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The Imposter in All of Us

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

Have you ever earned a position through merit but been convinced that you were there by a sheer stroke of luck? Or had one of your great achievements recognised, but thought that it didn’t deserve the praise people had inflated it with? In some odd cases, this may well be true; people may end up in a job due to luck or have their work unduly celebrated. A lot of the time however, we tend to downplay or disregard our own accomplishments as a result of what’s known as “Imposter Syndrome”.

A common cognitive distortion that was first identified in 1978, people who suffer from Imposter Syndrome demonstrate high levels of self-doubt about their accomplishments and capabilities, despite evidence or people confirming otherwise. In other words, people feel like an imposter or a fraud among their peers. Unsurprisingly, it is a phenomenon that is particularly rife in the competitive world of work. This breeds a vicious cycle, where people feel more prone to failure and less productive, thereby resulting in insecurity and procrastination (ultimately harming job performance and job satisfaction). Over time, Imposter Syndrome can take its toll on our mental health, causing stress, anxiety, depression, lower self-confidence, and burnout.

Originally, Imposter Syndrome was thought to be experienced mostly by minority groups. It is frequently documented in successful women who hold high-ranking jobs, especially if they work in teams composed mainly of male colleagues. Recent research has also shown the prevalence of young workers suffering, given the highly competitive nature of modern-day job-seeking and demanding entry requirements for positions. But Imposter Syndrome has also been shown to affect men (who until recently were thought to be relatively safeguarded against its effects); due to sexist societal expectations perpetuating the belief that men perform better in their jobs, men face their own pressure and challenges to perform therefore allowing Imposter Syndrome to fester. According to the research, then, Imposter Syndrome is applicable to everyone. In fact, it has been reported to have been experienced by approximately 70% of the population.

As with many of these things, there are causal factors lurking beneath the surface. It may be a knock-on effect from growing up in a household or attending a school where high standards were paramount. Or perhaps the organisational culture in which people find themselves champions success and accomplishments above all else. These environmental norms infiltrate our beliefs and create a fear of failure, thereby pushing us closer to the thinking associated with Imposter Syndrome. In a similar vein, perfectionism – which is often referred to as a positive trait – may be one of the conditions that’s most conducive to Imposter Syndrome. Perfectionists tend to set unattainably high goals for themselves, and when this goal isn’t fulfilled, the familiar harmful cycle of self-doubt and negative thinking begins.

One of the consistent findings in research is that Imposter Syndrome decreases with age and life experience. However, simply waiting for it to mollify over the course of a lifetime will force our mental wellbeing to suffer. There are actions we can take to protect ourselves now. For one, Imposter Syndrome feeds on only one perspective – our own. As such, we can take steps to stretch outside of our own thinking in order to listen and truly understand others’ perspectives. It may also prove a helpful reminder that while you may be suffering, the likelihood is that you’re not alone; according to the statistics, others around you may well be struggling with similar distorted thinking. Try objectively looking back on your accomplishments to date and observe your trajectory. You can challenge your unhelpful thoughts and identify what purpose they have; recognising your patterns of Imposter Syndrome is the first step you can take to beat it.


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