You’ve heard of “imposter syndrome” before, likely in a self-help article or a Co-star daily brief. But what you probably don’t know is that imposter syndrome causes everything from decreased work performance to depression, anxiety, and burnout – and studies show that it could impact up to 82% of people, depending on the circumstances. Here, we’re going to define what imposter syndrome really is, and how to tackle it head-on.
To really delve into what imposter syndrome means, we need to look at the fundamental texts from which it was pulled rather than the modern colloquial use of the term. Coined in the 1970s by two female researchers in an article called ‘The imposter phenomena in high-achieving women,’ imposter syndrome has subsequently become a catch-all for those experiencing “intellectual phoniness” while simultaneously portraying outward confidence. While one’s imposter syndrome may be influenced by early childhood experiences and societal conceptions of one’s race, gender, and other demographic factors, it mostly occurs only in the minds of the sufferer without many bases in reality. In all, there are four behaviors that serve as cornerstones of this condition.
The first thing someone with imposter syndrome will do is engage in the hard work cycle. Due to the fear that “my stupidity will be discovered,” someone with imposter syndrome will work excessively hard to hide their self-consciousness. This hard work leads to excellent results, and the so-called imposter proceeds to impress others (and themselves) with their ambition, skill and focus. Unfortunately, this then creates more tension, as the sufferer will feel guilty about appreciating their successes, then fall back on their underlying feelings of being a charlatan.
As we all remember from undergraduate, graduate school or even a recent meeting with an annoying co-worker, someone with imposter syndrome can often overcompensate in the form of excessive flattery to a superior. The second mode of behavior centers around a sense of phoniness which is based partly in reality. The study’s fun 1970s terminology, ‘”psyched out,” is a synonym in this case for sucking up to someone in a position of authority and priding their research, beliefs, or suggestions over your own.
While this behavior might seem more specific to the women of the 1970s, anyone can use charm to woo their potential employer, their boss, or their peers. While those with imposter syndrome believe they’re stupid, they also believe that they have a great deal of untapped intellectual potential, creativity, and hidden brilliance – if only the right person were to uncover it. Using charm, someone with imposter syndrome will pander to potential mentors, and use charisma to build a relationship that will aid them in the future. Unfortunately, this only reinforces their beliefs that deep down they’re just a phony, as this mental self-sabotage puts themselves in a double bind; “if I were smart enough,” the imposter says, “I wouldn’t have to charm them in the first place.”
Ultimately, the last behavior one engages in when they have imposter syndrome is more of a core belief than anything else: They’re faking it until they make it. Whether you’re working hard to cover up your fears, using your wiles to build professional relationships, or falling back on other’s ideas because you don’t have faith in your own, you’re still reinforcing the idea that you’re an imposter in a world of deserving peers. As long as you believe that you’re a phony deep down, you can always avoid the painful rejection of someone you respect or trust thinking that you’re inadequate.
One of the reasons you might be feeling like an imposter in your workplace is that you’re the newest one on your team, or you’ve just entered a new role. You may not know the ropes yet, or you may just be a little in over your head with the number of projects and deadlines neglected by the person formerly in your position. It’s even possible that you applied for a job you didn’t really have the experience for, and you assume that you’d learn it on the fly once you got there.
Whether you took two weeks off for a positive COVID diagnosis or six months off for maternity leave, re-entering the workforce may leave you feeling a bit like an imposter. You’ve missed the latest in technological updates, you’re not filled in on the latest inside jokes among your team, and it might feel like some of your client relationships have deteriorated. A Joblist survey reports that nearly one in three people suffer from imposter syndrome upon attempting to rejoin the workforce, and to this day, women suffer from imposter syndrome substantially more than men.
If you’re working in a dog-eat-dog industry, but you’re more of a cat person, that could just be imposter syndrome sets in. Oftentimes, feeling othered can be exacerbated by overly competitive company culture, and being surrounded by vicious, intense co-workers participating in incessant “grind culture” is exhausting for even the greatest of overachievers. If you don’t truly feel worthy of holding a position in the first place, it can feel almost impossible to persevere in an industry where everyone is clamoring to get to the top.
The first and most important thing to note when combatting imposter syndrome is to ask questions – even if you’re scared that it’ll make you sound stupid. You don’t have to sound clueless in order to get thorough help, even if you feel quite clueless. It’s possible to be professional and curious, cushioning questions by catering them to the task at hand. Examples of that would be, “How do you like this task done here?” or “I just want to be clear that I’m meeting your expectations. Could you point me to a resource that might help me with the details of this task?”
Someone with imposter syndrome often believes that just the littlest error will expose them as the phony they believe themselves to be. That’s not true in the slightest, as those both high and low on the business food chain make dozens of mistakes a week for a variety of reasons. If a prickly manager is making you feel awful for even the faintest hint of disorganization, remember that the miscommunication is probably more about their poor people skills than your tiny error. Roll with the punches, let slip-ups big and small wash over you and remember to learn from them, lest you consistently repeat the cycle of mistakes and self-hate.
Remember that while you might be suffering from imposter syndrome, it’s just as likely that someone else that you know might have some of the same thoughts and feelings about themselves. Rather than getting frustrated at a new employee asking a silly basic question, provide them with a foundation of knowledge that will instill confidence in them. One day you may need the same kindness from a superior, and perhaps your answer to their questions will teach you about the kind of support you need from those above you.
Always remember that the key feature of imposter syndrome is that it’s not based in reality whatsoever. Your imposter syndrome has taken you far – it’s fueled your hard work, given you the ability to cultivate relationships with professional interests, and taught you what it means to excel beyond your expectations. Now if you can just keep up the momentum without all the lingering self-hate buried deep underneath your monumental successes, you’ll be as good as gold.
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