What is imposter syndrome and how can you combat it?

Have you ever felt recurring feelings of self-doubt or the fear of being exposed as a fraud in the workplace? If so, you may be suffering from imposter syndrome. This is the name given to a psychological pattern where someone doubts their accomplishments and talent.

Nearly all of us have felt like imposters at some point. We believe we were hired by mistake and that people have overestimated our ability and that it won’t be long before our ineptness is uncovered. Yet for most of us these feelings aren’t permanent and tend to flare up when starting a new job or embarking on a promotion. For others though, these feelings are an emotionally paralysing part of everyday life.

What must be remembered about Imposter Syndrome is that it is a frame of mind, so you can challenge this thinking. Whether it's you or a team member needing help, here are three ways to reset your mind and banish imposter syndrome to the past.

  1. Recognise these thoughts for what they are

    The first step is to actually recognise these thought patterns and feelings when they emerge. Stop, take a deep breath and understand that your thoughts aren't reflecting the truth, they are feelings that are encroaching into your mental space. At this time, it may help to talk to others to share your thoughts with a manager or colleague. You don’t need to feel like this alone.

    Alternatively, if you're in a position where you become aware that someone else is suffering from feelings of self-doubt, proactively give them feedback or give them workplace recognition. Many of us need positive feedback to help dispel negative self-talk.

  2. Own the positive

    Negative thinking is like a virus - it's very easy for it to spread. People suffering from imposter syndrome often make a small mistake and then immediately jump into the mode of thinking that they are no good at all. Comments like "I stuffed that up for everyone" and "I can’t do that job" are common ones to look out for.

    A healthier mind set is just the opposite - focusing on the positive. If you've successfully performed a task, project or dealt with a challenging stakeholder, make sure you congratulate yourself and take a moment to be proud of this achievement. If this is something your team member has done, give them a healthy dose of encouragement, and highlight their strengths, achievements and contribution to the team.

  3. You're not alone

    If someone admits to feeling this way, remind them that this is normal and most of us have these feelings at some point. No one can be expected to know everything or get everything right. A lot of people are simply better at masking their anxiety, but that doesn't mean they are more competent or capable.

    You may be surprised to know that many senior people in large organisations have had their own experience with imposter syndrome. One leading financial services company actually held a seminar in which three senior leaders sat down in front of a group of interested colleagues to share their own stories about imposter syndrome. The most important outtake from that was how they conquered and overcame these feelings. While you may not need to go to this extreme, sharing personal examples of when you had anxiety or felt like an imposter can go a long way towards alleviating those feelings in others.

Feeling like you aren't cut out for a job is an unpleasant feeling, but with the right support and tools you can help yourself and others get back on their journey to confidence.