If you’ve ever felt inadequate or been plagued with self-doubt at work, then you’re not alone. Even those with years of experience and hard-earned qualifications feel like they’re going to be unmasked as a fraud at any minute – thanks to a phenomenon called imposter syndrome.
Seven in 10 workers have experienced imposter syndrome, according to a survey of 10,000 workers by Asana. Even the late Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou, as well as celebrities like the writer and comedian Stephen Fry and singer Lady Gaga, have struggled with imposter syndrome in the past.
But what causes it – and why is it so prevalent?
“Imposter syndrome is generally considered to be a state in which a person might consider that they are undeserving of their work, positions or achievements – perhaps thinking of themselves as less qualified or competent than other people,” says Eloise Skinner, a psychotherapist specialising in existential therapy.
“This is often not reflected in reality or substantiated with evidence. Instead, it’s a personal perspective that can be unrelated to actual performance.”
The causes of imposter syndrome are complex. Psychologists first began to explore the concept in the 1970s and in early studies, researchers found a connection to parenting styles, family dynamics and gender stereotypes. For example, children who grew up with critical parents or faced intense pressure to succeed – or those who experienced conflict at home – were found to be more susceptible to imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome also seems to be more common among people who feel vulnerable. For example, when starting a new job or trying new things, or among people who have been marginalised in society – like women of colour.
Research has also suggested our personalities play a role too. In particular, people with perfectionistic tendencies or high levels of neuroticism – one of the Big Five personality dimensions linked to anxiety, guilt and insecurity – may be more likely to experience imposter syndrome.
However, why the problem seems to be becoming more prevalent is up for debate. The anxiety of living through a pandemic and the changes it has led to, like the shift to remote or hybrid working, may well have increased feelings of insecurity.
Even the cost of living crisis – while seemingly unrelated to feelings of inadequacy at work – had led to stress and fears over job security which can manifest as imposterism. Workers who once felt secure in their careers may now feel destabilised and worry whether they’re ‘good’ enough to be kept on in their roles.
Some studies suggest imposter syndrome can be advantageous and push people to achieve. However, there’s a larger body of research linking imposterism to poor outcomes. The stress it creates can place huge pressure on mental health, leading to exhaustion, low self-esteem, depression and burnout.
It’s not easy to overcome imposter syndrome, in part, because we’re hardwired to focus on the negatives. Negativity bias, or positive-negative asymmetry, is a psychological phenomenon that describes our tendency to register negative over positive stimuli. It’s why we’re far more likely to remember the ‘bad’ bits of feedback, even if the majority is praise – and why trauma has such a long-lasting impact.
However, there are steps you can take to try and change your mindset. “One strategy might be to take a more rational, analytic approach to reflecting on working performance,” says Skinner.
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“For example, an individual might like to reflect on objective work goals and achievements, rather than forming their own perception of their performance in their mind. It also might be helpful to talk to a mentor or supervisor about performance expectations and goals, in order to receive objective feedback.”
Another strategy might be to emphasise achievements and goals that are met, in order to take a more optimistic outlook on your work. Sometimes, writing down your successes can be helpful - so you have a physical list to look at when you’re doubting your abilities.
“Our minds are often more likely to fixate on a negative or disappointing experience than a positive one, so it might take an intentional effort to engage with the wins and successes,” says Skinner.
“A final step might be to consistently remind yourself about the normality of failure, disappointment and rejection,” she adds. “We all face these challenges in our working and personal lives, and we’re certainly not alone in experiencing it. Instead of self-judgement or criticism, we could try to refocus our energies on developing resilience, optimism and determination to move forward.”