Overcoming that niggling self-doubt
You’ve just landed a big promotion, won a lucrative contract with a new client or signed off on a major deal. You should be feeling proud of your achievements, but instead you are plagued by nagging self-doubt. An irritating little voice in your head asks whether you are really qualified for your new job or says it’s a miracle that you someone like you managed to get that deal over the line.
This feeling of being a fraud is something that experts have been exploring for decades.
Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the phrase “imposter phenomenon” in a 1978 paper that explored an internal sense of “intellectual phoniness” among high-achieving women. The paper considered how, despite numerous academic and professional accomplishments, some women feel like they just aren’t good enough.
Four decades later, the idea of imposter syndrome is still something that women – and men – are battling.
With the opening line of her Ted Talk on the topic, Dr Valerie Young, the author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of it, sums it up well.
“Have you ever had that ‘I’m in over my head and they’re going to find me out’ feeling?” she asks the audience. “This tendency to discount or diminish obvious evidence of our abilities is called the imposter syndrome.”
In her 2013 book Lean In, Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg writes about her own experiences of feeling like an imposter. “Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself. Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself – or even excelled – I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again,” she says.
It’s good to talk
According to Young, talking about “imposter feelings” is a good first step towards overcoming them. However, she believes that people also need to reframe the conversation in their head. “To stop feeling like an imposter, you have to stop thinking like one,” she says. “And over time you begin to believe the new thoughts.”
People struggling with the self-doubt that’s characteristic of imposter syndrome can find that their fears limit their career progress, explains Dr Janine Bosak, an associate professor of organisational psychology at Dublin City University (DCU). “Their fears prevent them from aiming as high as their potential,” she adds.
But people can take steps to overcome that feeling of being a fraud.
Change your perspective
“First, shift your own perspective,” Bosak recommends. “Rather than thinking that you are the only one who’s experiencing these feelings, realise that there are others out there who feel the exact same way.”
Next, Bosak suggests adopting “a learning rather than a performance mindset”.
“A learning mindset invites you to take risks with regards to your career and to see mistakes as an important and inevitable part of your learning process,” she says.
Help is at hand
“Finally, get outside help and avail of coaching and mentoring to help put things into perspective, to learn to understand and change yourself,” she advises. “Changing your attributional style, from attributing success to ability-related rather than external factors, will boost your self-efficacy beliefs.”
Bosak believes that companies can take steps to help their employees “strive in the workplace and combat imposter feelings”, with HR teams, managers and company culture all having a role to play.
It’s important that companies create an environment where people “are not at risk by revealing concerns of professional legitimacy and asking for help”, Bosak explains.
“Interventions such as coaching, mentoring and career counselling help ‘imposters’ to develop a solution-focused, active coping style to better deal with their feelings, normalise their experience and realise their full career potential,” she concludes.