Dealing with imposter syndrome

Oct 01, 2018
Overcoming imposter syndrome can be challenging, particularly when it spirals into persistent negativity.


Have you ever felt that you don’t belong? That you’re a fraud? That it’s just a matter of time before you’re found out? If so, you’re in very good company including Maya Angelou, Albert Einstein and Meryl Streep. Research tells us that almost 70% of people will experience imposter syndrome (a feeling of incompetence despite all evidence to the contrary) at some point in their lives. This feeling is particularly prevalent among high achievers such as CEOs, who have deep-seated fears of looking ridiculous, of being humiliated and of losing face.

Imposter syndrome is also accompanied by the anxiety that others will find out that you’re not as smart, creative, clever or capable as they think you are. You will be humiliated, shamed and ultimately deemed to be incompetent, thus confirming your inner fear of being unsuitable for this challenging job into which you have been promoted and for which you have worked so hard.

So many of us spend so much of our time trying to be perfect or, if not perfect, getting so close that it makes no difference. Work cultures that foster a zero-deficit mentality further exacerbate this drive for perfection.

Imposter syndrome also masquerades as other personality types:

Perfectionists set extremely high standards for themselves. They tend to be critical, risk-avoidant and may suffer from overwhelming anxiety as they attempt to do the impossible. It’s a self-defeating proposition. Add this to a work environment that extols the virtue of perfection and you have a heady recipe for defensive behaviour and poor decision-making;

Experts need to know every detail about a problem or situation before they feel confident about giving their opinion. They suffer from ‘paralysis by analysis’ and are afraid of looking stupid. They instead strive to know all the details about a problem before committing to a solution; and

Micromanagers are unable to delegate and must oversee the smallest details of every project. Even when they do delegate, they are disappointed with the results and end up re-doing the work to their own standards. Other people’s efforts are never as good as their own.

Overcoming imposter syndrome can be challenging, particularly when it spirals into persistent negativity. The following techniques can help to manage it and its symptoms.

Break the silence

Fear of humiliation keeps many people from talking about imposter syndrome. Yet, keeping it to yourself only escalates the anxiety and increases the stress. Tell somebody (anybody) about your fear and you may find that you meet another one of the 70% with a similar story to tell. You won’t be alone and you may even give someone else permission to articulate their fear also.

Is your boss an idiot?

Didn’t think so… you have been appointed to this position because your boss has evaluated your credentials and qualifications and has made a judgement call that you are the best person for the job. If you don’t trust your own judgement, at least trust theirs. You deserve the position, you are the right person for the role and you deserve to be here.

Talk about mistakes

Companies that operate no-blame cultures where employees are encouraged to talk openly about mistakes and problems are more likely to be supportive of staff wanting to relinquish attachment to their inner imposter.

Focus on the positives

Finally, take comfort in the fact that imposter syndrome is a symptom of success. If you feel like a fraud, more than likely you are an over-achiever and have very high standards. You didn’t get to where you are by wishful thinking and an accident of fate.

Dr Annette Clancy is an organisational consultant and also researches organisational behaviour, in particular emotion in organisations.