What is Imposter Syndrome and How Can You Combat It?

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome is the belief that you are not good enough for the position you are in professionally regardless of the years of experience, education or successes you have had in the past to prove otherwise. You are also in a state of worry that the world will find out you are not capable and think you are a fraud.

This term was first coined in 1978 by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes who theorized that women were uniquely affected by this. This was during a time when women were coming into their own in the workforce in a male dominated landscape.

Later research would show that this was not limited to women and that men could be affected as well. 

What Are the Characteristics of Imposter Syndrome?

Some of the characteristics of Imposter Syndrome are:

  • Self doubt
  • Self deprecation
  • Self sabotage
  • Overachieving
  • Fear of not meeting expectation personal or assigned
  • Not setting realistic goals
  • Attributing success to outside factors

Why Do People Experience Imposter Syndrome?

This could be a trauma response to family upbringing and anxiety of not feeling good enough. This can be associated with childhood memories of not making good enough grades and achieving or being an older sibling that was depended on by their parents to care for others.

Later these feelings were internalized, and they felt the only way they could be valued or recognized is through their achievements.

This can also be found in different stereotypes and minority groups of people in different environments they are not normally seen in such as STEM groups, leadership roles, or the military. 

What Does Imposter Syndrome Feel Like?

Imposter Syndrome can feel like depression for failing to meet personal expectations. It can cause anxiety at the thought of what-if scenarios of failing and then creating a self fulfilling prophecy that people perceive you as not what you say you are.

It can also feel like exhaustion from constantly seeking outside validation.

Is Imposter Syndrome a Mental Illness?

Imposter Syndrome is not recognized as a mental illness, but many people have episodes of this at least once or more during their life. 

Personal Experience with Imposter Syndrome

In 2008 when the recession hit, I had lost my job of ten years to downsizing. I was told it was because I was the last one hired and so I was the first one out for layoffs. I was also told that because I didn’t have a degree was another deciding factor.

I was fortunate enough that I could go to college full time though because some of my job was shipped to Mexico. So, I was eligible for the No Worker Left Behind Program that covered some of the expenses of school and tuition.

I spent the next ten years on and off attending college. I now have six degrees including an MBA and 82k in student loans.

Fear of not being believed in drove me to work harder than most. My sacrifice caused me to miss out on so much with my family over the years. I was compensating for fear of failure again and not meeting expectations.

Later in 2019, I was asked to cover for our company’s Environmental Health and Safety Specialist while she was off for maternity leave for six months. I had recently graduated with my MBA, and I was trying to pivot into Human Resources as a Generalist and then Manager.

In smaller facilities like ours that staffed under 150 employees and salary staff the Human Resource Manager also had a dual title as the EHS Manager.

This was a big opportunity for me, but it wasn’t directly in my field of study. I immediately felt the pressure to perform and achieve from myself and it created extreme anxiety for me.

I questioned every meeting I gave and whether I was capable of influence and if people believed I was credible. I didn’t want them to think I was a phony. 

I had to look inside myself and realize I prepared for ten years for this opportunity, and I worked very hard and earned it. I was chosen for my knowledge and experience, and they thought I was the right choice for the job. 

Me after giving a risk assessment meeting as an EHS Specialist

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

The best thing to do to start with in combating feelings of Imposter Syndrome is to acknowledge the thoughts and feelings associated with it and address them.

Our brains as a defense will have confirmation bias. Our brains will look for information to confirm our bias and prove it true that we are not right for the job, or we achieved our success by chance.

Instead, we need to reframe these negative thoughts and disprove them through factual information not feelings. Feelings are not facts. Facts can be found through past experiences, education, and skills.

“We have to internalize and own our successes” as psychologist Audrey Ervin puts it. Seek out help and advice from peers that have been through this or share the same position.

If you are still struggling seek out professional help through a counselor or psychologist. Many workplaces also have free Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) that offer free private counseling to their employees. 

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