly important to you and your future so that you can own your greatness, live up to your potential, and enjoy it.
This is an excerpt from Own Your Greatness by Lisa Orbé-Austin and Richard Orbé-Austin. This article was originally published on A Girl In Progress.