“I don’t actually deserve this promotion, I just got lucky.”
“What happens when my boss finds out that I’m actually a fraud?”
“My coworkers are so much smarter than I am. What am I doing here?”
If you’ve ever had thoughts like these you are not alone. This experience is referred to as the Imposter syndrome.
Individuals feeling the Imposter syndrome experience false negative beliefs about their abilities.
Specifically, individuals with the Imposter syndrome falsely believe that they don’t have the skills necessary for their work, are incompetent, got where they are due to luck or are simply a fraud. However, this is not the case.
Many people experience the syndrome at some point in their lives, myself included. When I began my doctorate program, I was convinced they had surely made a mistake letting me in. They must have accidentally looked at someone else’s application materials paired with my name. Luckily, I had great mentors who helped me work through and move past these feelings.
Imposter syndrome was initially studied by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes at the Georgia State University in the 1970s. In their initial study, they found this phenomenon occurred much more frequently in high-achieving women compared to men.
However, while early research in this area focused on the Imposter syndrome in women and racial/ethnic minorities, this phenomenon can occur amongst all people, regardless of age, sex, race, etc. These experiences might be heightened when someone is not in the majority group, and/or working on something new or unfamiliar.
Despite research in this area existing for nearly 50 years, many people experience this, and often are unaware how common these intrusive thoughts and self-doubts are.
As stated, this frequently happens to high achieving individuals. Success at work could come with new responsibilities. As responsibilities grow, so might our self-doubts — wondering if we really know what we’re doing, or if we deserve to be in charge. Remember, these doubts are false, and individuals who are experiencing these beliefs did not get there just by chance or mistake.
Individuals who truly are frauds often are too overly confident to recognize that they don’t know what they are doing. This false confidence in individuals with low ability is essentially the opposite of the Imposter syndrome and has a name, The Dunning Kruger-Effect.
That being said, if you are going through a stressful time at work, such as starting a new career, getting a promotion or taking on a new project, and questioning your abilities, take a breath and pause. You are likely experiencing the Imposter syndrome.
One of the initial ways to reduce the negative feelings is recognizing that it exists. A lot of people are too afraid to share these feelings of self-doubt with others out of fear of truly being “found out.”
However, these beliefs are a lot more common than you think. It’s pretty likely someone else who you know is feeling the same way, or has at some point in his or her life. Speaking about your self-doubts with those around you might help alleviate some of these concerns.
An article by Kristen Weir for the American Psychological Association echoes this and has additional tips for overcoming the syndrome. As I mentioned, mentors did a great job helping change my self-doubts. Similarly, she suggests that mentors are key in this process.
The article also mentions that individuals should reflect on what they are good at and the achievements they have accomplished. For example, help a new employee on a project, volunteer, provide your expertise on something you do feel comfortable working on — these all are ways to recognize how knowledgeable you truly are.
They also mention that it is important to realize that no one is truly perfect. Everyone has flaws, even those you admire. As humans we are allowed (and maybe even expected) to make mistakes from time to time. A small blunder at work does not make you a failure as an employee (just don’t make it a pattern).
One thing that I like to tell people is to remember, if you are feeling a little anxious or stressed out at work from time to time this can be a good thing. This means you truly care about your job and are invested in what you are doing.
We need a little bit a stress to be productive, but too much stress can be debilitating. It’s good to care about your work, but don’t let it manifest into feelings of self-doubt.