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How to overcome imposter syndrome


LAST UPDATED: April 7, 2023

“Who do you think you are presenting to this audience? They’ll see through you…what right do you have to be up there talking on this topic?”

“There are so many other people better qualified to speak about this. What if you can’t answer a question?”

“So you’ve written a couple of books on the topic but they aren’t even that good. They’re handing a book to each delegate at the conference – what if people read it and think it’s rubbish?”

This is more or less a conversation I had with myself a few years ago before presenting to a legal conference on the topic of thought leadership in professional services firms.

It is commonly known as ‘Imposter Syndrome’ and it’s happened to me at various stages through my career in different situations such as running a workshop, presenting a strategy, writing articles, presenting at conferences, etc.

The first time it hit me was when, at the age of 32, I was appointed regional director of one of the state offices of a large, national PR company. It was the first time I became aware of the feelings associated with imposter syndrome but at that time I had no idea it was even a thing let alone that other people suffered from it.

I recall a pervasive sense of feeling that not only was I radically under qualified for the job but there were lots of others in the office who were more experienced and better equipped for it. For a few months every decision I made, every conversation about the future of the office was clouded by this.
It was only later in my career when a colleague I really respected and who I thought was awesome at her job said after a meeting that she felt like an imposter that it dawned on me — I wasn’t the only one and this was a very real thing.

Subsequently, I have had numerous conversations with others who have experienced it. What struck me during each of those conversations was the massive gap between my and other’s positive perceptions of those colleagues versus their own self-doubt.

Is imposter syndrome a disorder?

It appears not. The term was coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. They defined it as a “pattern of behaviour where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud.”

62% of adults in the UK have experienced imposter syndrome at work

Curiously women seem to suffer more from it than the men. A national study of 3,000 U.K. adults in 2018 commissioned by Access Commercial Finance into imposter syndrome found two-thirds of women say they’ve experienced imposter syndrome at work in the past 12 months and while men also experienced it, they were 18% less likely to do so than their female counterparts.

The study also found imposter syndrome was more common in industries such as creative arts, law, media and healthcare. 

The big question is if you do suffer from it what can you do to overcome it?

Unfortunately left unmanaged it could limit new opportunities, the potential to explore new areas of interest, a promotion or being part of a new and exciting team in your workplace.

Most of all, and potentially the most negative impact is the danger it poses to your curiosity to seek new, on-the-job learnings and new ways of doing things.

Combatting imposter syndrome

I’ve discovered four ways to combat imposter syndrome. And while these don’t get rid of it completely they do help manage it:

  1. Change the negative self-talk to a more positive outlook – I mentally list or physically write down all the experience I have in this space, my previous track record and how this qualifies me to do what is required.
  2. Speak to someone – it could be someone you trust at work, a mentor, a colleague, a boss or your spouse or partner. Tell them how you feel and why and they will quickly put you right and reaffirm why you have been chosen or why you are best qualified.
  3. Seek feedback – this could be from the client, the audience or even 360 feedback from your workplace. 360 feedback at work can be surprising in many ways but I’ve found it reaffirms how people perceive you and more often than not, it flies in the face of what your imposter syndrome voice is telling you.
  4. Laugh at it – when imposter syndrome strikes turn it into a joke with your colleagues. There will be lots of laughs, some colleagues may come out of the woodwork and tell you they feel the same, while others will reaffirm how great you are and why you are right for the role or task.

Imposter syndrome is real. It affects more people than you can imagine but don’t let it hold you back or restrict your learning and your progress. It’s not worth it, especially when there are some easy steps to put it back in its box.

This blog post was published by our partner company Firebrand.