Mental Health Week: Facing up to Imposter Syndrome

By Supriya Dev-Purkaystha Commercial Director at ForwardPMX

Do you sometimes find yourself in a room full of people, presenting your ideas, or giving your opinion on a matter you know you are qualified to talk about and think………

“They think I’m a fraud.”

“I don’t think I’m qualified enough”

“Does anyone even want to hear what I have to say?”

“I should say something, but I’m not sure.”

If these thoughts sound familiar to you, welcome to the imposter syndrome Club!

Imposter syndrome is a term that many people can relate to, in fact a survey in 2018 found that  62% of people in the UK have said that they are dealing with imposter syndrome

What is Imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome refers to “a pattern of behaviour where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.” It was identified in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. They wrote an article called “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,”  in which they explored factors which contribute to imposter feelings as well as therapeutic approaches.

Following Clance et al’s article, there have been numerous studies into the causes and effects of imposter syndrome, more recent studies have found that imposter syndrome can exist alongside psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem and can impact career development in different ways at different stages. It is therefore important to address these feelings and find techniques to overcome them to ensure individuals impacted by these feelings can realise their full potential.

I have personal experience with imposter syndrome, back when it wasn’t a term which was widely known, certainly not within my own circle. I’m quite a confident individual, who is able to rationalise most things, but I was finding it difficult to make sense of the feelings I was experiencing, more importantly, I thought I  was very much alone in these feelings.

All that changed when someone I regard as a mentor mentioned said that she suffered from imposter syndrome. The confidence with which she talked about it was amazing, removing any stigma that might have been attached.

That was my introduction to the term, and I was fortunate enough to have learnt about it in the most liberating way. I wasn’t ill, it wasn’t just me, these were real feelings and others felt them too. Suddenly, I felt better because I now understood that what I was going through was quite common and it had a name. But more crucially, I discovered that in order for me to cope, I needed to deal with my negative feelings and build a support network.

Personally, imposter syndrome symptoms impact me when I am at my most vulnerable. I feel these emotions in situations when I feel I am being judged, regardless of whether or not that is the case.

It’s not until after the moment when I try to analyse what happened, that I realize I am reacting to the expectations and demands I place on myself. When I’m not in the moment, I can perceive my lack of confidence which lead to my hesitation and often means I am not standing my ground, expressing my opinion or simply speaking up.

I haven’t always felt like an imposter. Throughout school and university, I was a high-achieving individual and a perfectionist. I still am, but back then I also had a solid support network, one which is still there, but I didn’t access very often. One of the best things I have done since is taken the time to reach out to old friends and built new connections with like-minded individuals, and I’ve found that not only do I have a great support system to draw on for myself, but I am also able to support them too.

What are the triggers of imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome heightens the need for affirmation, leading us to constantly seek approval. When we don’t receive it, self-doubt and feelings of low self-worth grow stronger.

Imposter syndrome is not limited to any one career stage. People who are mid-career can experience imposter syndrome as they move through different stages of their career and recent graduates—especially when they are the first generation to have been to university—also deal with it.  Additionally, women and minorities disproportionately experience imposter syndrome.

A 2018 survey of 3,000 people in the UK found that 62% of respondents identified themselves as dealing with imposter syndrome. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, 66% of women versus 56% of men had dealt with crippling self-doubt and dread in the 12 months preceding the survey.

It is imperative that individuals understand what their triggers for imposter feelings are as well as how to overcome them. And just as important is that we all support those around us and help cultivate more positive feelings. It’s not important to identify who is and isn’t suffering but to treat those around us with the same kindness that we would expect for ourselves.

How can we banish imposter feelings?

There are a number of things that we can do to support ourselves as well as help others to understand how they can support us. Friends, managers and colleagues can also support those who are dealing with these feelings. Below are some steps that can help whether you are coping with imposter syndrome or supporting someone with these feelings.

Acknowledge your feelings:

This is probably the most important step for me. It is important for us to acknowledge that the feelings are real, albeit not always justified, and to pinpoint the circumstances that they arise in.

Learn to accept praise:

For some people it is really hard to accept praise; it can seem forced or difficult to accept at the best of time. If you are finding it hard to accept praise, talk it through, ask what it was that prompted the praise, but more importantly, believe it.

Create a support system:

It is difficult to know who you can trust when you second-guess what people’s opinion of you might be. Support can come from an old friend, a peer, a line manager, or your partner. Accessing that support involves discussing our feelings and needs—this takes trust. One of the challenges of imposter syndrome is the feeling of being judged, so if you aren’t able to talk to someone you know, try someone you don’t. The National Advertising Benevolent Society (NABS) offers confidential services for the advertising and media industry.

And for those of us who manage or supervise junior colleagues, informing ourselves about imposter syndrome is a great first step to supporting the people we work with.

Give positive feedback:

Praise is a difficult one, as it is often assumed that the feedback is not needed when an individual is highly skilled and appears to be flourishing. Don’t assume that is the case—it’s important to give praise whole-heartedly and to back it up with specifics so that it is evident that you really mean it.

Provide support:

A 2016 study into work-family conflict found a positive correlation between imposter syndrome and self-reported conflict in managing work/life balance. However, in organisations perceived to be more supportive by their employees, this correlation was not as pronounced. This points to the importance for leadership at all levels to contribute towards developing a supportive environment.

Don’t expect perfection:

Remember that no-one is perfect, and therefore expectations of perfection from others or yourself places an unfair burden and can only result in someone falling short. Be realistic about your expectations, and take into consideration any factors that might affect achievements.

Communicate realistic expectations clearly:

We can make it easier for everyone if we clearly communicate what we expect from ourselves and others. Understand what you are asking others to do in relationship to their job descriptions, workloads, and capacities.

Self-reflection is an important tool in identifying, addressing, and overcoming internal and external challenges. I have found that taking the time to acknowledge my feelings and accessing my support network has strengthened my ability to deal with imposter syndrome. Furthermore, realising that most of us deal with it at some point or other has made me more empathetic and supportive of my peers, colleagues and advisees.

How do you deal with imposter syndrome? And how do you support your friends, co-workers and colleagues who may be suffering silently?

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