Have you ever started a new job and instead of congratulating yourself on getting an opportunity you deserved, you panicked? Or have you ever made a presentation in front of department leadership and spent the whole time worrying that they thought you were speaking nonsense, rather than telling them like it is?
If you answered yes, you, my friend, are probably suffering from impostor syndrome.
Don’t panic. This isn’t some sort of life-threatening or even career-threatening disease. Nor is it something that only you experience. It’s a common phenomenon among successful people. Nevertheless, you want to know when you fall victim to it and how to make sure it doesn’t hurt your career.
In this post, I will explain what impostor syndrome is, how to tell if you have it, and how it might impact you and your career. Next week, I’ll give you a few tips about how to deal with it – perchance you do suffer from impostor syndrome.
What is it?
On its most basic level, impostor syndrome is feeling like you don’t deserve something that you actually earned, even if other people or facts show that you do deserve it.
More technically, it’s being unable to internalize an accolade or accomplishment despite external indicators of earned success.
For the most technical definition of the phenomenon, read this article from psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance who first identified impostor syndrome (then called impostor phenomenon) in the 1970s.
Who gets it and why?
Like I said, impostor syndrome is not uncommon. But you may not have heard of it, because many people who suffer from it are uncomfortable discussing the symptoms. That makes sense, right? If you’re already worried that you don’t deserve the commendation you receive, the last thing you want to do is draw attention to the fact that you might be, for lack of a better word, a fraud.
Yet the phenomenon is prevalent among accomplished people. However, many studies argue that woman are more susceptible to impostor syndrome than men, particularly high-achieving women. In fact, when Imes and Clance first identified the phenomenon, they thought it only impacted women. While that’s not true – impostor syndrome impacts both genders – there are unique reasons that it might be more prevalent among women.
Put simply, many women are taking on opportunities that were not open to them even 20 years ago. While these awesome ladies are consciously excelling in their fields, their subconscious still has a sneaking (and wrong) suspicion that they don’t deserve to be where they are. Others may underestimate their own success because, as pioneers in breaking down gender barriers, they feel more pressure to succeed and worry that there is more at stake if they fail. Thus, they focus on avoiding failure rather than celebrating success. This is particularly common in male-dominated fields like STEM or defense.
What are the signs of impostor syndrome?
The symptoms of impostor syndrome can generally be summed up as feeling insufficient or like a fraud. However, the way those feelings manifest are varied among sufferers. A few prevalent indicators include:
- Underselling your past or current accomplishments in conversations with others
- Attributing past or current successes to external factors, such as luck or circumstances, rather than your own hard work
- (In contrast) attributing your failures to personal deficits without regard to external factors that negatively impacted the outcome
- Considering peers to be more naturally or technically skilled than you, and therefore more worthy of the position you both hold
- Failing to apply to jobs or promotions that you consider stretch roles
- Seeking external validation for your contributions, even if they don’t enhance your personal feelings of accomplishment
If you want to be fancy about it, feel free to take this test developed by a group of psychologists in 2000, which grades to what extent impostor syndrome impacts your life.
What are the consequences?
Consequences may be the wrong word here because there are actually both pros and cons to impostor syndrome. On the bright side, according to Dr. Valerie Young (who wrote a book about it) impostor syndrome can motivate some people to work even harder in order to prove to themselves that they really are successful. Moreover, many sufferers vacillate between feeling like a total fraud and being a total egomaniac. That latter feeling, albeit brief, can provide a boost of necessary confidence to make it to the next level.
However, brief egomania aside, feeling like you don’t deserve the credit you earn can also negatively impact your emotional state and career trajectory in the long term. Obviously, feeling like you are in some way less than your peers is not great. You want to feel good about yourself, and enjoy your successes!
Additionally, when impostor feelings impact your professional choices, you end up holding yourself back. Failing to apply to a job you can totally handle or even undermining your current successes hinders your career advancement and leads others to perceive you as less accomplished or qualified than you actually are.
What can I do about it?
That’s what we’ll talk about next week, but I will go ahead and tell you that the first step is recognizing what it is and how it impacts your choices. So you’re one step closer to overcoming impostor syndrome already!