- Do the smallest flaws in your work give you a shiver?
- Do you take constructive criticism personally?
- Do you feel that you fooled everyone again every time you succeed?
- Are you scared that it is just a matter of time before you’re “found out?”
- Do you believe that you are going to get fired because you don’t deserve your job?
- Do you have a little voice in your head that is constantly criticizing almost everything you do?
- Do you think that your successes are owed to timing, luck or possibly computer error?
- Do you believe, “If I can do it then anybody can?”
If so, join the club! 😉
Thoughts like these are the signs of imposter syndrome. First described in a 1978 study, psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes said that people who struggle with imposter syndrome “maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise”.
What is imposter syndrome (also known as imposter phenomenon or fraud syndrome)? In short, it is feeling like an imposter when you’re not, like you are a fraud on the verge of being revealed to the world. It is a sign that you apply exceptionally high standards to yourself which don’t correlate to how you view others. Fear of failure, social comparisons and the pressure of perfection are all indicators of imposter syndrome.
Research shows nearly 70 percent of people feel like an imposter at least once in their life. Imposter syndrome can lead to clinical levels of depression and anxiety. Millions of people around the world, even Academy Award Winning actors, Ph.D.s and CEOs, covertly think they are not as great or as gifted as everyone “thinks” they are.
A few more facts about imposter syndrome
As I said before, Clance, one of the first psychologists to identify imposter syndrome defines it this way:
Most people who experience the Imposter Phenomenon (IP) would not say, “I feel like an imposter”. Even though they are often very successful by external standards, they feel their success has been due to some mysterious fluke or luck or great effort; they are afraid their achievements are due to “breaks” and not the result of their own ability and competence.
Joyce M. Roche, author of “The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success”, describes imposter syndrome as:
Imposter syndrome is the fear and self-doubt that causes people to question their abilities — even in the face of success — and to constantly search for external validation. Simply put, it makes it difficult to recognize and celebrate one’s strengths and accomplishments.
What’s more, although the syndrome has touched approximately three-fourths of the world’s population, it often goes unrecognized. Those who suffer from imposter syndrome are extremely scared of failure, mistakes and negative feedback from others. As a result, imposter syndrome can limit exploration and the courage to dig into new experiences.
The discouraging paradox is that getting better at your job doesn’t seem to make imposter syndrome disappear. The higher you climb up the corporate ladder, the more likely you become a victim of feeling like an imposter at work.
It should be mentioned that even though imposter syndrome is a popular research subject, there’s still a great deal of uncertainty about the causes.
Why do your colleagues (or maybe you) suffer from imposter syndrome?
To begin with, imposter syndrome is a problem partly caused by social media. Everyone hides their efforts but reveals their achievements there. People present themselves as a brand on social media, an impression that often does not equate with reality. People sometimes forget this fact and compare themselves to these “brands”. It leads to unhealthy personal expectations. Since we all try to present ourselves as shining stars, the standards have risen extremely high.
Other researchers have noticed that imposter syndrome is related to the gig economy, where temporary jobs are commonplace and turnover is huge. We have thousands of career options. We exist in a highly competitive environment, and our professional environment is constantly reminding us that we should be the best. This can be damaging and confusing to our self-esteem and mental health.
Moreover, many fields of business, especially digital ones, are fast-paced and changeable. It is what makes business ownership and startups so interesting and challenging at the same time. That also means that you regularly have to deal with things you don’t know and everyone tells you “need to learn ASAP”. The pace of technological change is faster than ever, it’s hard to stay on the cutting edge unless you can learn on the fly.
Similarly to social media and the gig economy, another contributor to the problem is overworking, writes Julie Bort in Business Insider. Some companies not only expect their workers to work 50- and 60-hour weeks, but tell them that “real specialists should love their work so much that they do it in their spare time too”. Sadly, these long work hours actually kill productivity and strengthen the effects of imposter syndrome.
To sum up, no one can be sure what the exact cause of imposter syndrome is, but ever-increasing social comparisons, the competitive nature of today’s professions and businesses, the pressures of perfection and fear of failure are all cited as contributing factors.
