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Imposter Syndrome

The little voice that calls you a fraud

Maybe you’ve been there; that moment when you experience sheer panic wondering when all eyes will be on you with accusing fingers saying, “You fake! What are you doing here?”

Whether it was in my first co-op position in college where I was responsible for a charity fundraiser and had no experience event planning, or years later on stage in a foreign country giving a talk to complete strangers; I have felt like an imposter time and time again.

So why is it, despite our success, our position, our education, our experience; despite all facts to the contrary, we still have that nagging voice in the backs of our minds taunting us with accusations of fraud, fraud, FRAUD!!

It’s called Imposter Syndrome.

According to the California Institute of Technology Counseling Center, Impostor Syndrome is:

“A collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.”

People who have reportedly experienced the syndrome include actor Tom Hanks, screenwriter Chuck Lorre, best-selling writer Neil Gaiman, best-selling writer John Green, comedian Tommy Cooper, business leader Sheryl Sandberg, US Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, and actress Emma Watson.

In laymen terms, imposter syndrome is a disconnect between perceived and actual performance. What makes this pervasive phenomenon so interesting is that despite ample objective data that tells someone they deserve their position (good grades, a history of successful jobs, positive performance reviews, etc.), they still somehow believe that any minute someone will find out their fraud and they’ll be revealed as an imposter.

Although not officially listed in the DMS (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), psychologists have acknowledged it as a specific form of intellectual self-doubt. These feelings can be accompanied by feelings of anxiety and depression.

Who experiences Imposter Syndrome?

First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in 1978 in Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, imposter syndrome is experienced most among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. Often attributing their accomplishments to luck rather than their own ability.

Psychological research done in the 1980s estimated that two out of five successful people consider themselves frauds and even other studies have found that 70 percent of all people feel like impostors at one time or another.

The most successful, hardest working people are those who doubt the personal attribution of their successes the most.

When first described, it was thought to be unique to women, but has since been revealed in research to be observed in both men and women in positions of high achievement.

I’ll tell you a secret: nobody knows what they’re doing!

One of the main observable differences is in how different people respond. In one study involving 135 college students, women who scored high on measures of anxiety and imposter syndrome also worked harder and competed harder to prove themselves. Alternatively, men who scored high for anxiety and imposter syndrome simply avoided situations where their weaknesses may be exposed. What was observed was that the mens’ motivation was to maintain an appearance of strength by only pursuing activities likely to showcase strengths.

Overall, differing at all from your peers (whether race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) can fuel a sense of being a fraud. The irony here is that the most successful, hardest working people are those who doubt the personal attribution of their successes the most.

What causes Imposter Syndrome?

The actual origin is largely unknown. But because we do know that highly successful people tend to experience imposter syndrome the most, there are some postulations that can be made (and have been) based on research and carefully conducted studies.

Family Dynamic

Suzanne Imes explained that many people who feel like imposters grew up in families that placed big emphasis on achievement. “In our society there’s a huge pressure to achieve,” Imes explains. “There can be a lot of confusion between approval and love worthiness. Self-worth becomes contingent on achieving.”

According to one article from CalTech, there has been some research that has identified two family dynamics that can contribute to feelings of imposter syndrome.

For example, one kid is said to be the ‘intelligent’ kid and one the ‘sensitive’ one. Often, families won’t change their perception of the children, regardless of how they may perform. So, if the sensitive kid does better in school or gets more awards, they may not be recognized for their achievements.

Family Labels: Sometimes kids may be labeled differently. For example, one kid is said to be the ‘intelligent’ kid and one the ‘sensitive’ one. Often, families won’t change their perception of the children, regardless of how they may perform. So, if the sensitive kid does better in school or gets more awards, they may not be recognized for their achievements. This can lead to doubting their own ability and believing their family is correct in asserting that they are less intelligent than their sibling, even with evidence.

Family messages of superiority: Some families may give a child such a high amount of support that the child ends up believing that they are superior or even perfect. As that child grows up and they encounter challenging tasks, they may begin to doubt their parents’ perceptions. They may also feel they need to hide their difficulties so they don’t damage the family image of who they are. As a result of the normal difficulties anyone may encounter, they may come to believe they are only average or even below average.

We all know our families mean well, and of course any encouragement to succeed comes from a place of genuine concern for our well-being. Understanding the origin of where each of our own imposter syndrome may come from helps us to understand how to overcome those feelings, and how to cope with them when they do occur.

