The truth about imposter syndrome

Caroline Whaley discusses why we feel like imposters in the workplace and how being true to yourself is the key to overcoming it.

Reading time: 5m 30s.

We’ve all been there. We all know how it feels. Those moments of self-doubt at work. You ask yourself, Do I really know what I’m doing? We’re all human, and the modern workplace with growing demands and fewer resources are ripe breeding grounds for these worries.

But for some this goes over the edge, every day spells dread and they enter the corrosive ground of the imposter. They control, they bluster, they procrastinate and refuse to believe they’re worthy – anything to protect themselves from their perceived imminent undoing. 

About 70% of people experience imposter syndrome, suggesting nearly three quarters of any given workforce are constantly questioning themselves and wondering if they can really do the job they’re there for.

But is imposter syndrome really worth the air time we give it? Are we fuelling it? Does refusing to recognise your worries and shortcomings make you an outlier nowadays, or even worse – a narcissist immune to the terror of imposter syndrome?

Does refusing to recognise your worries and shortcomings make you an outlier nowadays?

Imposter syndrome is an issue, a well-documented one too, but it can be managed and even used to your advantage. It’s just a matter of equipping yourself with the mind-set and tools to work with your gremlins and putting that particular gremlin into perspective. Imposter syndrome shouldn’t define you, neither should its presence or lack thereof define your idea of success.  

What is imposter syndrome?

Let’s take a moment to consider what this phenomenon is and why it’s getting so much attention at the moment. After all, it’s nothing new – and any conference on women in leadership isn’t the same without a talk dedicated to it.

The term was first coined in a 1978 paper by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who noticed that successful women sometimes expressed fears that their achievements were down to luck, this in turn created a whole range of negative workplace behaviour including self-doubt and a need for control.

Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience these feelings persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.

Take Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. In her book, Lean In she admits: “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. One day soon, the jig would be up.”

At the time, and to this day, Sheryl was the COO of Facebook, educated at Harvard University and ranked as one of the most powerful women in business.


Another example is Michelle Obama, who once said, “It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously. What do I know”? This is someone who is widely considered as one of the most inspirational women of modern times.

An adored First Lady and record breaking author, yet she still admits to feeling like a fraud. If even these highly thought of women don’t believe in themselves, what chance do we mere mortal employees stand – and does it set an example that real success comes with a good dose of imposter syndrome?

How does imposter syndrome affect employees?

The problem with imposter syndrome is that it results in a vicious cycle, particularly in a work environment. You can be so hung up on the feeling that you’re not good enough to deliver a project, that you delay submitting that piece of work.

Or fear your ideas won’t be as good as anyone else’s, so hold back on sharing your thoughts in case you’re labelled inept. By allowing these fears to manifest in this way, you’re simply fuelling the idea that you’re not good enough.

This can further result in people holding back at a point when they should be striving for progression in their careers. They see a role that they aspire to be in, but convince themselves that they wouldn’t be any good, or remind themselves of the aspects that they’re maybe not so gifted at and conclude that the role is out of their reach.

Experience tells us, this tends to affect women more than men. Men often have the attitude of asking for these roles, then worrying about their anxieties once in position. Women on the other-hand think “little old me, doing that big job? Not possible,” and don’t even go for them.  

Why is imposter syndrome so prevalent?

There are multiple reasons imposter syndrome is coming into the limelight despite being around for decades. The first is down to the persisting, yet anachronistic attitude, that a great leader is an autocrat.

Many people can’t let go of the image of a boss or leader that is etched into their minds – a middle-aged man bellowing orders across the office. Because we don’t fit this mould of what we believe a leader should be, we end up seeing ourselves as an imposter.

Imposter syndrome seems to come up over and over again – at some point this has be to brought into question too. It’s almost like if you don’t feel it then you must be wrong and you’re perhaps a victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Often cited as the opposite of imposter syndrome, where one misjudges their cognitive abilities as wildly superior. Being the imposter sounds like the more noble option.

How to live with it

The first step is to recognise that these feelings are just ‘gremlins’. They’re little voices in your head telling you that you can’t do something. But, importantly, they shouldn’t define you. You will never get rid of your gremlins. The key is to change the relationship you have with them.

Become intensely aware of them and learn everything you can about them. Learn how to quieten them when you don’t need them and build coping mechanisms to overcome them. Even a gremlin as insidious as the imposter can be a tool to help you grow, become more self-aware and progress further.

The key to accepting your gremlins and using them to your advantage is allowing people to see your whole messy self. Be completely true to yourself, It’s difficult to believe that not everyone has it all together, because everyone is acting like they do.

But if we all opened up about our gremlins, our honest thoughts and feelings, we’d be much more inclined to believe that, actually, deep down, we’re all fighting similar struggles. And don’t get hung up on imposter syndrome.

If you don’t experience it, that doesn’t mean you should start worrying you somehow should. It probably means you feel comfortable in your expertise and that’s what we should all aspire to. In any case, there might be another gremlin to get to know.


About the author

Caroline Whaley is co-founder of Shine for Women



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