I helped a young professional prepare to interview for a management position in a company where she’d worked for two years. Beth had a documented history of stellar performance and management experience, and she was excited about growing with the company. Besides the standard interview prep, she created a 30/60/90-day plan which outlined goals for each stage of the new job. If that wasn’t impressive enough, she wrote a one-page project proposal designed to increase employee engagement while increasing client satisfaction. Beth practiced for the interview, prepared her questions and documents in advance, and felt confident about the process and her chances of getting the job. The interview went well, and I wasn’t surprised a week later when she called to tell me she got the job. What did surprise me was how she sounded.
Her excitement and confidence were gone, and instead of a person who had just received news of a job offer, she was anxious and doubtful. As we talked, Beth said things like:
“I’m not sure I’m the best person for the job.”
“I don’t think I’m qualified to handle these new responsibilities.”
“They probably should have given the job to someone with more experience.”
What Beth experienced isn’t an unknown phenomenon, but what’s more recent is that now we’re talking about it: imposter syndrome. Understanding what imposter syndrome is, where it may come from, and how it affects us empowers us to overcome it.
What is imposter syndrome?
Psychology Today online explains that “People who struggle with imposter syndrome believe they are undeserving of their achievements and the high esteem in which they are, in fact, generally held. They feel they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others might think—and that soon enough, people will discover the truth about them.”
Women who suffer from imposter syndrome in the workplace downplay recognition and achievement and regularly see others as more qualified than themselves.
Who is most likely to get imposter syndrome?
You are more likely to experience imposter syndrome if you …
- Are a woman of color working in a colorless company
- Are a woman working in a male-dominated industry
- Have been a minority in the workplace most of your career
- Were overlooked at work for periods of time before being recognized
- Had a childhood where performance was emphasized but nothing was ever good enough
- Were raised in an environment where women were not encouraged to pursue careers or take on leadership roles
- Place extreme pressure on yourself not to fail
- Battle perfectionism
What triggers imposter syndrome?
When I started my business career in the 1990s, few women worked in the outdoor industry and there were even fewer women leaders. I experienced key moments when I felt like Beth did, even though I didn’t know what to call it.
Certain positive events triggered feelings of fraud, inadequacy, and self-doubt, such as career changes, promotions, or being recognized. At other times, negative situations happened that brought out the same feelings. I would be the only woman in a meeting and the most senior person present, except for the president, and he would ask me to take notes. Every time.
Once while I was working with potential suppliers in a closed-door meeting, my boss barged in. He asked me to have the receptionist order new urinal filters because he didn’t like the smell of the existing ones. Like many other women do, I stuffed my response (emotional and otherwise) and told myself to toughen up.
Women struggle with imposter syndrome more than men, and psychologists think this is largely because of cultural and societal norms. When women make strides in a direction that seems to flow opposite of their upbringing or what they experience around them, imposter syndrome is likely to show up. They develop an underlying sense that they don’t belong and aren’t qualified to be where they are, regardless of experience, education, or competency.
Being mindful of triggers helps us reframe what we’re experiencing. Too often we dismiss our feelings and plow over them. To acknowledge our emotions seems like another step toward the vulnerability that we’re already experiencing. In reality, stifling discussions about how we feel and refusing to explore the reasons behind emotional triggers inhibits our ability to face and overcome imposter syndrome. Hiding our experiences leads to isolation, which compounds our struggle.
How does imposter syndrome affect women at work?
Experiencing imposter syndrome and not confronting it can lead to outcomes that stop you from fulfilling your professional goals or reaching your full leadership potential:
- Rather than being excited and energized to start a new job or position, you’ll waste time and energy wondering if you’re a diversity hire or if you fooled everyone into accepting your qualifications. When you first step into a new job or role, the energy and focus you bring are critical. You can’t afford to be distracted by doubt.
- You may under-assess your worth and hesitate to ask for the raises or promotions you deserve. You’ll accept less than you deserve.
- Instead of graciously and confidentially accepting praise, recognition, or even a new title, you’ll resist or minimize—which demeans your confidence and presents as false humility.
- You’ll burn out because you frantically strive for perfection and constantly feel stressed and anxious.
How can we overcome imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome has deep roots growing from seeds that have germinated a long time. They may have been planted in childhood or along our career paths, and they were watered every time we were overlooked, underrepresented, or marginalized.
Gradually, we become so accustomed to the massive weeds that we barely acknowledge them and fail to notice how they crowd out and overshadow our confidence.
Regardless of why or how imposter syndrome affects you, here are six steps you can take to prune it:
- Take control of your thoughts, so they don’t take control of you. Psychology experts at Queen’s University estimate that the average person has over 6,000 thoughts in one day. [i] Make sure your thoughts are serving you well. As Jennie Allen explains in her book, Get Out of Your Head: Stopping the Spiral of Toxic Thoughts, we have the power to choose what we think about. Even if you haven’t dug into the details of imposter syndrome yet, be mindful of thoughts that suggest you’re in any way undeserving or not the “real deal.” When thoughts like this surface, take action against them.
- Keep a file containing your professional achievements. It can include awards, letters that accompanied promotions, complimentary emails, and accomplishments noted in performance reviews. When you sense doubts about your competence stirring, read through the file.
- Write a mantra and keep in a private place that’s quickly accessible, like under a keyboard or inside a desk drawer. In your mantra, speak against the specific negative self-talk that plagues you when triggered. For example, mine is “I worked hard to get here. I belong here. God created me to do this work in this place.”
- Talk to a trusted friend. Other women who know you and are safe sounding boards can be priceless resources. It’s freeing to share your thoughts with another person who will listen and respond with your best interest in mind. Friends can speak the truth against the doubts you have about your abilities.
- When you feel anxious or doubtful about your abilities, journal your thoughts. Use these questions to help you get started: What event happened immediately prior? What feelings did you experience? When was the last time you felt this way in your career? What do the two instances have in common? Writing about what was happening in the workplace and the impact it had on your feelings will help you pinpoint your triggers and uncover root causes. Journal entries can also assist you in talking about imposter syndrome experiences with friends, mentors, or therapists.
- Work with a mentor or therapist to discuss how imposter syndrome may have developed, the triggers you experience, and how to overcome them.
Concluding Thoughts on Imposter Syndrome
When we’re able to identify and understand imposter syndrome—and recognize its tricky triggers—we take away its power.
If you’ve suffered from imposter syndrome, know that you’re not alone. Many professional women who are high achievers have experienced it. Talk about imposter syndrome with other women in your world, and you’ll quickly realize how many can relate.
Tseng, J., Poppenk, J. Brain meta-state transitions demarcate thoughts across task contexts exposing the mental noise of trait neuroticism. Nat Commun 11, 3480 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17255-9