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Imposter Syndrome - What is it and how can we overcome it

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

Do you feel like you do not deserve the promotion you received? Are you worried that someone will find out that you are not capable or worthy of the responsibilities you have been given? If this sounds familiar, you are probably experiencing imposter syndrome. This is how I felt initially when I started my journey as a life coach. Over time, I have come to realise that this is also one of the most common obstacles that a lot of my clients face. In fact a recent study shows that 75% of female executives who are very successful in their fields have experienced imposter syndrome (Forbes, 2022) at some point in their lives.


I think most of us know what Imposter syndrome is. But if I had to describe it, as the name suggests “Imposter Syndrome” is when you feel like an imposter in an area of your life where you have accomplished a goal or achieved success. But your inner voice, self-doubt and/or self-talk make you feel like you are under qualified or incompetent. So instead of thinking that you have earned the success and deserve it, you dismiss your own hard work and skills and feel like you just got lucky or the success is circumstantial. In other words, it is when people doubt their accomplishments and fear that they may be exposed as a fraud or “imposter”. Moreover, people with imposter syndrome find it difficult to accept positive feedback or praise from other people, which makes it even harder to break out of the belief that they are an imposter.


So, what causes Imposter Syndrome?


Major life Transitions. Imposter syndrome is especially common among people who are starting something new, such as a new position after graduation, returning to work after a break or maternity leave, a change in career path and so on. These transitions are major life events that may cause people to doubt their abilities.


Societal and Family Pressures. The researchers who coined the term imposter syndrome found that children who are harshly judged by their families as less intelligent or compared with others may develop this trait. On the flip side, the researchers also found that imposter syndrome can develop among children with families who perceive their child as highly intelligent and gifted. This may cause the children to feel pressured to please their families, live up to their expectations and develop perfectionist traits. So, in a new situation or in a situation where they do not know everything or their skills are challenged, they start to doubt themselves.


Stereotypes and Prejudice. In most organisations or groups we are all different in terms of identities and backgrounds—whether it is in terms of gender, age, race, or some other parameter. In some such groups where minority identities are not understood or belittled, it can lead them to doubt themselves and feel insecure. Sometimes the minority groups are expected to conform to the overall group's beliefs which may not align with their own values & belief system. Stereotypes & labels given to some individuals in a group can have the same effect and make them feel less intelligent and not as capable as others in the group. Slowly as this narrative is internalised as a belief among some group members, it leads to imposter syndrome. An example of this is a woman in a traditionally male-dominated organisation or someone who is stuck in a career they do not identify with.


Mental Illness. Imposter syndrome can be more common among those who have underlying mental illnesses. For instance, imposter syndrome has been linked to feelings of self-doubt leading to failure. In fact, imposter syndrome is more common among those who are more introverted or have low self-esteem, social anxiety and/or depression. Harsh criticism or ridicule exacerbates feelings of imposter syndrome.


Here are some tips to overcome imposter syndrome:


1. Acknowledge your emotions and remind yourself that feelings do not always represent reality accurately. Sometimes you just need a change in perspective. If it helps, reflect on your feelings by writing them down. Then first try to list down the facts in a situation and your feelings and slowly try to identify why you feel like an imposter.


2. Be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses. We cannot all be good at everything. But each of us is good at something and has the scope to learn and improve in other areas. So be honest about your skills and reflect on your strengths and weaknesses. Remind yourself that it is ok not to know everything if you are willing to learn and work hard. There is no shame in asking for support when you need it.


3. Overcome perfectionism: Watch out for perfectionist habits and try to slowly break them. So instead of always trying to do things perfectly, do them to the best of your ability. Acknowledge yourself for taking action. Learn how to reward yourself from time to time and start taking regular breaks or days off or find ways to relax. Identify what helps to calm you down when you feel anxious. Remember that mistakes are a natural and inevitable part of life.


4. Stop comparing yourself with others: When you compare yourself with others you will always find some fault with yourself. However, we forget that everyone’s story - situation, experiences, personalities, values and beliefs are different. So, it can never be a fair comparison.


5. Challenge your thoughts and be ready to ask yourself some hard questions. Ask yourself if your thoughts about feeling like a fraud are rational. Try and identify some of your core beliefs to see where your insecurities are coming from. Question the need for perfectionism. Acknowledge that you are worthy and capable as you are.


So, the next time you feel like an imposter, pause, and try to apply some of the techniques mentioned above. Remind yourself that even the most successful people have experienced imposter syndrome. So, if you are experiencing imposter syndrome it means you are experiencing some level of success. So, instead of doubting yourself, reward yourself for this. Take a step back and consider why you could feel like an imposter. When the little voice in your head downplays your achievements and self-doubt creeps in, remind yourself of your strengths and capabilities. In a situation where you feel you do not know everything or have made a mistake, ask yourself if you are willing to put in the hard work to get support, learn and grow instead of letting this hold you back. Remember you are capable, competent & worthy irrespective of what you can or cant not do.


I would love to hear from you if you have any questions or comments on this. I can help you work through these techniques and develop a way to manage this pattern of thinking for the long run. You can reach me at coachsanjukta.mitra@gmail.com

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