Imposter syndrome seems to impact everyone at some point in their career. Michelle Obama started publicly talking about her experience with imposter syndrome as early as 2018, and many other celebrities have joined the conversation since then. But the idea isn’t new—the first research on imposter syndrome was published over 40 years ago in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes. Recent discussions about imposter syndrome have been focused on professional and career success, such as whether or not it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy that holds you back from achieving your true potential.
We spoke with Dr. Lisa Orbé-Austin about the renewed interest in this phenomenon, which isn’t a diagnostic condition, but an adaptive response that differs from person to person. For example, women tend to be counterphobic, moving toward their fears and getting preoccupied with them. On the other hand, men with impostor syndrome tend only to take on positions they know they will succeed in, where they won’t be triggered, so they get fewer opportunities to take risks and grow than their counterparts. Research has been inconclusive about which gender experiences imposter syndrome more, and there seems to be no difference between generational groups or socioeconomic status.
Although there’s no “cure” for imposter syndrome, individuals can control its effects on their own lives by educating themselves and learning to recognize their symptoms. Keep reading to find out how to tell if you are suffering from a bout of imposter syndrome, how it might be affecting your job search and career, and what you can do to overcome it.
Key Signs Of Imposter Syndrome
According to Dr. Orbé-Austin, imposter syndrome is when you are highly skilled and have accomplishments, credentials, and experience but fail to internalize those experiences. The result is feeling constantly afraid that you might be found out as a fraud or incompetent. Your response to performance anxiety and perfectionism can affect your work performance: most people with impostor syndrome either procrastinate or over-perform, self-sabotaging or working in short spurts of overworking to cover up the perceived fraudulence. Either way, obsessing over your performance or dealing with the cycle of procrastination is exhausting, and you end up with fewer opportunities for real quality assurance.
While imposter syndrome may be triggered by things like social media and experiences at work, research has shown that it’s actually caused by our earliest experiences in life. The roles you play in your family may make you more likely to develop this phenomenon.
- The intelligent one: is seen as naturally gifted, naturally skilled. Everything had to come easy, so when things didn’t come easy for you, it seemed like proof that you weren’t as smart as everyone thought.
- The hardworking one: wasn’t seen as naturally gifted and experienced success due to grinding and working hard. You never saw that you had natural gifts, talents, and skills but perceived that you’d always have to work harder than others.
- The survivor: one who received little to no affirmation of being gifted or hardworking from parents. The things you accomplished and obtained were about surviving, getting out, or getting away from something.
- The fourth type: This one isn’t as much about the child’s role, but co-dependent or narcissistic parental figures and issues with anger and conflict management issues in the family are also correlated with imposter syndrome.
Sounding familiar? The Imposter Phenomenon Scale is a reliable assessment you can take online to determine if what you’re feeling is imposter syndrome.
How Imposter Syndrome May Be Impacting Your Job Search
People with imposter syndrome tend to have less understanding of what’s out there in the job market and the roles they are qualified to do. They don’t value their transferable skills as much, and they have a hard time crafting a narrative to make a case for how they can bring those transferable skills to a related position. They become preoccupied with the skills they don’t have rather than leveraging the ones they do.
There is some difference between men and women regarding the positions they feel confident enough to apply for: men will apply for positions when they meet at least 60% of the qualifications, but most women won’t apply for a job unless they are 100% qualified. In reality, meeting every qualification often means a candidate is overqualified. Having 60% of the desired skills and experience is closer to what hiring managers expect.
Suffering from impostor syndrome may result in some setbacks on the job after you’re hired: you may have trouble internalizing your accomplishments and therefore underestimate your value to an organization or where you fit on a particular team. We often see this with professionals who are anxious that their education might not match up to others in their field who went to more prestigious schools. One of the most significant disadvantages is lower pay from a lack of salary negotiation. Even though it may be an uncomfortable conversation, broaching the top doesn’t mean you will lose the job offer. Salary negotiation is a very ordinary and necessary part of the process, and the important thing is to make sure you’re being treated fairly and following appropriate rules of engagement.
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
Recovering from imposter syndrome isn’t a matter of one big “aha” moment or a change of perspective, and it doesn’t go away as we age. It’s about “turning down the volume” of the voices, making you second-guess yourself. It’s also essential to determine what’s appropriate for your level of growth in your field and what will take more experience and development. You can learn to recognize the effects of imposter syndrome on your life and develop skills that minimize its influence. You have the power to choose a different behavior when you feel symptoms rise.
Try these tips to stop imposter syndrome in its tracks:
- Take the Imposter Phenomenon Scale assessment and identify thoughts, feelings, and behaviors imposter syndrome may be causing you.
- Spend time thinking about the options you have in your career or in life, and remind yourself often that you can make choices.
- If you want to make a significant change, dedicate time to sitting with your feelings, figuring out what’s best for you, and making a strategic plan. Give yourself time to make progress.
- Talk about your symptoms with mentors and coworkers and ask for accountability, especially if your boss’s management style is triggering for you.
- Take the journey with a group of others in an Overcoming Imposter Syndrome Masterclass.
- Get a coach, especially if there are financial considerations involved.
Based on her experience helping individuals with imposter syndrome, Dr. Orbé-Austin emphasizes that working with others in a group setting to recognize imposter syndrome, share experiences and keep each other accountable is the most effective way to make lasting change. She and her partner Rich Orbé-Austin administered the Imposter Phenomenon Scale to their masterclass participants. The group saw a 30% change over 14 weeks that stayed consistent when tested again three months later.
Watch or listen to our conversation with Dr. Orbé-Austin and read her book, Own Your Greatness: Overcome Impostor Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life.
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