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impostor syndrome
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What Causes Impostor Syndrome and How to Defeat It

Impostor syndrome is often experienced by people who are achievers but somehow have this continuous feeling of self-doubt. They think they’re not that intelligent when they compare themselves to others. And have difficulties to own their success and feel successful. Here’s how Wikipedia defines impostor syndrome:

“…a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’. Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they really are.”

We often hear or read about the fact that the impostor syndrome is experienced primarily by women. But recently I learned otherwise. I attended a workshop which was facilitated by Carole Perez, an experienced professional coach. While talking about the different challenges we each face when comes time to develop our network, came a discussion about ‘impostorism’. Very interestingly, Perez informed us that contrary to what most people think, men experience the impostor syndrome just as often as women.

This article from Business Insider confirms the same and provides a plausible explanation as to why this comes out as a surprise. Men aren’t as comfortable talking about their fear of being discovered as a fraud and the fact that they experience self-doubt. Admitting this would deviate them from the strong-assertive stereotype that exists about men. So they prefer to hide their fears. So we think more women experience it simply because they are more vocal about the subject.

Impostor Syndrome Versus Having A Lack Of Confidence

It seems nowadays that the expression impostor syndrome is often used to describe women’s lack of confidence. So it wasn’t clear to me if the two were basically one and the same. It turns out the two are NOT the same. I like the way Maureen Zappala, a professional speaker and author, describes the difference. When you have a lack of confidence it does not necessarily mean you are experiencing the impostor syndrome. “People who are immobilized by low confidence don’t hear the impostor voice because they don’t get to the point where they feel like a fake. They won’t move forward. In contrast, the “Impostor” moves forward, dragging along the self-doubts and lack of confidence with them. They have just enough skill (although usually way more skill than they’ll admit to) to do something well, but then they’re astonished that they finished, and can’t enjoy the success.”

So the distinction here is in the BEFORE versus AFTER. The lack of confidence is what you feel before accomplishing the task. Whereas the impostor feeling comes after you’ve succeeded in accomplishing the task.

It’s Not Just You And Me

Apparently, 70% of people experience the impostor syndrome. I find that astonishing! Not only that, highly successful people have admitted to feeling like an impostor sometimes. The list includes Sheryl Sandberg, Arianna Huffington, Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, Maya Angelou, Tom Hanks — just to name a few. And Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbuck’s, once said in an interview with The New York Times: “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the C.E.O. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.”

What Causes It

The term was first introduced by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in 1978. They observed that many high achieving women tended to think that they were over-evaluated by others. A lot of research has been done on the phenomenon since then. And it’s been determined that impostor syndrome is not a mental illness, nor is it a personality trait. “If I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it’s something almost everyone experiences” says Clance.

So what causes it? Apparently perfectionists have more potential to experience feeling like an impostor. This makes sense as perfectionists are never quite satisfied with what they have accomplished. Leading them to deny the success they are having. Other articles allude to the fact that people react this way, as most are taught to be humble and to avoid being arrogant. Since being too assertive could be interpreted as being arrogant, it would explain, at least in part, why some people are quick to diminish their success and undermine their intelligence.

Moreover, feeling like an impostor can sometimes be triggered as a reaction to certain situations. Like finding yourself in a minority. As an example it’s been observed that women in tech — a field where women are under-represented — are more likely to experience self-doubt and feel like they’re not up to par with everybody else around them.

5 Ways To Defeat It

I have a tendency to be a perfectionist and have been working hard to try to get rid of the negative impacts this can have. As a general rule, I find I can force myself out of the bad train of thoughts if I put all emotions aside and stick to the facts.

  1. Remember the positive feedback: Remind yourself of the positive feedback you’ve received from your managers and peers. This feedback represents people’s objective opinion about you. Denying this equals attacking their good judgment.
  2. Forget the word ‘luck’: Don’t attribute your success to luck. Think of the facts that allowed you to achieve these results. You wouldn’t have succeeded without your knowledge, your strengths and probably hard work.
  3. Have your accomplishments in mind: Try this great trick given to me by Carole Perez. In one column write down up to 30 of your successes (work life or not); in a 2nd column write what happened; and in a 3rd column write which of your qualities (2 to 3) allowed you to achieve this success.
  4. Nobody is perfect: You can’t have all the answers. It’s normal to have to refer to colleagues to fill the gaps.
  5. Control your emotions: Learn to control negative thoughts by not letting your emotions take over. For example in my line of work, l’ve often found myself sitting in a meeting where I was the only woman in the room.  When on top of it, these were people I did not know, the level of self-doubt would rise quickly. Here is what I would tell myself: “Ok, if I’m sitting in this room, it’s because I have something to bring to the table.” Then I would remind myself of past projects I accomplished and the strengths that were required to deliver the goods.

In the end, remember that MANY people have self-doubt and feel like an impostor sometimes, even after they’ve had successes. So you’re not alone. What is important however is to be aware of this weakness, so that you can find the technique that works for you to defeat it.

So tell me, have YOU experienced feeling like an impostor?
Any other techniques you want to share that have proven to work well to control your thoughts? 


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  1. Melanie Thibault

    This article sure comes at the right time in my life! Thanks Martha. 😉 Great 5 tricks. If I could also add one it’s surround yourself with positive achievers and don’t be afraid to share your feelings…(when in a situation of trust) being authentic and true is a sign of great personal strength !

  2. Martha Morrice

    So glad if this helps you Melanie! And thank you for this great additional advice with which I totally agree.

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