Downsides of having imposters in your startup or small business team
Imposter syndrome can result in thoughts like, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I feel like I should do something, so I’m going to pretend I have it all figured out”. It can affect anyone, from CEOs to developers. Your business, whether it’s a startup, a small business or a large enterprise, may experience serious consequences if you have a large number of people who are faking their way through the work day.
Imposter-led startups use different metrics to make themselves look better, prioritize motion over progress, and their startups may suffer from vanity-driven decisions. Check out these three common symptoms of imposter syndrome in your team:
1. Poor crisis management
Imposter leaders spend more time solving problems than preventing them, and they tend to try to solve the same problem over and over again.
To an imposter, there’s nothing more terrifying than making the wrong decision and being proven incompetent. He or she won’t make a decision until they have all the answers, which of course they never will.
3. Denial of fear
Everyone’s afraid of something. But people who suffer from imposter syndrome are internally shaking with a fear of potential failure, even if they never outwardly show it. Their startup failing? Not a possibility. Letting their team down? No chance. They’re 100% in control at all times. Or so they want you to think.
Any of those symptoms sound familiar? We’ve all been imposters at some point. Of course, feeling like a fraud at work is not enjoyable. But what if we can find a silver lining to this self doubt?
The good side of being a fraud
As it turns out, having imposter syndrome can actually be a good sign. How so? People with imposter syndrome tend to be perfectionists, which means they’re highly motivated and more likely to spend extra hours working to make sure they excell in every single field. So if you do suffer from imposter syndrome, chances are you’re doing a pretty good job 😉
How to overcome the feeling of being a fraud at work
Here are several practical exercises to overcome imposter syndrome.
1. Be sincere to yourself
Telling yourself that your fear stems from imposter syndrome can immediately reduce stress. Admitting you have a problem is the first step.
2. Share your fears
Imposter syndrome grows in isolation. So don’t hide your fears! If you’re afraid of something, there a good chance that others probably are too. Like you, they have been too afraid to say anything. Break the silence. Talk with trusted friends or professional colleagues. It would also help to find a mentor in your field who understands the details of your job.
The only person who expects you to have all the answers is yourself. Make the room for collaboration. Your team probably knows you don’t have all the answers anyway, so stop pretending. You can’t work together effectively without full transparency.
3. Make decisions, even bad ones
The consequences of a bad decision are rarely worse than the consequences of indecision. The truth is, most of your decisions will be wrong. And that is okay and natural, because you will be able to make a better decision with the information you have after a failure. So get over yourself, make a decision, measure the results, and adjust properly.
Being wrong doesn’t make you a fraud. Nobody is perfect. Losing is just a part of the game.
4. Stop comparing yourself to others
If you look at the other people’s Facebook or Instagram feeds, everyone seems to live bright and easy lives. But what you see there is a filtered look at reality. You don’t see failures on social media because those don’t get as many “likes”. We share what makes us look better.
You aren’t here to live the life of another person. Live your own life, not someone else’s. Don’t fall into the trap of letting others’ opinions dictate your actions. Shut down Facebook and Instagram and start to respect your own experience.
5. Accept your role in your successes
We feel like imposters because we are unable to accept our successes. We were given an opportunity that others weren’t. And so nothing we’ve achieved after that opportunity was actually deserved.
But think of plenty of people who were given the same opportunities and were unable to take advantage of them. Opportunities come to those who are prepared.
6. Keep a file of people saying nice things about you
Every time someone writes you something good, take a screenshot and put it in your folder. When you feel like an imposter you can go look through the stories of people you have helped. Collect your wins, testimonials, whatever and then visit them when you are feeling like a fraud.
7. Admit that perfection doesn’t exist
It just doesn’t.
Which of the previous tips seem useful to you? Comment below 🙂
The world we live in is the result of a lot of brave people trying and failing—and only succeeding once in awhile. You’re not an imposter for trying something that might not work out. You’re a hero.
Also published on Medium.