Maybe you’ve experienced impostor syndrome or are experiencing it right now.

If you are, you have learned it is a deeply emotional psychological state, described as a “persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.”

Another definition, more succinctly put is “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.”

Research published in the Journal of Behavioral Science estimates that a surprisingly high 70 percent of the U.S. population has felt like an impostor at one time or another.

In a world that seems flush with confidence, overconfidence and arrogance, those struggling with impostor syndrome are outliers yet important sufferers, employers and managers to understand.

So who are these people who hold, as a belief system, as devoid of evidence as it might be, that they don’t belong or are inadequate, questioning their place at the table, so to speak?

(Stevon Lewis, LMFT)

“Individuals that suffer from impostor syndrome are usually high achievers in some facet of their life,” says Stevon Lewis, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Torrance, Calif. that works with individuals that suffer from depression or anxiety caused by “impostor phenomenon.” 

“What I’ve found in working with these individuals, is that they have a difficult time connecting with their accomplishments,” he says. “Individuals struggling with impostor syndrome have a difficult time connecting their own actions with the positive results they get, that they actually caused the good thing to happen.

That impaired clarity of understanding from a lack of recognizing evidence to the contrary (that they are competent and accomplished) to how they perceive and feel is painful to endure.

“This results in them often feeling like a fraud, or an impostor, and constantly being fearful of being found out as such,” Lewis says.

Where does this persistent, high-level, nagging insecurity originate? While every person is different, Lewis has recognized some reasons occur regularly, beginning with parenting viewpoints and styles.

“In peeling back the layers I’ve found some glaring commonalities,” he says. “They had a parent or parents that were very critical of them, frequently pointing out where they needed improvement. Their parent or parents did not equally provide praise of their accomplishments or achievement and often dismissed those accolades as routine or required.”

The psychological health of the home is another dominant factor, Lewis says.

“They are often the product of a childhood environment that was dysfunctional, in which they seem to be the only person from their immediate family to have experienced the overall success they have achieved,” he says. “Expressions of love were infrequent or nonexistent.”

Demographics often are a powerful factor that is not understood by an employer.

(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

“As adults they seem to be the only one in the room, as in the only person of color or only woman,” Lewis says.

There are signs that someone is feeling like an impostor yet they are not always simple to recognize or associate with someone feeling anxiety and inadequate. In reality, the employee often looks exactly the opposite of lacking confidence, high self doubt and feeling out of place.

Employers might not readily recognize any problematic behaviors, due to the fact that individuals struggling with impostor syndrome are so fearful of being found out as a fraud that they often overcompensate to prevent being discovered, which leaves them looking like a rockstar,” Lewis says.

He says that what employers, managers and colleagues will instead see are highly desirable traits.

“Therefore, some of the behaviors that you’ll recognize are ones that are often celebrated,” Lewis says. “An employer might see an individual that deflects praise for their work, stays at work longer, is a cheerleader for others and often minimizes their contribution to a successful endeavor; diverting praise to other team members.”

Humility may be taken to a surprising extreme especially in comparison to other achievers.

“Their behavior will often be seen as being humble, when in fact they don’t believe they are deserving of the praise and acknowledgments they receive and therefore, feel extremely uncomfortable accepting public praise for their work,” Lewis has found.

An employer, supervisor or colleague may occasionally notice something being off, a momentary letting down of the person’s guard, where irrational doubt might be revealed. Lewis says that is a moment when assistance becomes a valuable opportunity.

An employer can provide consistent feedback in a more private setting if they suspect that an employee is struggling with impostor syndrome,” he says. “They can also couple their praise of said employee with empirical data to support.”

That empirical data could be the hard evidence that an employee has not previously considered when self evaluating and judging themselves.

This data could stand out as more credible to them, Lewis says.

“This is due to the fact that any subjective praise will be interpreted as the employer being a friend, nice, or liking the employee,” he says, which may not resonate as more analytical, data-based evidence and observation.

If the impostor syndrome becomes unbearable, an employee can decide to exhibit courage and assertiveness in communicating with their employee, regardless of how challenging, to alleviate stress or anxiety.

(Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay)

“I would encourage any professional that believes they are grappling with some impostorism {sic} to periodically check in with their employer regarding their performance, request that their employer set concrete goals for them, create an open dialogue to discuss areas of improvement and complete self-evaluations and have the employer review them,” Lewis recommends.

He cautions that in the more extreme levels of stress, anxiety, overwhelm and pain that people would benefit from seeking out specialized assistance.

“Ideally, I would like to see someone suffering with impostorism get some support from a qualified professional such as a psychotherapist, or executive coach, to assist them with working through some of the thinking errors that are present and to obtain an objective third-party perspective regarding their abilities,” Lewis says.

How specifically a specialist can prove helpful is by helping a person access the experiences that led to their lack of peace and confidence and to question their mental framing.

“A psychotherapist, such as myself, can be most helpful with assisting an individual with gaining insight and awareness into their own behavior,” Lewis says.

“This is best accomplished through weekly or bi-weekly, sessions where an individual can be educated on the link between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and can learn practical tools to assist them with challenging irrational beliefs about themselves and others,” he says.

Lewis says a person enduring impostor syndrome can learn to be better able to question and judge the validity of their beliefs and struggles with what is perceived and what is evidential about their qualifications, expertise, strengths and belonging.

(Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash)

“In addition, it is sometimes helpful for an individual to gain insight into the etiology (cause) of their impostorism, and address some of the deep-rooted aspects, sometimes going back to childhood, that are fueling these feelings of being a fraud,” he says.

Being concerned with reputation is natural and yet, with impostor syndrome, that credibility, trust, value and reputation is often far better in the minds of other people than believed.

Impostor syndrome doesn’t have to create ongoing anxiety and pain. People experiencing it can unwrap the falsehoods with greater clarity and understanding and to greatly alleviate it and step into stronger confidence and their best selves.

When this happens, their work can flow and flourish with less heaviness and more satisfaction.