Professional Development, Tips & Resources

Imposter Syndrome & You – Why it Happens & How to Overcome it

by Shilpa Sajan
April 7, 2021
Financial Services Management Consultant, BCS Consulting
April 7, 2021

Summary

From graduates to CEOs, Tom Hanks to Michelle Obama, everyone has their moments with imposter syndrome. Some struggle with it more than others, but it’s worth knowing that over 70% of people in the workplace deal with this feeling at some point in their careers, according to research from the International Journal of Behavioral Science. There are many different ways it can originate, manifest and hinder our growth in the workplace, so it’s important that we do the best we can to overcome this feeling and reach our full potential. 

What is Imposter Syndrome? 

So, what exactly is this phenomenon? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, imposter syndrome is “a false and sometimes crippling belief that one’s successes are the product of luck or fraud rather than skill.” Since being identified in the 1970s, imposter syndrome has increasingly permeated in the workplace, and more so in our current generation where competition is fierce, and reward is rare. While the root cause of this feeling may be different for each one of us, the ways in which it manifests can be strikingly similar. A few of these ways include: 

  • Overall feeling of inadequacy 
  • Difficulty accepting praise 
  • Fear of failure 
  • Procrastination 
  • Overthinking situations 
  • Self-esteem issues  
  • Constantly comparing yourself to others 

Identifying what you’re dealing with, and the symptoms associated with it, is such a huge step towards overcoming the problem. For me, finding a name for the way I was feeling helped me detach from it, acknowledge it as a separate part of me and realize it was something I could work on and eradicate. I started to put my finger on certain behaviours and thoughts that I’d have, which led to my feeling of “being a fraud”. 

Essentially, this phenomenon, or experience, is something that holds a lot of us back from reaching our full potential, especially in our professional lives. Not only can it have a negative impact on our mental health and attitude, but imposter syndrome can also hinder productivity and quality of work. Being riddled with doubt and lack of belief in ourselves can often push us to turn our fears into realities, leaving us feeling in over our head. 

Where Does Imposter Syndrome Come From? 

Imposter syndrome can originate from many different places – for some, it may be a symptom of underlying mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, and for others, it may just be a surface-level problem which can be remedied by reminding themselves of their qualities and accomplishments. The possibilities are endless, but all equally valid. 

For certain minorities, such as women or BIPOC, the feeling of being “undeserving” can stem from lack of representation in their fields. The systemic disadvantage can leave individuals wondering whether they will ever be good enough to match up to their counterparts, and feed into the overwhelming feeling that the odds are stacked against them. 

One of the possible root causes of imposter syndrome can be high expectations from your family and lack of positive feedback. Coming from an immigrant background, the bar was set very high for me as a kid, a teen and still, as an adult. Whenever I achieved anything or met expectations, it wasn’t celebrated. At the most, it was acknowledged; but not necessarily as something impressive. I began to develop the mindset that recognition is unnecessary, and I shouldn’t expect validation from others. 

When I ventured into university and the corporate world, I met a lot of people who began to praise me and give me credit for my hard work and talent. I had no idea how to receive this or process it, and I started feeling undeserving of all this recognition. Despite having the academic evidence and external validation to back up my competence, I felt like a fraud, and went for a few years not having a clue what this feeling was, or why I was feeling this way. Graduations, job offers, even purchasing my first property didn’t help the unsettling feeling at the back of my mind, and no matter how much I questioned the judgment of my peers and bosses, I couldn’t make sense of it. 

How Can I Overcome Imposter Syndrome? 

Once we’ve recognized the behaviours which make us feel like this “imposter”, we must make an active effort to reassure and help ourselves work against it. 

In a world where LinkedIn rules our professional lives and Instagram dominates our social lives, it’s hard not to compare our positions with others. Seeing people in the same position as us as more hardworking and more deserving can be detrimental to our state of mind and perception of reality. The truth is, you’ve worked extremely hard and deserve to hold the blessings you hold right now, and no amount of mental turmoil can change that.

In general, working with imposter syndrome can be extremely debilitating, and in certain situations, help from mental health professionals should be sought. However, for a lot of us, the work can start at home – the power is in our hands, in our mindsets.   

For instance, imposter syndrome may drive us to overcompensate at work, putting in more time and effort than we really have, which ultimately leads to burnout and poor-quality work. Holding ourselves to high, and often unattainable standards can lead to a terrible cycle of self-sabotaging perfectionism.  

To tackle this, we can reduce pressure by delegating and getting more used to leaning on our team members – it’s okay to ask for help! This can reduce stress, create a support network and reaffirm our competence with the task at hand. 

A few other things that may help: 

  • Affirmations, quotes, and keeping lists of your wins (big or small!) are all great additions to your daily routine, which will slowly improve your confidence and attitude towards your professional development.  
  • Speak to friends and colleagues and ask them what they see in you; shift your perspective to see the greatness in yourself, and the confidence will follow. 
  • Reset your inner dialogue. Identify whether you speak kindly to yourself – swap out “that was a huge mistake, you’re so stupid!” for “mistakes happen, I’ll be careful next time”. 

At the end of the day, never forget how hard you’ve worked to be where you are, and that you deserve to be seen and appreciated for your efforts. Take charge of your academics, career and professional development. And just so you know, you’re not alone – even the most high-achieving individuals face imposter syndrome, everyone is figuring out life as they go! 

About Shilpa Sajan
Shilpa is a London, UK based Management Consultant, focused on the Financial Services industry. She is also a writer, dancer, and property investor. Her ambition is to provide helpful resources to young professionals to help them navigate the working world. More specifically, she hopes to give a voice and support network to under-represented groups, which she felt was missing while she was growing up.

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