Imposter syndrome: what it is and how to deal with it

Imposter syndrome is common, but more often occurs in women than men, and more so even in women of color and the LGBTI community. There are several factors that might mitigate this feeling. But first it’s important to look at what imposter syndrome is, as well as some quick tips for how to deal with it. Because there is an imbalance in who tends to experience imposter syndrome, we will also look at imposter syndrome in professional women, as well as why women might feel this way more often than men. There are lots of different contexts in which you might feel like an imposter, so we’ve also included some of these contexts and how to deal with imposter syndrome in them.

What is imposter syndrome?

In plain English, imposter syndrome is feeling like a phony. You might feel like everyone else around you is better qualified than you, that you’re not worth the promotion you just got, or simply feel like a fraud. It can be really damaging to your self-confidence but learning how to deal with imposter syndrome is a great first step to bolstering the trust you have in your own professionality. If you’re an employer and have been made aware of an employee feeling like a phony in spite of their excellent track record, you can bear these tips in mind to help support them.

Note

You may have seen that some articles refer to “impostor” syndrome – this is the same thing, it’s just a different spelling. Imposter and impostor are both acceptable spellings in American English, but throughout this article we’ll use “imposter”.

How to realize that you are not an imposter

We’ll now take a look at a quick cheat-sheet for helping you deal with imposter syndrome, although this advice should not replace a good coach or therapist. Nevertheless, these tips are something that you can take away and try and apply the next time you feel like you’re out of place at work.

Don’t bottle it up

A good way to start overcoming imposter syndrome is to talk about it. This is the first step in dealing with imposter syndrome: expressing how you feel and speaking about your experiences. Imposter syndrome is an internal state and sometimes externalizing your fears helps put them in perspective and get the support you need to allay those worries.

Adjusting your mindset

Imposter syndrome is feeling like a fraud in a situation where you’re entirely qualified and experienced enough to hold the position you’re in. This means that it doesn’t stem from actually being underqualified – this is an important realization, because it means that part of overcoming imposter syndrome can be tackled by changing the way you see yourself. By adjusting the way you think about yourself, you might stop feeling like a phony. Strong self-criticism and social anxiety can contribute to feeling like an imposter and getting help to adjust the way you think about yourself can really help.

List your past achievements

If you’re experiencing a moment of strong imposter syndrome in an important moment, i.e. before giving a presentation, asking for a promotion, or studying for a big exam, a helpful technique is to list all of your achievements. This not only creates an instant CV content list to fill a template, proving that you’re capable and qualified, but might also remind you that you’re awesome and know what you’re doing. It might feel like you don’t have time to perform this little self-affirmation, but it only needs to take one or two minutes, and all of a sudden you’ve got a list of reasons why you’re the right person for the job.

Imposter syndrome in the (women’s) working world

Anyone can encounter imposter syndrome, and the feeling isn’t exclusive to women. However, women are disproportionately affected by symptoms of imposter syndrome in the workplace. Women, and particularly women of color and the LGBTQI community are affected by imposter syndrome. Let’s take a closer look at this, with reference to some statistics and reasons why women are often hit harder by imposter syndrome.

Women and Imposter syndrome

Across the working world, women are underpaid, leading to the term of a “gender-pay-gap”. This refers to how men are often paid more for the same amount of work, paid more than their women co-workers, and that women will expect to earn less across their professional working life than men simply because they are women. Some industries have a bigger issue with representing an equal balance of men and women in the workforce, such as with women in the tech industry.

In fact, one article reports that 98 percent of women had experienced at least one symptom of imposter syndrome. Underrepresentation and being underpaid might well convince even the most confident individual that there is something inherently phony about them – that they’re not up to the job they’ve been given, when compared to their colleagues. This is all the more so for women of color, who are almost not represented at all in corporate positions: only 5 percent of US corporate board seats were held by women of color. It is difficult to imagine oneself in a position if there are few role models, and this is perhaps one reason why women experience imposter syndrome more than men. Let’s take a look at why women experience imposter syndrome so often.

Why do women get affected by imposter syndrome more?

