Women at Work: Imposter syndrome eventually afflicts most of us

August 19, 2018

Have you ever been the recipient of praise at your job? Generally one doesn’t get praise or recognition or a pat on the back at work unless truly warranted.

Do you humbly accept the praise while your head is telling you, “Yes, you did that, you did a good job, and you deserve the recognition”? Or, occasionally, does a less-than-pleasant thought enter your mind as you awkwardly smile? Does that thought sound something like this: “I just got lucky on this accomplishment; I really didn’t do that great of a job, and do I really deserve what is being said?”

Those negative thoughts saying you got lucky, and you really are closer to a failure than not, are part of a phenomenon called the “Impostor Syndrome.” Part of this syndrome also includes feeling like a fraud and not deserving of your job. It is estimated that a whopping 70 percent of people experience these impostor feelings at some point in their lives.

Discovered in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, they theorized that women were uniquely affected by impostor syndrome. It was only a matter of time, however, before they acknowledged the syndrome was not limited to women. Today, impostor syndrome applies to anyone “who isn’t able to internalize and own their successes.”

Author Valerie Young, who wrote “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women,” found patterns in people who experience impostor feelings:

“Perfectionists” set extremely high expectations for themselves, and even if they meet 99 percent of their goals, they’re going to feel like failures. Any small mistake will make them question their own competence.

“Experts” feel the need to know every piece of information before they start a project and constantly look for new certifications or trainings to improve their skills. They won’t apply for a job if they don’t meet all the criteria in the posting, and they might be hesitant to ask a question in class or speak up in a meeting at work because they’re afraid of looking stupid if they don’t already know the answer.

When the “natural genius” has to struggle or work hard to accomplish something, he or she thinks this means they aren’t good enough. They are used to skills coming easily, and when they have to put in effort, their brain tells them that’s proof they’re an impostor.

“Soloists” feel they have to accomplish tasks on their own, and if they need to ask for help, they think that means they are a failure or a fraud.

“Supermen” or “superwomen” push themselves to work harder than those around them to prove that they’re not impostors. They feel the need to succeed in all aspects of life — at work, as parents, as partners — and may feel stressed when they are not accomplishing something.

Although there is no single answer as to why people experience this syndrome, some experts believe it has something to do with personality traits such as anxiety or neuroticism. Other experts focus on family or behavioral causes.

If you experience this phenomenon or feel as though you might, one of the first steps in overcoming these feelings is to acknowledge your thoughts and put them in perspective. Rather than engaging the thought going through your head, simply observe it and let go.

The only difference between someone who experiences impostor syndrome and someone who doesn’t is how they respond to challenges. Learning to value constructive criticism, understanding that you’re slowing your team down when you don’t ask for help, or remembering the more you practice a skill the better you will get will all help.

It is normal to experience doubts, but the important part is to not let doubt control your actions.

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