Ah, Imposter Syndrome. My frenemy and roommate. A debilitating phenomenon that poses a serious threat to our mental health while sucking the morale and productivity out of our workplaces. 

It’s time for an exposé.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome (sometimes called the Imposter Phenomenon) was first identified in 1978 by two lady-boss psychologists named Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in a game-changing study.

It occurs when people are “…unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud” (American Psychological Association). 

Put plainly: It is the unrelenting paranoia that you are not good enough and it is only a matter of time before others realize it. 

Who suffers from it?

Imposter Syndrome affects everyone, but there are certain groups that suffer a disproportionate impact. In their original study, Clance and Imes’ hypothesis was that it was a unique condition for women. Although later disproven, women do in fact suffer from Imposter Syndrome at higher rates. Why? Because women continually combat “stereotypes about competence.” We have taught (and continue to teach) that women are not as cut out for professional success as men. If a woman happens to find herself killing it in the workplace, it must be some fluke. It’s very easy to internalize that mindset. 

The same goes for racial and ethnic minorities. Lack of diversity perpetuates Imposter Syndrome. If you constantly find yourself in a position where no one looks like you, you start to wonder whether or not you belong. 

Lastly, people who are perfectionists also suffer from Imposter Syndrome at higher rates. They tie their sense of worth to accomplishment and set themselves up for failure by setting the bar impossibly high. 

What is its impact?

Imposter Syndrome has serious implications for both individuals and organizations. 

For individuals, it is often tied to anxiety and depression. For organizations, it can inhibit performance for a variety of reasons:

  • Employees can be afraid to ask for help, lest they expose themselves as a fraud
  • Employees may procrastinate on tasks because they fear being unable to complete them to their impossibly high standards 
  • Qualified candidates may not apply for positions because they feel they are unworthy

A note about ego

Whereas people with Imposter Syndrome are unable to accept the role they play in their own success, it is possible to have the opposite problem – thinking that you are God’s gift to the workplace and that you and ONLY you are the reason behind your own success. In psychology, that’s called a delusion of grandeur. 

I point this out because the goal of combatting Imposter Syndrome isn’t to convince people that they are the second coming of Jesus. It is to illustrate to them that a multitude of factors contribute to their success, including their own hard work and talent. 

So what can we do about Imposter Syndrome?

Fortunately, Imposter Syndrome is not a terminal diagnosis. There are things we can do, both as sufferers and as supporters, to keep its debilitating effects at bay. 

For you “imposters” out there:

Observe your thoughts rather than engage in them. The more attention we give our thoughts, the more powerful they become. Whenever a negative thought pops into your head (eg., “I am not smart enough for this”) imagine it is a lily floating down a river. You can notice that it is there, but you don’t jump in and swim after it as it floats away. 

Talk to someone. Not the most revolutionary piece of advice, but it’s tried and true! Talk to a friend, mentor, or someone else you trust about how you are feeling. They can help validate your feelings but also challenge some of the counterproductive thoughts. 

Remember that if you are worried about being an imposter, you probably aren’t. Imposters are people who are deceptive, take advantage of others, and try to reap benefits without putting in work. The fact that you are even concerned about being a fraud means you aren’t. A real fraud wouldn’t care. 

As for managers and teammates:

Create a space at the table for everyone. Remember that stereotypes of competence and a lack of diversity exacerbate Imposter Syndrome in people who hold marginalized identities. Make sure you are creating an environment where everyone can make visible contributions and be celebrated for what they have to offer. 

Offer constructive criticism and be tactful with praise. You know what the worst thing you can do is for someone with Imposter Syndrome? Tell them how great they are all the time. Although piling on complements might seem like a great way to boost morale, if someone doesn’t feel they deserve it, you are really just piling onto their guilt. Offer members of your team constructive feedback so they know you are invested in their growth and give praise in an intentional manner. 

A final word: You are worthy of love and good enough for success. Feel free to share your thoughts and wisdom on Imposter Syndrome in the comments below and, for further reading, check out this article in Time Magazine.