As mentioned above, one reason why women may feel that they are a fraud in their job is because there is a lack of role models for the position they’re in. However, there is more to it than that. Sometimes women might feel as if they’re only being hired to fill a certain quota to meet a gender equality requirement, for example. This is a catch-22 situation because it is important that companies are held to certain standards when it comes to employing a diverse workforce.

However, it might impact underrepresented populations by making them think that they’re only in the job because of their identity, and not because of their qualifications. At this point, it is important to remember that hiring a suitably qualified individual is in a company’s best interest, and there are so many people to choose from out there, that you should believe them when they tell you you’ve got the job and are therefore the best candidate.

However, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review has called for people to stop telling women that they have imposter syndrome because it is up to the work environment to support women, particularly women of color and not for the women to deal with this diagnosis. Feeling like you’re a fraud might be a symptom of not having enough support, or having to overcome setbacks time and time again. A supportive working environment could help ease imposter syndrome, although working together with a coach or therapist is sure to help too.

Imposter syndrome in different contexts

There are lots of different contexts in which imposter syndrome could occur. We’ll take a look at three of them here and consider how to deal with imposter syndrome when doing work with clients, trying to grow a business, and trying to grow professionally.

Clients

Imposter syndrome while working with clients might manifest at any time, but particularly when getting feedback or doing a presentation. Some good methods for how to deal with imposter syndrome in these moments are:

  • To realize that self-doubt might be higher because you’re put on the spot. In these instances, remember that the client chose you for their project for a reason, and that feedback is a normal part of life.
     
  • Having an established model of customer satisfaction might help you deal with any anxieties you have around working with your client.
     
  • Sharing that you felt anxious to your friends and family might be a good way to not bottle up your feelings, and to maintain a confident and professional appearance to your client.

Business Growth

Imposter syndrome might rear its ugly head during business growth, especially if you’re at the beginning of your business. Without having had much experience with a new business, you might feel unequipped to handle what the business world throws at you. However, there are great methods for how to deal with imposter syndrome in business growth, too:

  • By enlisting the help of a coach, you might start to feel more supported in your role, and they can guide you through the process that you’re perfectly capable of creating a loyal customer base and generating a good profit.
     
  • Remind yourself that you started this business for a good reason, and that you had enough inspiration and self-confidence to get started in the first place. There will have been moments when you knew you could do it, try and reconnect to these moments of self-assurance.

Often, your own worst enemy is yourself, and in a context where you’re trying to grow your own business, imposter syndrome can heighten this tendency. Imposter syndrome is not uncommon in these scenarios, but by following the cheat-sheet for how to deal with imposter syndrome outlined above, this effect can be minimized.

Professional growth

Finally, imposter syndrome can crop up in a professional context as an employee as well. Perhaps you want to negotiate a pay rise or hold a presentation in front of important clients. In these moments, referring to the cheat sheet we created in the first half of this article may help. However, there are other methods for how to deal with imposter syndrome in professional growth too:

  • Reflect if the reason that you’re feeling like a phony could be due to a lack of support, or a challenging environment at work. Even the best workplaces find it hard to get a a culture of good constructive criticism right. If you feel like your imposter syndrome stems from difficult managerial support, you can try and find a way to address this tactfully. It seems scary but might help in the long run.
     
  • Talk to colleagues. Talk to your colleagues about your experiences at work – not just of imposter syndrome. Even people who don’t experience imposter syndrome will have experienced setbacks and challenges at work and connecting to people in your working environment might just help you see that no-one is perfect, and that with the right mindset, you can continue to grow on a professional level in spite of imposter syndrome.

Conclusion: You can overcome the imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is conceptualized as an inner state of feeling like a phony, even though you’re completely qualified for the job. It can cause a lot of social anxiety and worry, and some of the best methods of coping with it is to talk about your feelings, adjust your mindset, and list your achievements for an instant confidence booster. A lot of the time, the responsibility of dealing with imposter syndrome is put on the person who is feeling like a fraud. But a good work environment can help take the pressure off, create better professional connections, and ultimately make work more enjoyable.

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