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How To

Identifying and Disrupting Imposter Syndrome

Laura Depta
October 6, 2022
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Imposter Syndrome is something many of us have experienced throughout our lives – nearly 70 percent, in fact, according to a review in the International Journal of Behavioral Science – both at and outside of work. It often manifests itself as feelings of doubt; individuals believe they are getting lucky or fooling people rather than reaping the rewards of hard work.

The good news is this: we don’t have to accept Imposter Syndrome as inevitable or permanent. There are research-based strategies to help us break this draining, unproductive internal cycle of doubt.

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What is Imposter Syndrome? 

“Imposter syndrome is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud,” explain Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey in their influential 2021 Harvard Business Review article, Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome

People experiencing Imposter Syndrome might fear being exposed as a fraud or continually doubt their value and downplay their achievements. Imposter Syndrome can be a response to change or uncertainty – such as a promotion at work or even joining a new gym – and can be impacted by individual mindset, cultural contexts, and family patterns. 

Tulshyan and Burey continue, “It disproportionately affects high-achieving people, who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments. Many question whether they’re deserving of accolades. Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes developed the concept, originally termed ‘imposter phenomenon,’ in their 1978 founding study, which focused on high-achieving women.”

Imposter Syndrome comes at a high cost. It can prevent us from sharing our ideas or asking questions we want to ask. We might hesitate to try new things for fear of not being perfect or we might develop a tendency to over-prepare.

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Individuals vs. Systemic Culture 

Tulshyan and Burey make the important point that Imposter Syndrome inherently blames the individual for these feelings of inadequacy or fraudulence, while systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases are in fact at the root of how what we call Imposter Syndrome manifests itself, particularly for women and women of color. 

They write, “The answer to overcoming imposter syndrome is not to fix individuals but to create an environment that fosters a variety of leadership styles and in which diverse racial, ethnic, and gender identities are seen as just as professional as the current model, which [associate professor at Babson College Tina] Opie describes as usually ‘Eurocentric, masculine, and heteronormative'.”

And if you are a leader at your company, be sure to check out Tulshyan and Burey’s follow-up article, End Imposter Syndrome in Your Workplace, which is useful in terms of laying out steps companies can take to help reverse the systemic culture that breeds feelings of inadequacy and fraudulence, particularly in underrepresented employees

It is with respect for and acknowledgment of the validity of Tulshyan and Burey’s points that we feel it is important to offer advice to help combat feelings of Imposter Syndrome. 

While it should not be, and is not, the responsibility of the individual to “fix” him-, her-, or themselves, we believe there are several strategies individuals can take to improve their confidence. Or, if you are a manager, there are things you can do to help, not only to affect your broader company culture, but encourage your team members to overcome their feelings of doubt. 

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5 Types of Imposters 

Dr. Valerie Young, renowned expert on Impostor Syndrome and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, identifies five types of imposters: 

  • The Perfectionist: You believe one minor flaw in an otherwise amazing performance (or 99 out of 100) equals total failure.
  • The Expert: You expect yourself to know everything, so even a minor lack of knowledge results in feelings of failure. 
  • The Natural Genius: You measure competence in terms of ease and speed. The fact that you have to struggle to, or even take a few tries to, develop expertise in a subject or a skill equals failure.
  • The Soloist: You feel you should be able to do it all on your own, so asking for help is a sign of failure. 
  • The Superhuman: You feel you should be able to handle it all, to excel in multiple roles at once. Falling short in any role – parent, partner, colleague, friend – evokes shame. 

Which type resonates with you most? More than likely, you find yourself relating to elements of more than one type. Your external situation might also influence which type you relate to most. For instance, folks working at startups are often asked to play many roles, “wear many hats,” or in this context, be a Superhuman.

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Strategies for Disruption 

A big part of Imposter Syndrome is how we see ourselves. To begin disrupting the cycle of doubt, we must actively work to see ourselves differently. It is easier to control actions than emotions, so when we focus on our actions, we can feel our emotions shift. That’s where these strategies come in. 

It is helpful to think in terms of disruption rather than elimination because the goal of eliminating Imposter Syndrome completely may feel too big or insurmountable. Instead, we simply want to disrupt the cycle as soon as possible. Maybe we start with an easier strategy and then work up to some that might be more of a reach. Below are seven strategies we recommend for starting that disruption. 

  1. Reframe your fear as excitement. Instead of approaching a new project or scenario with nervousness, try to embrace it as a challenge or learning opportunity. 
  2. Accept that you might be on a learning curve. See yourself as human. 
  3. Celebrate both effort and outcome. Focus on and feel good about your process.  
  4. Let go of perfectionism. Celebrate wins, big and small. 
  5. Accept praise. Learn to simply say thank you and accept praise without qualifiers. 
  6. Cultivate compassion for yourself. Sometimes we say things to and about ourselves that we wouldn't dream of saying to someone else. Stop speaking negatively about yourself (to yourself and to others) and instead, treat yourself with the same compassion you'd offer others.
  7. Focus on facts rather than interpretation, e.g. "I got a promotion," rather than, "I got a promotion because I was in the right place at the right time."

Here again, one or more of these strategies could be applied to one or more types of Imposter. These are here simply as tools for you to begin to identify those feelings of doubt and put together a unique framework for disruption.

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Laura Depta
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Laura Depta is a Content Creator with Highrise. She specializes in mission-driven editorial work and has written for clients such as SAP, the Chicago Tribune and the Bank of America Chicago Marathon.