Culture

Pauline Clance also explains that feelings of phoniness are more prevalent among minorities. A 2013 study at the University of Texas at Austin did a survey among ethnic-minority college students and found that Asian-Americans were more likely than African-Americans or Latino-Americans to experience imposter feelings.

There are, of course, many other theories about where imposter syndrome originates, but it is often thought to be an ingrained personality trait among those who are put in positions of achievement and recipients of accolades from an early age. Acknowledging the power of ingrained habit (particularly with how we process and react to our thoughts and feelings) can help us to begin controlling our emotional response to successes and failures so that we’re able to see our own abilities more reasonably.

What would Google do?

Considering how many people experience Imposter Syndrome, are there companies addressing this phenomenon? And if so, what might a company as big as Google do to acknowledge and address this among its team members?

“Taking a risk around your team seems simple. But remember the last time you were working on a project. Did you feel like you could ask what the goal was without the risk of sounding like you’re the only one out of the loop? Or did you opt for continuing without clarifying anything, in order to avoid being perceived as someone who is unaware?”

Google focuses on the concept of psychological safety so that team members feel safe around each other but also so that they’re able to admit mistakes, partner up on tasks, and take on new roles. Google estimates that people who feel safer are less likely to leave and have been rated as twice as effective by executives. Psychological safety is how Google evaluates the overall success of a Google team.

The way Google words it:

“We’re all reluctant to engage in behaviors that could negatively influence how others perceive our competence, awareness, and positivity.”

To address this, Google created what are called gTeams exercise: a 10-minute pulse-check on their five dynamics that summarizes how the team is doing. An exercise that one team adopted was to kick off every team meeting by sharing a risk taken in the previous week.

The members of the team who adopted this practice stated that their psychological safety rating improved 6% and the structure and clarity ratings improved by 10%.

The teams stated that having this framework around effectiveness and giving a way to talk about these dynamics was noticeably missed previously and was by far the most impactful part of the experience.

How does your school, company, or organization handle the successes of its people? Ask yourself, how might you begin to acknowledge, support, and reframe others’ feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt? If you’ve made it this far, take it one step further and challenge yourself to affect positive changes to help those around you.

How do I handle Imposter Syndrome?

The good news is, if you experience imposter syndrome now, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll experience it forever. There are many things you can do to reduce those feelings and cope with them when they do come up.

1. Talk to someone

Expressing your fears of feeling like a fraud can give you support around how normal the feelings of imposter syndrome are. Externalizing to someone you trust to be honest with you can also highlight how irrational those thoughts of self-doubt are. Talking to someone can give you much-needed perspective recognizing your own abilities, progress, and successes.

As an exercise, seek the insight of someone in a position of authority or seniority to be able to give you objective feedback in a way that shows you your true strengths and areas where you may need to improve.

An important part of talking, is also listening. Once you know what it sounds like externalizing your own fears of being an imposter, train yourself to listen for those phrases from others. Challenge yourself to be supportive and understanding of peers and colleagues.

2. Own your success

Learn to acknowledge the things you’ve achieved, and own that those achievements are yours. Many of us (myself included) falsely attribute our own success to luck or happy accident. Remember all the things you do well, and realistically assess your abilities.

A good exercise is force yourself to write down what you’re truly good at, and make note of the areas that may need improvement. Make goals for improving where you feel weak, and proudly take ownership of what you’ve accomplished.

3. Change your habits

Work toward preventing feelings of imposter syndrome by reframing the way you think about your achievements. As an exercise, rather than spending ten hours on a project, cut yourself off at eight. Maybe even allow a friend to read a rough draft of something you’re working on.

Changing these habits around how you work may help frame your abilities more realistically. Opening yourself up to criticism can help ease the change into digesting external feedback instead of simply allowing your feelings of self-doubt to cloud good judgment as you attempt to evaluate your own capacity for success.

There have been a number of great pieces written about this very topic, by many different people, in different fields, with very different experiences and advice on how to overcome imposter syndrome.

The next time you experience the feeling that you’re about to be ‘found out’ or you feel inclined to brush off a success by downplaying how hard it was, or how important it really is, take a moment to reflect on the feelings going through you. Ask yourself if your inclination to respond are a result of humility, or self-doubt.

Remember that the voice in your mind telling you that you aren’t good enough, smart enough, accomplished enough… whatever! That you are where you’re sitting for a reason. It’s your success alone that got you there. Nobody else, and no amount of ‘faking it’ got you there (and if you did, DM me; I want to hear that story!).

When someone compliments your ability, stop yourself from shrugging it off and simply say Thank you! Own the success!