Ever feel like you’re living the adage ‘fake it till you make it,’ except the faking it part never quite ends? If so, you may be experiencing what’s known as imposter syndrome – a tricky but treatable psychological phenomenon that affects the majority of women throughout their professional lives. Alyssa Jaffer spoke to Dr Marilena Tzafettas, Chartered health psychologist and CBT therapist, to learn more. Read on for our expert tips to deal with and even overcome imposter syndrome...
As an American expat working in London for the past six years, I’ve personally experienced the ugly sides of imposter syndrome. My recent promotion from running my tiny two-person team to now overseeing twelve people and reporting directly to C-level has only intensified the feelings of not being good enough and undeserving of my success. Even writing out these words, I feel a sense of anxiety, vulnerability and ‘un-belonging’ about myself – but I know I’m not the only one.
Despite the feelings of isolation that imposter syndrome can cause, it’s overwhelmingly common for women in particular, to feel self-doubt and inadequacy in their careers. Research from KPMG found that a staggering 75% of executive women across industries contend with imposter syndrome during their professional lives.
So what is imposter syndrome?
According to Marilena: “Imposter syndrome is a phenomenon used to describe those who are unable to take ownership of their success and have a constant fear of being uncovered as a ‘fraud’. They tend to dismiss personal accomplishments as a product of luck or help, rather than personal skill or effort.”
Although not recognised as a mental health disorder, common signs of imposter syndrome include self-doubt, negative self-talk and perfectionism, as well as comparing yourself to others unfavourably, feeling inadequate and disregarding praise, achievements or positive feedback.
“People with imposter syndrome tend to be successful and are usually perceived as such by others, but regardless of positive external feedback and objective successes, they are unable to internalise that experience,” said Marilena.
Why does imposter syndrome affect so many women?
“When the phenomenon ‘imposter syndrome’ was initially used in 1978, it was thought to apply only to women. Although it has since been established that it also affects men, the reality is that women are more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome, especially in corporate environments,” said Marilena.
"Women, individuals of colour, and ethnic minorities are at a greater risk of imposter syndrome, as they are less physically represented in such work environments"
Dr Marilena Tzafettas, Chartered Health Psychologist and CBT Therapist
“The reason is that despite efforts for gender equality in the workplace, women are not equally represented as men, especially in senior management roles where there is a clear imbalance between genders.”
Recent research by Mercer shows that women are underrepresented across the global workforce and make up only 23% of executive leadership. Even more sobering, Black, Latina, Asian and women of colour are exceedingly underrepresented in all but the lowest career level.
In these social conditions, imposter syndrome can develop and exacerbate. “The more one feels like an outlier – for example, by being the only woman in a senior management team – the less they will feel that they belong in that environment, and that is when imposter syndrome arises,” said Marilena. “Women, individuals of colour, and ethnic minorities are at a greater risk of imposter syndrome, as they are less physically represented in such work environments.”
What’s more, unconscious bias can amplify the impact of imposter syndrome on minority groups: “It is difficult for women or people of any colour or ethnic minority to completely overcome social, racist, and sexist stereotypes that have historically existed in everyone’s conscious or subconscious mind,” says Marilena.
“When one has always been told – whether directly or indirectly – that they are less worthy or deserving of success, even if they do start being successful, this goes against an inbuilt narrative they have developed, and imposter syndrome can occur.”
Tips to deal with and overcome imposter syndrome:
If this sounds all too familiar, know that you’re not alone in experiencing self-doubt, feeling like a fraud or attributing your successes to luck. In fact, imposter syndrome is immensely common, “with an estimated 70% of the population expected to experience it on at least one occasion throughout their lives,” according to Marilena.
Fortunately, it’s not permanent and there are methods we can use to challenge our mindsets, change our behaviours and counter the effects of imposter syndrome. Try Marilena’s top tips to cope with and even overcome imposter syndrome.
1. Call it out
When you feel self-doubt or a fear of being caught out as a fraud, call it out for what it is. Naming your fear will help you gain control over it and enable you to talk back to it more constructively, rather than internalising negative thoughts as facts.
2. Practise with the positive
Pay attention to your past and current achievements, and positive feedback – small or big, they all count. Identify and take note of one win each day and reflect back on them when imposter syndrome rears its head. Transform negative self-talk into positive. Writing your thoughts down can help externalise and challenge them from a distance. For example, shift your thinking from: “I didn’t deserve this promotion,” to “the people who hired me obviously believe in me enough to award me this promotion.”
2. Change your focus
Switch your attention to listening to what others are saying, rather than focusing on how you are coming across or how you don’t deserve to be there. Recognise and resist comparing yourself to others. We’re each on our own journey with different privileges, struggles and strengths. Refocus on your own.
3. Turn down the noise
Limit your use of social media. Rather than a reflection of reality, think of social media as a highlight reel. Remind yourself that what you see there is a snapshot of what others want you to see, and not an insight into their own struggles, self-doubt or hard work.
4. Be kind to yourself
Develop self-compassion and practise talking to yourself as you would to a good friend. Reflect on your life values and check in with them regularly to ensure you are leading your life in line with what matters to you, rather than with what others think and do.
If you are struggling to overcome your self-doubts, seek professional help through therapy. Despite the challenges that imposter syndrome poses both personally and professionally, constructive individual practices and a supportive network can help us defeat it. Marilena’s parting reminder is that imposter syndrome tends to affect high achievers: “Chances are, if you stand back and try to objectively assess your performance, you will find you have earned every part of your success."