Imposter Syndrome – Outdated and Obsolete or Worthy of Discussion?

About a year ago, someone I admire greatly dismissed Imposter Syndrome and told me not to talk about it – that it doesn’t exist.  Having spoken to lots of people since – both men and women – I would respectfully disagree.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

The term ‘imposter phenomenon’ was first used in a paper entitled: ‘The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention,’ written by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s.

The term has now become known as imposter syndrome and is defined as: ‘the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.’

While in the original article in the 1970s the phenomenon was mainly attributed to women, this has subsequently changed, and it has now been shown that both men and women have experienced it.

While not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it has been much written about as being experienced as a real syndrome.  Many well-known people have admitted to suffering from imposter syndrome at one time or another, such as Kate Winslet, Tom Hanks, and Sherly Sandberg.

According to an article in The International Journal of Behavioural Science, an estimated 70% of people experience impostor feelings at some point in their lives.

The question I would like to look at today is whether we should still be giving this syndrome airtime, or is it time to relegate it to history and get over ourselves?

From my research, I would argue that it is most definitely not time to relegate this term to history, but instead, it is time to have a serious debate about how we can help people overcome imposter syndrome.   It tends to affect high-achievers and those in positions of power.  To those who don’t accept it exists, I would say perhaps that may be because they have never experienced it and have no empathy for those who have.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review entitledStop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome,’ by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, imposter syndrome can be exacerbated by a toxic culture that sees a lack of confidence as a lack of competence.  They state: ‘Imposter syndrome is especially prevalent in biased, toxic cultures that value individualism and overwork. Yet the “fix women’s imposter syndrome” narrative has persisted, decade after decade. ‘

Imposter Syndrome can also develop as a result of parents over-emphasizing the importance of achievement, subsequently, the child feels in later life that they are never good enough. Entering a new role or position can also bring up beliefs that trigger imposter syndrome.

What I do know for sure is – having spoken to people who have experienced it, it is very real to them and can affect their life in very negative ways.

How to deal with Imposter Syndrome.

The key to managing imposter syndrome, and with fortitude to overcoming it, is to take a serious look at your belief systems.  Where do you think it came from?  When was the first time you remember experiencing it?

Other strategies include refraining from comparison with others, sharing your thoughts and feelings with a professional, and observing your thoughts.

By standing back and observing the thoughts about imposter syndrome it is possible to question whether the thought is helpful or not.  Then reframe the thoughts to more positive ones.

If you are dismissive of Imposter Syndrome, be aware that just because you are fortunate enough not to suffer from it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

It would benefit all leaders to be aware of imposter syndrome amongst those they work with.  A touch of empathy and understanding can go a long way to helping people overcome it.

P.S.  Apologies to all those who believe it should be spelt impostor.   I just prefer the other spelling!


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