Imposter Syndrome

What is Imposter Syndrome?

In a 1978 study, two psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes identified imposter phenomenon.(1)  The study focused on 150 high-achieving women, and the authors cite family dynamics and societal role stereotyping as contributing significantly to the development of the phenomenon. In the study, they found the women would say a mistake was made in the selection process or their abilities were overestimated, or they didn’t have enough qualifications for the role they were in.
As a woman in engineering, with the added bonus of being raised in an environment focused on intellectual achievement above all else, I felt like an imposter for a long time. The question is, does this only affect women?

Who Does Imposter Syndrome Affect?

 I was surprised when a man brought it up during a discussion during a workshop I was leading. In the engineering industry, I had been assuming that only people who identify as women were affected since there are so few of us and the feeling of having to prove ourselves follows us through college into our careers. Clearly, I was wrong. And, when it comes to people who identify as LGBTQIA or who are BIPOC, it’s necessary to look at whether the work environment is inclusive. Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey point out that the impact of systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases was not studied in 1978 since the study only focused on white women.(2)
So, what is Imposter Syndrome? Is it completely internal, something we can “get over” through self-help, therapy, or coaching? Or is the environment set up to make you feel like you don’t belong? Were you shut down in a meeting, shut out of a project team, or ignored in a meeting because of your gender identity or race?
We can’t tie it up with a neat little bow and put ourselves in little boxes. It’s all of the above, and it’s messy. Feeling like an imposter keeps us hunting for external validation. When that validation comes, we immediately question it. Then, we land in another situation where the feeling is reinforced through actions by others.
While we may not be able to control the environment at work, we can influence it through our actions. Doing the internal work to quiet the inner critic and doing the external work to stand up and say, “this isn’t right” is what will help change the landscape.

What To Do?

I get it; sometimes, we need to work on the internal part before we dare to start speaking out. This isn’t a call for everyone to start going to their bosses saying, “Hey, this environment is making me feel like an imposter.” While the environment may contribute to this feeling, always take care of yourself first. One of the things I often see with my clients who are burned out and frustrated is that identifying where they can put practices into place to help them manage the burnout is essential. Sometimes, feeling like a fraud or an imposter is the first hurdle to clear. That feeling often comes out in statements like, “I don’t know if I’m that great of a …” when the person has had positive performance reviews throughout their career. Take small steps to recognize that you are not only good enough but a badass in your own right, and you’ll soon start feeling grounded and steady in your expertise.
Here are some examples to help you take action today:
  • Notice when you get the “not good enough” thoughts and stop. Inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4, exhale for 4 and hold for 4. This is box breathing and it signals your nervous system to calm down. It will also help you become more present rather than falling down a spiral of thoughts.
  • Notice when you get the “not good enough” thoughts and stop. Rub your index finger and thumb together and focus on how it feels, focusing on the sensations. This helps you to become present and interrupts the thought spiral.(3)
  • When you notice someone is presenting an idea that’s being ignored, encourage others to listen, ask the person to repeat themselves or repeat what they’re saying and give them credit.
  • Commit to being open-minded in meetings so everyone’s ideas are heard.
  • Make a commitment to be inclusive of the people you work with.

What’s Next?

(1) Clance, Pauline Rose and Imes, Suzanne, The Imposter Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, Vol. 15 #3, Fall 1978 https://www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/ip_high_achieving_women.pdf
(2) Tulshyan, Ruchika and Burey, Jodi-Ann, Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome, Harvard Business Review, February 11, 2021. https://hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome
(3) Charmaine, Shirzad, Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential and How You Can Achieve Yours, Austin, TX, Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2012.


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