Impostor Syndrome – A Hidden Barrier To Professional Success?

If you’ve ever felt like you don’t deserve a raise or promotion, or find it difficult to break through your plateau, Imposter Syndrome may be contributing to your hesitation.  Have you ever felt like a fraud at work?  Do you find your inner voice is persistently telling you that you’re not good enough?  

If so, there is little chance that you can retain your sanity or receive that promotion you’ve had your eye on. This article will help you identify the problem, how it affects you, the signs and symptoms to be aware of, what could be holding you back in your career, and offer solutions so that you can improve your career and ultimately your life.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Dr. Pauline Rose Clance, defines impostor syndrome as “a collection of experiences characterized by significant and persistent feelings of inadequacy.”

People can be susceptible to feelings of inadequacy which may include:

  • Questioning your identity and self-worth
  • Excessive or chronic self-doubt
  • A tendency to downplay your accomplishments
  • A pattern of procrastinating
  • A tendency to compare yourself unfavourably to others
  • Overvaluing what other people think of you
  • A preoccupation with being perfect

Once negative feelings start to creep in, it can really wreak havoc on a person’s self-esteem.  For example, feeling like you are:

  • undeserving of success
  • the only one experiencing the negative feelings and thoughts
  • perceived as a fraud
  • expected to fail
  • “cheating” the system
  • being found out
  • stressed, anxious or depressed
  • constantly being judged, evaluated, watched, or criticized

Even just entertaining one or two of these thoughts can devalue your strengths and accomplishments which may lead to debilitating anxiety that prevents you from fully engaging in your career progression.  Ultimately, it can cause you to shrink back and limit your success, that you end up playing small in your life.

Signs of Imposter Syndrome

How does Imposter Syndrome manifest?  It’s normal to have self-doubt.  After all, no one is perfect.  Imposter syndrome is a feeling of inadequacy that so many people experience.  These symptoms are similar to depression. You may feel nervous in certain situations and may be unable to take credit when you deserve some.  In severe cases, you may avoid challenging situations altogether. If you struggle with impostor syndrome, you may feel like you don’t belong in the workplace. You question your competence and tend to doubt everything you say.  Do you feel like you’re not good enough? Is that holding you back?

Imposter syndrome usually strikes when you achieve more success than you’d expected. It can happen while you’re starting a new job, or as you’re building up your résumé. You may have been promoted too quickly, or you may be managing a team of people who seem much more experienced than you.

Do any of these signs sound familiar:

  • Feeling like nobody cares about what you say
  • Feeling like you don’t belong
  • Asking colleagues to repeat themselves, or feeling like you’re being over-informed
  • Feeling like you’re being judged
  • Having trouble taking credit for accomplishments
  • Feeling like you’re faking it

The Effects

When you don’t feel as if you deserve your success at work, or in any part of your life, it can affect your physical and mental health.  It’s that feeling of inadequacy that everyone is smarter than you are or that you don’t belong at the new job you have just received.  Anxiety affects your work as well as your productivity. One study, conducted at Boston University, found that people who struggle with impostor syndrome are 3.5 times less likely to feel satisfied with their jobs.

For some people it is that feeling as if you haven’t reached your potential and are constantly searching for validation from your boss or colleagues.  This affects about 90 percent of professionals in high-demand fields, including technology, finance, and academia. It is particularly common among women and people of colour, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Imposter syndrome is a type of anxiety that can undermine your confidence and keep you from doing your best work. It’s highly common among young professionals, and it often gets worse as you rise into leadership positions. It’s estimated that 50 to 70 percent of us will experience impostor syndrome at some point during our careers.  It can hold you back from doing your best. Imposter syndrome is a persistent and pervasive feeling that success is impossible. Although imposter syndrome is learned, it can negatively effect your career.

This feeling of unworthiness, perfectionism, fear of success, and a lack of belief in one’s abilities can be harmful and can prevent you from reaching your full potential. Imposter syndrome manifests in several different ways. Some feel inadequate because they don’t have prestigious degrees or work experience. Others feel they’ve made mistakes in the past. Whereas some fear they’ll never learn or that they’ll never succeed. Could you be feeling you’ll never get that promotion over other well-qualified people? Receiving that all important promotion over tough competition, have you felt intimidated as to why they chose you over everyone else?

I interviewed several clients I have worked with how Imposter Syndrome has impacted their life.  Here’s what they had to say:

“Sometimes I wake up and feel like I’m an idiot,” said Bob. “Sometimes I’m good at something and other times I feel like a fraud.”

“I feel like I have to prove I’m smarter than everyone else,” said Joanne. “Like I have to prove to them that I’m more than capable of doing the job.”

Often, impostor syndrome doesn’t surface until people start achieving success.

“I started having that two years ago, after I was promoted into a Head of Department role,” said Karen. “I felt like people will finally see me and know that I’m way smarter than they think I am.  After I increased my status within the organization, I started to have serious doubts about my capabilities because I was the youngest person to have ever been appointed to the position.  Staff started to question and challenge me on many different levels.  It really knocked my confidence.”

