2021 was a monumental hiring year, and as a leader in an outsourced talent acquisition company, we were busy.  As I reflected over the last year I had several realizations. I’m so proud of my team and how they rose to new levels of creativity and problem solving. I’m proud of my fellow leaders who all rallied together to solve at least 100 unsolvable problems a day. I’m excited to say I had my personal best business year achieving both a promotion and strong financial results. 

But, after acknowledging these accomplishments, the next thing I say to myself is: “I was just lucky.”

I so easily recognize the hard-earned accomplishments of my team and company, why is it that I defaulted to luck when it came to my own?

A common phenomenon for women

The essence of imposter syndrome, first used by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s, is when people doubt their abilities and have a persistent fear of being found out as a fraud. Having the gift to mentor many women and a network of successful professional friends, I know I’m not alone. What is startling, however, is my belief that I had overcome this fraud complex. 

As an achiever addicted to success, I like to think that I push myself towards more. When someone pushes themselves, that means they need to try new things. And trying new things means doing things you don’t know how to do, which in turn means learning through failures and successes. I pushed and tried new things and in turn, I think I’m a fraud, an imposter, and it’s just a matter of time until I’m found out.

The implications for business

Imposter syndrome is not something to ignore or just get over, it is a business problem to be addressed through mental health investment and inclusion initiatives. It can be a side effect of the many ways that women — and especially women of color — are told they aren’t qualified enough, smart enough, strong enough or capable enough. It can be a symptom of the lack of diverse leadership and representation through all levels of the business. After all, if you can see it, you can achieve it.

KPMG’s 2020 Women’s Leadership Summit Report provides credence to this reality by reporting on the interviews of 750 high-performing executive women with staggering results. The report reveals that 75% of these women have experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. And 54% of women stated that the more success they achieve, the lonlier their professional lives become. With loneliness often comes mental strain, depression and self-doubt.

This data directly links the impact of imposter syndrome to productivity and financial results. In a Forbes article, Melody Wilding notes, “Burnout, which is the most common consequence of imposter syndrome, costs the economy upwards of $190 billion per year. That’s over $6,000 a second.” Companies clearly have much to lose if they don’t take steps to create a culture that reassures high-achieving women of their capabilities every step of the way. 

Self-doubt is not just a work issue

With our work and personal lives colliding into one post-pandemic life, it’s important to understand that imposter syndrome is not only discovered at work. If feelings of being a fraud happen in one’s personal life, that feeling will become part of the person’s work life as well. 

Imposter syndrome can happen to the former high school track star, now an out-of-shape adult, desperately returning to the pavement in their first couch-to-5K training program. It can happen to the photographer hobbyist who enters a competition with other artists. Imposter syndrome can happen to parents who are managing complex household demands.

Looking at my own fraud spin, parenthood is an imposter syndrome trigger for me, especially after becoming a single mom.

We all wear labels, and one of the labels I cherish most is “working mom.” Now I am adding “single” to my label. I’m definitely more fortunate than many single working moms: I have an amazing network of family and friends who live near me and can support me through the scheduling chaos of work and home life. I also have a job that supports balancing my responsibilities.

But I doubt myself and my abilities because I have no experience, zero, of being a single working mom, while also having a successful job that achieves results year-over-year. I am a fraud — or so my inner monologue tells me. Despite my experience of trying new things and succeeding at them, there are signals all around me that suggest it will be too hard — that make believe that if I do well, it must be luck.

I know that I can’t change all of those signals on my own, so today, I’m focusing on acknowledging and accepting the cause. I’ve always wanted to be a high achieving executive, but I didn’t think it was possible. I never wanted to be a single working mom, but I’m finding a way to balance.

It is OK to admit that you are in a  space where you’ve never been before. You will have failures and you will have successes. That doesn’t make you an imposter. That makes you human.