How to Fight Imposter Syndrome

If you feel like an imposter at work, it’s time to reframe your mindset.

How to Fight Imposter Syndrome

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There’s an insidious virus infecting the American workplace and it doesn’t start with a C and end with 19.

It’s called imposter syndrome, which generally is defined as the unconscious belief that we aren’t as intelligent, capable or competent as people think we are — yet we somehow manage to fool people into thinking otherwise.

“We even do it in the face of concrete evidence to the contrary about our abilities,” says Valerie Young, a nationally recognized speaker and expert on the subject and co-founder of the Imposter Syndrome Institute. “People with imposter syndrome chalk up their accomplishments to things like luck, great timing, good connections and so forth.

“They externalize their achievements and live in fear of being found out,” adds Young, who says she got interested in the topic because she’s experienced imposter syndrome herself. She even wrote a book about it titled The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome.

“Imposters downplay their accomplishments by believing if they can do something, anyone can do it,” she says. “A classic example is the person who says if he or she can get a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Caltech, then anyone can.”

Studies show the syndrome is fairly widespread, afflicting anywhere from 60 to 90% of workers. Some studies show it’s more prevalent among women and certain ethnic groups and professions, while others indicate it’s an equal-opportunity affliction that affects all genders, ethnicities, income levels and so forth.

“The research on this is very mixed,” Young says. “But in my experience, people in highly competitive environments are prone to imposter syndrome. The medicine and higher-education fields are two prominent examples.”


Adverse Side Effects

One thing is certain, however: Imposter syndrome creates negative costs and consequences that hurt organizations in the long run in terms of less productivity and innovation and poor employee mental health.

“Some employees might either hold back and not share great ideas, avoid asking good questions or reject opportunities for promotions because they just feel safer where they are,” Young says.

Others might go in the opposite direction and over-prepare and over-work all the time, driven by the belief that they have to work harder to cover up for their ineptness. This creates strong potential for burnout and wasted time. For example, consider the employee charged with putting together a meeting agenda and instead writes a five-page report, Young says.

“All jobs are dependent on other people doing their jobs, so there’s a domino effect when employees suffer from imposter syndrome,” she says.


Five Imposters

Young says her research shows there are five classic types of imposters:


·      The perfectionist. These people expect a flawless performance all the time, and when they inevitably make a mistake — after all, no one is perfect — it feels like a monumental failure. “They operate with unrealistic and unsustainable notions about what it means to be competent,” Young says.

·      The expert. This is the knowledge version of the perfectionist. Picture someone who’s totally focused on earning one more certificate, one more degree, one more accreditation, etc., because they never know enough. “It’s an eternal quest because they feel they never know enough.”

·      The natural genius. These employees believe that if they really were intelligent or competent, things wouldn’t be so hard. “They expect to pick things up quickly and hit the ground running, then find themselves sorely lacking when they don’t,” she says.

·      The soloist. Things only count if these imposters do them on their own. They believe that asking for help is a sign of incompetence, so they’re liable to waste a lot of time trying to solve things themselves when they could’ve asked a colleague.

·      The superhuman. These imposters are similar to perfectionists except that they expect to excel in multiple areas.


Deeply Ingrained Reasons

Why do people feel like imposters? The answer to that could easily lead down many different rabbit holes, including parental and societal expectations ingrained in people from childhood.

“I maintain that deep down, we all feel we can do anything we set our minds to,” Young says. “But the debris of imposter thinking gets in the way. To me, the only difference between people who feel like imposters and those who don’t is that in the exact same situations, they think different thoughts.”

More specifically, people who don’t feel like imposters think differently about competence and what it means. They have a realistic understanding of their capabilities and respond healthily to failure, mistakes and negative feedback.

“They understand that fear and doubt come with the achievement territory,” she says. “Those are the people we should be studying. We call them humble realists. Genuinely humble realists think different thoughts and there’s much we can learn from them.”


Mind Over Matter

Reframing imposter-ish thoughts is the key to moving past the syndrome. In other words, the next time someone finds themselves feeling like an imposter, it’s time to “hit the pause button” and think how a humble realist — someone who’s never felt like an imposter — would think in that situation.

“You may not believe this new thought at the time, but at least you’re starting to work on recognizing there’s a different way to reframe those thoughts. Consider sports, for example; intellectually, we understand that someone wins and someone loses. But the losers don’t hang up their uniforms and quit. Instead, they watch game tapes and practice and say, ‘We’ll get them next time.’”

This change in mindset can normalize imposter-related thoughts and help people work through them. For example, a person who feels like they aren’t good enough to be at an important meeting needs to contextualize things a bit.

“When they have an imposter moment, they need to zoom out and get the big picture to understand that it’s normal to feel like they might be out of their element,” Young says. “Make it less about you and your feelings and more about the situation.”


Managers Must Lead the Way

Managers can help, too, by creating a team culture where people feel safe about, say, asking questions without feeling stupid. And since criticism often is hard for imposters to take, managers can do a little reframing themselves and make a point to instead talk about areas of improvement.

“They can talk openly at a team meeting, for instance, about how everyone always has room for improvement,” Young says. “They need to bring it into the open because it’s in the shadows right now.”

Managers also can talk to employees who exhibit classic imposter-syndrome symptoms, she says. “You can take a deeper dive and tell them how it’s showing up in their work and even impacting the organization.”

Of course, managers shouldn’t tell an employee that they have imposter syndrome. But if managers see the signs — like someone with potential but who never applies for promotions, or is burned out or over-prepares for just about everything — it’s OK to pass around an article about imposter syndrome to a team, bring it up as a topic at a meeting or even hire a speaker.

“Employees need to better understand it because there are costs and consequences,” Young says.


Change Is Hard

Anyone who has played sports knows that muscle memory is difficult to change, whether it’s shooting a basketball or adjusting a golf swing. Changing deeply ingrained thought processes is no different, so don’t feel discouraged if it takes time. And taking that first step is critical, Young says.

“People with imposter syndrome often say that they’ll wait to start changing until they feel more confident. But that’s not how it works. You first have to change the thoughts, then act like you believe the thoughts — even though you may not initially. And over time, you’ll start believing it and your confidence will catch up. It might really suck the first time you try it, but you have to allow yourself the luxury of a learning curve.”

Young understands this is easier said than done. But it’s a place to start, she points out.

“My mantra is the only way to stop thinking like an imposter is to stop thinking like an imposter.”


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