How it may hold you back in your career

Imposter syndrome is a pervasive issue affecting many professionals. Some experts believe the syndrome starts to develop in early childhood, when children feel they don’t belong or can’t measure up to their peers. Others think the syndrome develops later in the career after a person fails a high-stakes test, interviews for a job, or receives a promotion. It typically involves a sense of inadequacy or a fear of being exposed as a fraud.

Most professionals experience imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. But it causes more distress in people who are looked upon as more than capable of doing the job, yet the individual’s opinion of their own capabilities does not match.

Imposter syndrome can make it difficult to advance in your career. Many people who feel inferior about their talents and abilities harbour negative attitudes about their work. This leads them to focus on unimportant tasks, to avoid taking on important tasks and assignments, and to procrastinate.

When you’re constantly doubting yourself and your abilities, you may shy away from any opportunities. You might avoid asking for a raise, or you might feel reluctant to speak up in meetings. If you’re feeling insecure, you might worry that you’re making people uncomfortable or that you seem arrogant or insufferable. You may even think people don’t like you. But people aren’t intentionally being mean or dismissive.

Imposter syndrome can make you feel like you’re always playing catch-up, and it’s no wonder. The pressures of learning a new job with little to no training about the job, leading teams, managing projects, and knowing that you could be replaced by someone else at any moment are overwhelming.

According to research, it can also be isolating. A study in the Journal of Counselling and Development found that 40 percent of people who suffered from impostor syndrome felt isolated in the workplace.

How you can overcome impostor syndrome

The good news is Impostor Syndrome is not permanent.  One way of overcoming this is by accepting where you are in your career. While it’s tempting to compare yourself to others, the people around you are all at different stages in their careers. Instead of focusing on the things you don’t have, focus on what you do, and what you have done.

It’s time to take back your power and enthusiasm so you can confidently move forward in your career and ultimately your life.

Your career success depends on your ability to succeed at your job.  However, for many people, success means something different.  For example, some are looking for personal growth; others are looking for status; or that promotion they have had their eye on for a long time.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting these things, but sometimes, what we really want is money.

Most of us focuse on getting that next promotion.  This mindset, however, can be counterproductive. When you rely on your career path for your identity, you sacrifice your personal growth.  Imposter syndrome is a very real issue for many people. It leads to self-doubt, and makes you avoid challenging situations.  If you’re finding yourself in this situation, you’ll need to find a way to overcome it.

To combat these feelings, it’s important to see your accomplishments and your contributions, rather than your shortcomings.  So, if you’re feeling bad about your job, ask yourself “what have I done,” rather than “what haven’t I done.” Also, it’s important to take on challenging assignments.  If you’re constantly doing easy tasks, you’re never going to grow.  Your career is about learning new skills, and that can only happen if you accept new challenges.

Good News!

Imposter syndrome is treatable. If you’re having trouble, try these tactics:

Identify your accomplishments. Write down your past accomplishments, both personal and professional, and think about the ways they contributed to your success.

Week in Review – Take stock. On your last day of the work week, write down at least 3 accomplishments from your past week. Then, first thing at the beginning of your work week review the accomplishments you wrote down last week.  This will give you an instant confidence boost.

Positive Feedback.  Keep a folder for anyone who has given you positive feedback, so when you are starting to doubt yourself, you can look at what others have had to say about you to give you a quick pick up.

Set Mini Goals.  Set yourself a challenge to beat your personal best on a piece of work that you routinely do.

Conduct An Inventory.  On the job description, list every task that is required, then give each task a rating.  Come up with a plan to achieve all the tasks by a certain date. Once these tasks have been mastered, this document forms a good basis for performance review discussions with your manager and any areas you would like to branch into developing.

Change Your Thoughts.  To join the High Achievers Club – think what you do not know as an investigation.  It is your challenge to solve what you do not know. 

Practice.  Practice, practice, practice will stretch you outside your comfort zone and working out that confidence muscle.

Stop comparing yourself to others.  This can be very detrimental to your mental health.  Everyone is on a different journey in their career.  Think of yours as unique to you.

In conclusion, Imposter Syndrome does not have to hold you back from achieving anything in life, especially the career of your dreams.  There are countless high achievers who do not know everything about their work.  Take a leaf out of their book by ditching the feelings of inadequacy and become more curious about developing your skills and accomplishments – your confidence will naturally follow.  Utilize your critical thinking skills, communication skills and collaboration skills to leverage yourself into your new role.

Take the positive steps mentioned above to change the way you feel about yourself to enjoy your career and life again.

Here’s to celebrating your future self!  I believe in you! 💖

Note:  If you liked this post let me know I’d love to hear from you!  email:  Alternatively, you can reach me on Facebook at: peggymcknightcoaching

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