Imposter Syndrome: 7 in 10 experience it, here's how to overcome it
Learn more about imposter syndrome from an expert in the field, and someone who’s dealt with it in their career.
Last updated: 16 March 2023
What you’ll learn
- If you’re experiencing imposter syndrome, you’re not alone
- Expert advice on how to identify imposter syndrome, and steps you can take to overcome it
- The real story of a successful kiwi professional who has found effective strategies for managing her imposter syndrome
“It’s so common that some researchers have suggested it be called imposter phenomenon rather than syndrome,” says Dr. Dougal Sutherland, registered clinical psychologist and Chief Executive at Umbrella, an organisation dedicated to improving the mental health and resilience of Kiwi professionals.
And the stats certainly support this. In fact, a study in the Journal of Behavioral Science, has suggested that up to 70% of us will experience imposter syndrome at some point in our lives.
So, if these feelings are so common, what can we do if we encounter them ourselves? In this article, we combine Dougal’s clinical expertise within the lived experience of one Trade Me’s own, Hannah Bryant. Hannah is our Head of Customer Experience who, despite years of success in her career, has come face to face with imposter syndrome. We hope the tips and advice here will help you to explore and develop strategies for overcoming this common syndrome.
How can imposter syndrome impact your daily working life?
For Hannah, imposter syndrome has had tangible impacts on her career. She says that the feelings of self-doubt she experiences hold her back from things like speaking up and contributing at work as well as applying for roles or promotions. It can also prevent Hannah from doing her “best work” as she wastes time over-preparing, or make her feel like she isn’t performing as well as others in her team.
Dougal says that people with imposter syndrome can find themselves thinking things like: “I feel like a fake, someone will find me out,” or negating their successes by telling themselves any achievements are down to luck, or aren’t a “big deal”.
However, Hannah also credits her imposter syndrome with some positive impacts on her professional life. In addition to improving her self-awareness, she says that imposter syndrome has brought her team closer, as she values collaboration and others opinions. It has also allowed her to: “Be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and see uncomfortable experiences as learning opportunities.”
Imposter syndrome can you make you feel like a fraud, despite having tangible successes.
How to recognise imposter syndrome in your life
Both Dougal and Hannah agree that the first step in combating imposter syndrome is recognising that it’s impacting you, and specifically, when it crops up. As Hannah says: “If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome then you’ve already been brave enough to admit it – which was the first step for me.”
Dougal adds that one of the reasons that some researchers have suggested the change to imposter phenomenon is that the word syndrome implies that experiencing it is rare, or that there’s something wrong with someone who has it. Whether or not the name is updated, breaking down stigmas around this concept is a crucial element to helping people talk about it openly.
So, if acknowledging the impacts of imposter syndrome is important to overcoming it, what should we be on the lookout for?
Dougal has a useful definition for how imposter syndrome typically shows itself, describing it as “intense, secret feelings of being a fraud despite feedback showing achievement and confidence.” He adds that it commonly shows up as “worry that the job you did isn’t good enough, self-doubt, and a fear of being exposed.”
While imposter syndrome can impact anyone, it’s been suggested that women and minority groups experience it more than others. Dougal says that this is likely a result of “societal messages to these groups that they ‘aren’t good enough’ or ‘aren’t the same’ as successful people, who are stereotypically white males.”
In addition to demographics, there are certain moments in a professional career that might be particularly triggering for those prone to imposter syndrome, with Dougal mentioning people coming up to the end of their training or those early in their career as examples.
This was certainly true for Hannah, who says that while imposter syndrome has always been present in her career, it has come to the fore at certain times, such as when “applying for, or starting a new role, doing something for the first time, working with a more senior group of people or pushing myself out of my comfort zone.”
Activities like presenting to more senior colleagues can bring on feelings of being an imposter.
Tips for overcoming imposter syndrome
Both Hannah and Dougal stress the importance of emphasising the positive and the optimistic over the pessimistic and self doubting that is inherent to imposter syndrome.
Dougal advocates practising an optimistic stance when discussing or thinking about your job. An optimistic stance is one where success is attributed to things that are in your control and that you’re responsible for, he suggests.
Similarly, Hannah has found the key to be “reframing my negative self-talk”, reminding herself that “confidence doesn’t equate to competence – just because something makes you nervous, doesn’t mean you aren’t good at it.” She also highlights the importance of celebrating wins “without any ‘buts’”. Instead of jumping immediately to what she could do better next time, or instantly downplaying her triumphs, Hannah now aims to absorb praise and success.
Who can help you overcome imposter syndrome?
Dougal tells us that managers and people leaders can be excellent ports of call for those dealing with imposter syndrome. “If possible, discuss your feelings with your manager or a senior colleague. “This may help to normalise what you’re experiencing, and give these co-workers the opportunity to discuss how best to give you feedback that will stick,” he says.
Hannah echoes these sentiments, and highlights the importance of seeking regular feedback. “I used to think people have an exaggerated view of my abilities,” she says. The fact that feedback often comes with specific examples of how you succeed can make it “hard to downplay facts to yourself.” “It’s through the feedback from my peers, direct reports and my manager that I’ve been able to reframe my negative self-talk and manage imposter syndrome,” she adds.
Importantly, Dougal suggests that workplace leaders should be proactive in combating imposter syndrome in their staff by making the workplace “psychologically safe.” He describes a psychologically safe space as one where “people are comfortable being and expressing themselves, aren’t afraid of making mistakes, and know that others, particularly their boss, have their backs.”
Umbrella runs regular 60-90 minute workshops on imposter syndrome, and can provide support to both individuals and workplaces around how to combat it, he adds.
Your manager can be an invaluable resource in helping you to develop strategies to counter imposter syndrome.
So, can you get rid of imposter syndrome forever?
Dougal explains that, for many people, the phenomenon of imposter syndrome will fade over time, but will still require occasional attention, particularly during times of change.
Hannah says that her advice to those struggling with imposter syndrome is to focus on “progress not perfection”, as it takes “time and practice to reframe automatic negative thoughts with a more positive internal dialogue”. She feels that imposter syndrome will always be there, but the important thing is finding ways that work for you in managing it.
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