Why Imposter Syndrome Will Harm You and Your Career (and How to Solve it)

Have you ever felt like a fraud?

Have you worried that people will “find you out”?

Thought that you don’t deserve your job and the only reason for your success so far is luck, nothing to do with you...?

If so, you’re not alone.

A 2011 research paper concluded that nearly 70% of us experience these feelings at some point in our careers: what has become known as Imposter Syndrome.

  • This can stop us going for promotions and pay rises we entirely deserve, because we don’t feel like we’re good enough.

  • It can stunt our career development: stop us speaking up, leaning in and taking on challenges, because we’re worried if we draw attention to ourselves or fail, we’ll just reveal we’re not good enough.

  • And it can create an enormous burden of stress, overwork and anxiety, threatening our wellbeing even to the point of burnout.

Imposter Syndrome is bad for us, and bad for our careers.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

“The Imposter Phenomenon” was first defined by academics Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in a 1978 paper, particularly focussing on high-achieving women.

As they state:

“Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled everyone who things otherwise.
Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample object evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the imposter belief.”

Why do you get Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome seems to be worst in people with the following risk-factors.

1. Being from a marginalised or minority community

Clance and Imes’ paper was focussed on high-achieving women, and in 1978 they would have been a marginalised and minority community in the workplace.

This is still the case in certain sectors, and women in male-dominated industries (such as tech, engineering or investment banking) are more likely to suffer from Imposter Syndrome.

But this also applies to other minorities, such as those relating to race or sexual orientation.

For example, there have been specific studies on the prevalence of Imposter Syndrome among women academics of colour.

So feeling somehow “different” to the norms around you can certainly trigger Imposter Syndrome.

2. A new career challenge

Imposter Syndrome can commonly arise after someone has been given a new career challenge or opportunity.

Despite getting that promotion or new role on merit, the feelings of Imposer Syndrome kick in and the person becomes convinced that either it was luck, or they’ve somehow managed to pull the wool over the eyes of their employer.

They are then tortured by fear that they’re going to get “found out”.

3. Childhood labelling

There is evidence that equating love with success in childhood can develop into feelings of Imposter Syndrome in later life - for example, a child thinking that they are only loved if they are “good”, or if they get great results in school.

There is also a risk if they are labelled as “clever”, especially in comparison with a sibling (‘you’re the clever one”) - they now have something to live up to and fear not being able to.

4. Depression or anxiety

Those with Imposter Syndrome also often suffer with depression or anxiety (but whether it’s the Imposter Syndrome that leads to the anxiety, or vice versa, isn’t clear to me).

One factor that has been proven not to be wholly true:

despite the focus of their 1978 paper, evidence suggests Imposter Syndrome can be experienced by men as much as women (as acknowledged by Chance and Imes in a later paper).

However, it is very common among women in certain workplaces because of that risk-factor that they are often the “exception” rather than “norm”.

Different types of “Imposter”

Not everyone suffers from the same type of "Imposter Syndrome" - there are different variations of behaviour. Valerie Young has defined five different types:

  • The “Superwoman”: this Imposter overcomes their feelings of inadequacy by working harder and longer than anyone else around them, taking on all challenges and pushing themselves to breaking point to “prove” themselves (to themselves and others).

  • The “Perfectionist”: this Imposter is obsessed with making sure everything is done perfectly - anything less than that is not good enough. This places an enormous burden of stress and pressure on the Perfectionist, and can also lead to paralysis in the constant search for perfection.

  • The “Natural Genius”: this “Imposter” feels as though something is only an achievement if it’s come easily to them. If they have to work at something, that just demonstrates that they’re not worthy.