Impostor Syndrome woman hiding behind her hands

Impostor Syndrome. Are you letting it damage your career growth?

Have you ever had the feeling that you’re going to be found out? That you don’t ‘deserve’ this, that you’re not good enough, or you don’t belong? You may be suffering from Impostor Syndrome.

Regular readers will realise that a lot of my recent blog posts have related to subjects I am covering in the Career Lab Series for UNDP.  Recently, our focus was on Impostor Syndrome – what it is, the negative impacts it can have on your career and how to overcome it.  So, guess what. That’s what today’s post is all about.

What is Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor Syndrome goes hand-in-hand with self-doubt. Psychologists describe it as the experience of feeling like a fraud, despite having achieved success. It causes people to experience self-doubt about if they are “qualified enough” or doing “well enough.” That might be in a job, a relationship, a friendship, as a parent, or any other activity (even though they usually are).

If you can relate to that, you’re not alone. It’s thought that around 70 per cent of us suffer from these feelings, known as Impostor Syndrome, at one time or another. It can affect anyone in any profession, from graduate students to top executives.  Impostor syndrome can be experienced by anyone, male or female, whatever their age, occupation, success or status.  Included in this are many successful women and men. Meryl Streep and Maya Angelou have both been open about experiencing impostor syndrome. Even Albert Einstein suffered during his lifetime.

Causes of Impostor Syndrome

As mentioned earlier, even those who we see as extremely successful aren’t immune to feeling like a fraudster. Jodie Foster and Tom Hanks are both double Oscar-winning actors. Yet, they have spoken of their fear of being revealed as impostors and having their awards and careers taken away from them.

Why do we feel like impostors even when we win accolades and awards? The short answer is because we’re human. The long answer is more complicated and a little fuzzy. All humans have a level of worry built in to keep us safe and this can step up a gear as our brains try to protect us from the threat of failure.

Culture may play a part too: for example, British people may worry more about owning their success in case it makes them appear arrogant. As children, we may learn that fitting in, rather than standing out, helps us to get on – so we downplay our abilities.

A lack of representation can also contribute to a tendency to feel like an impostor. Feeling like you’re in the minority can make you feel like you don’t fit in.

The negative impacts of impostor syndrome and self-doubt

Self-doubt is part and parcel of the human experience. As it should be. We don’t have to look too far to see that too little self-doubt can be outright dangerous. Yet left unchecked, the fear that fuels our doubt can drive us to be over cautious and keep us from taking the very actions that would help us succeed.

Impostor Syndrome can get in the way of living life as we really want to, of reaching our full potential. Feeling like a fraud can lead us to worry excessively, be filled with self-doubt and overthink our every move.

So, you pressure yourself to work harder to:

  • keep others from recognising your shortcomings or failures
  • become worthy of roles you believe you don’t deserve
  • make up for what you consider your lack of intelligence
  • ease feelings of guilt over “tricking” people

The work you put in can keep the cycle going. Your further achievements don’t reassure you.  You consider them nothing more than the product of your efforts to maintain the “illusion” of your success.

Any recognition you earn? You call it sympathy or pity. And despite linking your accomplishments to chance, you take on all the blame for any mistakes you make. Even minor errors reinforce your belief in your lack of intelligence and ability.

Over time, this can fuel a cycle of anxiety, depression, and guilt.

Living in constant fear of discovery, you strive for perfection in everything you do. You might feel guilty or worthless when you can’t achieve it, not to mention burned out and overwhelmed by your continued efforts.

The damage to your career

It might seem that constantly worrying about whether you’re doing a good enough job would drive you to strive for better.  In reality, Impostor Syndrome can have a very damaging effect on your career.

People often limit themselves or won’t progress in their careers out of fear. They miss out on opportunities because we don’t feel we’re worthy, capable, or qualified.

If you’re convinced you aren’t good enough, it’s far easier to refuse to push for a new challenge or opportunity.  As a result, you risk ending up stuck working below your potential.

There is hope. If you’re experiencing Impostor Syndrome, my next blog post will provide you with ideas to help you overcome it, end self-doubt and build confidence in yourself.

You may also enjoy a recent post focused on building adaptability to futureproof your career.

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