What is impostor syndrome– and how do you fight it?

In Blog, Diversity & Inclusion by Caroline Smith

The experience of feeling like you don’t deserve your success resonates with many successful people, including probably many reading this. It’s the relatable, but irrational, sinking suspicion of “I don’t belong here” or “I don’t deserve this” after receiving a promotion or some other accomplishment. This feeling is called impostor syndrome, and it describes exactly that: feeling as though you’re an impostor in your own life, and that you’ve only succeeded because you’re lucky, and not due to your own talent, intelligence, or qualifications. Impostor syndrome creates a constant fear of failure, in which its sufferers feel as though making any mistake will have them “found out” as a fraud– and that with any minor slip-up everyone will finally realize you weren’t actually talented or intelligent all along.

Endless successful people, it seems, have experienced impostor syndrome. Even people as famous and highly praised as Sheryl Sandberg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Maya Angelou have spoken about the phenomenon. While it’s reassuring that even those as influential as these women have experienced feeling like a fraud for their own successes, it does beg the question– why does this happen to so many people? And how do we combat it?

While impostor syndrome was initially thought to primarily affect women, newer research shows that both men and women experience impostor syndrome at equal rates. There is a lot of debate about the cause of impostor syndrome, but it’s often observable in perfectionists, and is known to be especially challenging for those who have recently changed jobs or positions. Although anyone can be affected by impostor syndrome, expert Valerie Young purports that the phenomenon can be particularly poignant for members of certain marginalized groups, especially in settings where they face stereotypes about their competence. For example, women and racial and ethnic minorities employed in STEM fields are more likely to experience worse impostor syndrome than their white, male coworkers in those fields– because they face stereotypes that they are less intelligent or capable, or were “only hired for diversity quotas.”

If you experience impostor syndrome, one of the first steps you may want to take is to learn how to recognize– and ignore– your negative thoughts. Studies have consistently shown that your world is shaped by your attitude: so, through intentionally reinforcing your own self-worth, you can work to create greater self-esteem. Put a halt to your self-doubt by making it a point to tell yourself that you deserve your success. As soon as you start making an active effort to recognize when your thoughts stem from impostor syndrome and not reality, you can start to combat those negative perceptions and create self-confidence from your accomplishments.

Seeking a mentor, especially in a new job or academic setting, can also help to lessen your feelings of impostor syndrome. Having someone who you can tell your concerns to can help lessen your self-doubt, and if you trust them, you’re more likely to believe them over yourself when they tell you that they see potential in your work. Professional psychotherapist Katherine Schafler suggests that impostor syndrome can feed on isolation, and that trusting in someone who has been in your position can lessen your fears of not being good enough. Your mentor probably didn’t know what they were doing in your position, either, and realizing this can help put things in perspective. Starting a new job, graduate program, or other business venture is a learning experience for everyone, and you’ll feel more comfortable in time, too.

If you’re a mentor to someone you see as experiencing impostor syndrome, you can serve as a valuable “reality check” to their negative thoughts. It’ll be easier for them to believe you telling them that they’re doing a good job than telling themselves that, so be sure to praise mentees for their accomplishments. If you’re willing, sharing your experiences with your own career struggles and mistakes can also be enlightening, and can help your mentee realize that they’re not alone.

We all know that nobody’s perfect, but it’s easy to hold yourself to a higher standard than is actually realistic. When facing impostor syndrome, remember that it’s totally OK to mess up, and to never let your failures overshadow all of the wonderful things you’ve accomplished. If you’re mentoring someone with impostor syndrome, you can be a valuable resource in helping them to see themselves like others see them. Making mistakes in your career doesn’t make you incapable, it makes you human. Learn to celebrate your small successes, and to view your failures as a necessary– and normal– component of learning, and you’ll be battling your impostor syndrome in no time.

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