Feeling Like a Fraud at Work–a Word on Impostor Syndrome

adorable pug wrapped in blanket contemplating imposter syndromeAfter several weeks of interviews, a test project, and intense negotiations, *Ami had landed a great job at a tech company. But instead of feeling excited and proud of her accomplishment, she became anxious. “I was worried I wasn’t going to live up to their high hopes and expectations of me. I was terrified that I bit off more than I should have despite being qualified and they would see me a phony” Ami stated. “Since being here, I’ve watched as colleagues have been promoted or have went on to take big roles at other prestigious tech firms while I’ve stayed in my current role after 3 years. I’m still learning, but don’t want to ask for more.”

*Jason had been working non-stop for months on a big project. His boss and team praised his work and his tireless drive during and after the project wrapped. “There was no sense of gratification, or achievement, or anything like that for my accomplishment. Instead, I immediately threw myself into learning a new library and working towards expert-level proficiency in that. It’s always how I’ve been. I’ve never felt a sense of success in anything I do. And yet, I’m the most senior developer here. I regularly speak at conferences, and am seen as an “expert.” I’m not though. I’m just good at working hard.”

If you can relate to Ami or Jason’s scenarios and the feelings they’ve experienced, you’re not alone. In fact, impostor syndrome has been around for quite some time–since 1978 to be exact. It was first identified by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes and documented in their paper which concluded that impostor syndrome was limited to only one sex.

Since the original study, research has shown that impostor syndrome impacts both women and men alike (these findings were acknowledged by Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes). And according to a review article published by the International Journal of Behavioral Science, it is estimated that up to 70% of the total population will experience impostor syndrome at some point in their lives.

*Names changed to protect identities of story contributors


Recognizing Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome is the idea that personal accomplishments are achieved through luck, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking one is more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be. This results in a psychological pattern of doubt and a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud, or undeserving of one’s achievements.

Those who suffer from impostor syndrome may experience the following:

  • Attribute success to external factors, denying their own competence
  • Believe they need to work harder than others
  • Worry they will not live up to expectations of others
  • Fear too much is expected of them
  • Have a low sense of self-confidence
  • Possess a persistent fear of failure
  • Self-sabotage
  • Tend to bury themselves in work
  • Avoid taking on additional responsibilities
  • Feel unsatisfied in their jobs
  • Deny their worth and avoid asking for a raise
  • Overachievers
  • Set unrealistic goals of themselves
  • Procrastinate

Pauline Rose Clance, one half of the pioneering duo who first identified the syndrome, developed the Clance IP Scale to help individuals assess if they have any IP (impostor phenomenon) characteristics and to what extent. It’s a great starting point for determining if imposter syndrome is impacting your life.


Types of Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome expert and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Dr. Valerie Young, has broken the types of impostor syndrome into 5 subgroups:

The Perfectionist

Perfectionists set impossibly high standards and goals for themselves and when they fail to reach them, they experience self-doubt and stress over not measuring up. Perfectionists also tend to be micromanagers or control freaks–figuring that if they want something done right, they have to do it themselves.

The Superwoman/man

Convinced they are phonies amongst “real-deal” colleagues, Superwoman/man types overcompensate for their insecurities by working harder than others–to the point of exhaustion or burnout. These workaholics are addicted to the validation from working, not from the work itself.

The Natural Genius

Natural geniuses judge success based on their abilities as opposed to their efforts–figuring that if they have to work hard at it, they must not be good at it. Similar to the perfectionists, they also set their internal standards bar high. Natural geniuses expect to be able to do something proficiently the first time and tend to avoid challenges that are something they’re not great at.

The Rugged Individualist

Independent and likely to refuse help, rugged individualist types fear that asking for help reveals their phoniness. By not asking for help or assistance these types connect this behavior with proving their worth.

The Expert

Experts fear being exposed as unknowledgeable or inexperienced and feel that they somehow “tricked” their employer into hiring them–regardless of their competency. Experts tend to feel like they never know “enough” to the point of hoarding knowledge not because they need it now, but for a sense of false comfort.


