What is imposter syndrome and why does it matter?
In 1978 Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes developed the concept, originally termed “imposter phenomenon,” which focused on high-achieving women. They stated that “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”
This phenomenon is a challenge that many people, not just women, experience on a daily basis. A study from the Journal of Behavioral Science found that 70% of people encounter imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. Imposter syndrome is the lack of belief in one’s ability, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, holding individuals back from their potential. At its worst, imposter syndrome leads to anxiety, fear of failure, and dissatisfaction with life.
This term was first brought to my attention in business school. On the first day a professor assured us that feeling like we didn’t belong was a normal emotion, but that we all did in fact belong. Luckily, many of my colleagues were open to discussing their struggle with imposter syndrome. It amazed me that highly motivated and accomplished individuals experienced a deep level of self-doubt and felt that they did not belong in a place where they had earned a position. Being vulnerable about this struggle was an empowering action that helped both my colleagues and me overcome our challenges with imposter syndrome at that time. The external validation that my feelings were real and I was not the only one facing them gave me a sense of comfort and reassurance.
Oftentimes, humans view needing external validation as a sign of weakness and, although I believe that we should all work to find validation from within, I also believe that it is okay to ask for help. I don’t believe that self-doubt is something that individuals can overcome indefinitely because life will always present new challenges. It is natural for us to question our intuition and abilities. Although our biology is intended to make us rely on our intuition to survive, this does not mean that we will always be right. All of us are imperfect beings that evolve overtime and we are also social beings who rely on one another to survive.
That is why building a support system that you can trust is so important. Furthermore, seeking out mentors who share similar experiences to you is a great way to gain perspective on your feelings, especially when you are experiencing change. The amygdala region of the human brain interprets change as a threat and releases hormones for fear that cause us to fight or flight. One way to overcome this chemical pattern is to confide in others, which helps strengthen the bonds of connection and trust. Research shows that human connection can lower anxiety and depression, help us regulate our emotions, and lead to higher self esteem. These are all factors that work against imposter syndrome.
Although the imposter phenomenon was coined as an official term in the 1970s, it is safe to assume that humans have experienced these feelings for a very long time. And that is okay. What is not okay is letting imposter syndrome get in the way of your goals and prevent you from living a fulfilling life. The rise of social media makes comparison to others easier than it has ever been and it is important to be aware of feeling less worthy or qualified than others. When these feelings arise, acknowledge them, validate them (either internally or externally), and work to overcome them.
If you struggle with imposter syndrome you are not alone and there are many resources to help you overcome this challenge. Dr. Valerie Young, is widely recognized as the leading expert on imposter syndrome, and created a list of 10 Steps You Can Use to Overcome Imposter Syndrome, as well as a TedTalk on the topic.
Remember that we are all imperfect humans who are constantly learning and evolving and whether you are in a new job, relationship, or any challenging situation, you have earned the right to be where you are. Be kind to yourself and open to your own personal development. Lean in and learn, that is the best that any of us can do.
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Written by Jessica Orchin
Gasparotto Group helps organizations create cultures that develop highly effective leaders and build strong, resilient teams.