In the last article, we talked about what imposter syndrome is and some negative impacts on work and life.  This article will focus on who experiences imposter syndrome, where it comes from, and how it may manifest so we can raise awareness on this issue and take action for positive changes. 

Who Experiences Imposter Syndrome?

When the concept was first published in an academic paper in 1978 by Dr. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, it was described as a mental health issue, a sort of neurosis found in high achieving women from white middle-class backgrounds.  The reason why it was initially thought to be a unique woman challenge is because females were the ones who talked about it.  As it turns out, women and men experience it to an equal degree. 

According to Amy Cuddy, who spoke about this phenomenon in her popular Ted Talk, she received a series of emails from people who had the familiarity, and half were from men.  She concluded that it was not initially captured because men were not discussing it with their family and friends; they were hiding it due to shame, stereotype backlash, or harassment for deviating from social norms.  In one study, when she gave a survey where people had to put their names on it, it seemed like women were experiencing imposter syndrome more, but then when the surveys were anonymous, men were expressing these feelings at the same rate as women, which means men were carrying it around secretly and painfully.  Even celebrities cannot escape the feeling; Denzel Washington, Tina Fey, Maya Angelo, and Neil Gayman have talked about it openly. 

So, where do these feelings come from? Here are some leading theories:

1. Link to Perfectionism.  Some researchers have tied it to perfectionism.  When you are driven to produce flawless behaviors and results, the standard is so high that there is a tendency to be overcritical so unless it is perfect, it is inadequate and always will be.

2. Parental influence.  When parents tell us how great we are, it makes us want to maintain that high expectation bestowed on us.  If we underperform, we think we do not deserve the greatness title.  This can also be supported by Carol Dweck’s research on mindset and the complications that arise when we praise people, rather than their actions.  By saying –  “you are smart,” it fosters a fixed mindset, you either are smart or not;  you only have a certain amount of intelligence so if you struggle with something, you feel like if you were smart, you would not find it difficult.  You think, smart people do not struggle.  In contrast, when you praise the process, you foster a growth mindset, which is the idea that you can improve on the process and grow your abilities.  When you say, “you worked really hard to accomplish this goal,” the person knows it is not something innate, but something they can have more control over because it is based on the effort they apply and not simply their traits.

3. Connected to High Achievers.  When you have accomplished, you feel like there is something to lose and you become even more frightened of failing, especially if you are not used to it, so you may take fewer risks and spend more time on your work.  You think high achievers do not flop so even if you have a remarkable streak of successes, that one stumble can make you question your long record of accomplishments.  For you, it is the feeling that the gig is up and that failure is more representative of who you are, and now others are just learning this information for the first time.

4. Tied to a feeling of not belonging.  People who feel like they exist on the margins in a certain group setting due to their age, gender, race or, sexual orientation can exhibit feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem if they do not think they are included in the crowd.

How does imposture syndrome manifest?

1. Using negative self-talk.  You can be abusive to yourself with your words.  “You are a failure, you are stupid, you never get anything right.”  If you say this to yourself enough, you start to believe it, and it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle; what you say influences directly how you feel and how you behave.

2. Failing to take action.  When your inner critic is saying you are not good enough, it prevents you from taking action.  It’s the voice that stops you from speaking up in meetings or at conferences because you feel a spike of anxiety at the thought that maybe you will ask a dumb question.  You feel stressed rather than energized when you get a new challenging assignment so you refuse the opportunity.

3. Difficulty accepting praise.  You have a hard time receiving praise for your accomplishments because you feel like you do not deserve what you have achieved.   You attribute success to externals – being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people – instead of acknowledging your unique skills and abilities.  You also think that because something comes naturally to you, it must be easy for others so you downplay your contributions because you believe anybody can do it.

4. Comparing to others.  You often contrast your ability to those around you and think that they may be more intelligent.  When you see the world through competitive eyes, instead of through an abundant mindset, it may make you less willing to share with others and less likely to build stronger relationships.

5. Negatively impacting your leadership.  If we are always seeking validation, we are less trusting of our gut in making decisions. Also, since we think we should know everything, we are less likely to ask for help.  This can leave us in stuck mode. Excellent leadership is about listening to those around you and asking questions for strong learning opportunities.

6. Isolating yourself & increasing feelings of loneliness.  You may not want anyone to know your feelings of inadequacy so you create distance from others for fear of being discovered and you carry around this big secret, thinking that it only pertains to you.  Even when you learn that others have it, you think, their feeling is just a distortion, while your fear is actually real.

We all may feel like we are punching above our weight class at times, that’s natural, the key is to understand where the feelings come from so it does not completely steal our power and suffocate our presence.  Then, we can take action for positive changes. 

Quote of the day: “Don’t compare yourself with other people; compare yourself with who you were yesterday.” –Jordan Peterson, Author

Q:  Have you ever personally thought about the origins of your imposter syndrome?  If you have felt it, where do you imagine its source?Comment and share below, we would love to hear from you!

[The next blog in this series 3/3 will focus on leading tips to fight imposture syndrome]

As a Leadership Coach, I partner with others to shatter their limiting beliefs and build confidence, contact me to learn more.

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