Ways to Cope With Impostor Syndrome

If you see yourself in one or a few of the impostor types listed above or took the Clance IP Scale quiz and discovered that imposter syndrome is likely impacting your life, there are ways to cope. Since a majority of impostor syndrome stems from a lack of self-confidence, it’s hard for those struggling with the syndrome to just “get over it.” That’s where turning to professional help such as a trusted counselor, therapist, mentor, or support group can be a big help in addition to the following:

Keep a brag folder/book

Every time you get positive feedback on your work, place it in a folder that you’ll be able to access during your time at your employer’s and thereafter. Along with the feedback, make sure to keep examples of the work you performed on your own, or you were a part of, along with your specific contributions.

Not only can this information be referred back to from time to time as a way to “boost” your mojo and reflect on all that you’ve done, you’re also building a professional portfolio of your work. You can also ask for recommendations of your work and contributions on LinkedIn, which helps you build for the future by providing testimonies that can be easily referenced.

Take action

Procrastination and thinking without acting is a common thread for many impostor syndrome sufferers. The single best remedy is to act before you feel “fully ready” to do so. Overthinking can cause a continual cycle of delay stemming from over-preparation. To break that cycle, act.

By doing so, you’ll begin to see yourself as someone who is continually improving and moving forward instead of a stationary poser stuck in a vicious anxiety-inducing cycle. Fact is, nobody is ever really ready for anything. Things happen. It’s like the saying goes: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Getting punched (figuratively speaking) is part of life–you’ve just got to learn how to roll with them.

Fail & fail some more

You’re human. You will make mistakes. You will screw-up. You will fail at some things because it is humanly impossible to ace everything thrown at you. Been fired? Good. Worked on a project for hours/weeks/months only to have it flop? Great. Bombed a big pitch or had a venture tank? Awesome.

Failure moves you closer to success. Rather than beating yourself up over a failure, learn from it and try again. Odds are you will stumble and fall many times over the course of your professional and personal life. The more it happens, the easier it gets to bounce back. If you’re failing you’re trying and doing–which equals growing.

Allow yourself to be vulnerable

Vulnerability opens us up to the opportunity to connect more meaningfully with others. The trade off however, is the possibility of being hurt in doing so. Vulnerability doesn’t have to mean sharing your deepest darkest secrets with just anyone. Being vulnerable can mean asking for help when you’re not sure or need an extra set of hands.

You’ll find that most people regardless of their seniority or pay grade, are willing to help by advising, showing how, or just plain pitching in. The trade-off from this exchange is that you deepen a bond and open yourself up as someone who has the foresight to know when to ask for guidance or assistance. In addition, you also provide an opening for you to be able to help them in return.


Coping with impostor syndrome and flourishing professionally and personally is possible with consistent small actions that build upon each other–working towards lasting change in your confidence. From celebrities to CEO’s, professionals at all levels of their career, to students, everyone at some point of their lives will experience impostor phenomena. The first step towards stepping out from behind the mask of phoniness is to recognize that what you are feeling and experiencing is very real and that you are not alone.

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References

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice15(3), 241–248. Retrieved from http://www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/ip_high_achieving_women.pdf

Dingman, Debbara. (1988). The impostor phenomenon and social mobility: You can’t go home again.. Dissertation Abstracts International. 49. 2375. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232563809_The_impostor_phenomenon_and_social_mobility_You_can’t_go_home_again

Sakulku, J. “The Impostor Phenomenon”. The Journal of Behavioral Science, Vol. 6, no. 1, 1, pp. 75-97, doi:10.14456/ijbs.2011.6. Retrieved from https://www.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/IJBS/article/view/521

Impostor syndrome: Dr. Valerie Young. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://impostorsyndrome.com

Young, Valerie. (2011) “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.” New York, NY. Crown Publishers

Citations

Leonard, J. (2018, May 4). “How to handle impostor syndrome.” Medical News Today. Retrieved from
https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321730.php.