Breaking Free from Imposter Syndrome

Christine Krause
January 07, 2021

Tom Hanks is one of Hollywood’s most successful actors and has collected many accolades, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Pop icon Lady Gaga is considered one of the best-selling music artists and has accumulated scores of awards that prove how talented she is. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and author of two best-selling books, is the epitome of career success. Yet, despite all of their vast and impressive achievements, deep down, Tom, Lady Gaga, and Sheryl share similar worries and feel the same pressures that we all do. From doubting their talent and struggling to build self-confidence in their personal and professional lives, they have suffered from imposter syndrome.

According to Psychology Today, imposter syndrome is a psychological term referring to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.

In other words, people suffering from imposter syndrome are convinced they don’t deserve the success they have. They may attribute their success to luck or good timing or simply dismiss it by believing other people view them as more talented and competent than they actually are.

Impostor Syndrome can stifle the potential for growth by preventing people from pursuing new opportunities at work and in their personal lives. Has there ever been a time when you got the promotion at work you have been working hard for but instead of relishing in your success, your inner narrative is telling you they must not have a good number of quality candidates, so they settled for you? Or, you are sitting in a big meeting convinced that at any minute, your boss will come into the room, tap you on the shoulder, and announce to everyone that you are not really qualified for your job. These are two examples of how impostor syndrome can creep into your psyche and lead you down the rabbit hole of self-doubt and anxiety.

Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes first coined the term impostor syndrome in the late 1970s. In a study of 150 highly-accomplished women, they noticed that the women frequently confessed to feeling unintelligent and unworthy of their success, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

There is the misconception that women suffer from impostor syndrome more often than men. This line of thinking may stem from the disproportionately low number of women in leadership roles. In reality, studies have found men and women in roughly equal numbers experience imposter syndrome.

Psychology Today points out that the term impostor syndrome is a misnomer as it’s not a syndrome in the clinical sense – there is no disorder, no diagnosis, and no cure. Impostor syndrome encapsulates more than someone experiencing feelings of insecurity and dwelling on the negative. A key element is a fear that someone significant will discover they are intellectually inferior. These feelings can have a noxious effect on someone, which can be debilitating. The all-consuming feelings of self-doubt and the inability to savor achievements can lead to full-fledged depression.

Since almost everyone experiences Impostor Syndrome at some point in their lives, it’s important to examine its origins. According to Frederik Anseel, a professor of organizational behavior at Ghent University in Belgium, personality seems to be a major component. Anseel and colleagues have found that people who doubt their abilities is the most important predictor of impostor syndrome. Other personality traits of people who are most susceptible to impostor syndrome are those who hold themselves to much higher standards and never feel a sense of accomplishment and those who experience a high level of anxiety, worry, and insecurity.

There’s no sure-fire treatment or intervention that can magically eliminate Impostor Syndrome, but overcoming it involves changing your mindset about your abilities. Since impostors feel like they don’t belong, acknowledging your achievements and expertise is key. Focusing on your accomplishments instead of comparing yourself to others, sharing your feelings with a loved one, and seeking out a mentor who has chartered a similar path to yours are some concrete steps you can take to combat impostor syndrome. This is easier said than done, but any way you can break this cycle will allow you to continue to grow and thrive.

About Christine:
Christine Krause is Chicago-based professional in the communications industry who has a passion for drafting and delivering factual and compelling messages that educate diverse audiences. She is an experienced communicator whose work helped to reduce municipality operating costs up to 60% and provided information covering a multitude of topics to over one million people. As a versatile and creative individual with a strong penchant for learning and an excellent command of the English language, she likes to help organizations provide resources for their customers, members, and stakeholders, supporting their mission through education and communication.