Could you be suffering from imposter syndrome?

It's a bit more serious than a confidence crisis.

We’ve all been there; that sinking feeling when you feel like a fraud at work. That you fluked your way into your job. That everyone will find out soon that you don’t deserve to be there… But these feelings rarely have anything to do with how good you actually are at your job and are extremely common.

In fact, it’s such a common phenomonen that American psychology professors and psychologists Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes coined the term ‘imposter syndrome’ in 1978, based on findings that many of their high-achieving female clients were “unable to internalise and accept their achievements.”

If you too have experienced imposter syndrome, the good news is that you’re not alone – according to Asanas’ latest annual Australia Anatomy of Work Index report, 54 percent of Australian workers experienced impostor syndrome in 2022 – and there are ways to manage and even overcome it.

But before we delve into explaining how to treat imposter syndrome, let’s first take a step back and identify exactly what imposter syndrome is and why people experience it.

What does imposter syndrome feel like?

According to Clinical Psychologist Trinity Herbert, imposter syndrome is “a mental health condition that features components of anxiety and relates to people who are essentially unable to feel, believe and own their worth, successes and accomplishments. It is a relationship issue we have with ourselves and almost always is underpinned by earlier life experiences that led you to believe you were ‘not good enough.’”

Woman struggling at work.

Trinity also outlined the primary characteristics of the disorder. These include:

  • “Pervasive doubting of or undermining of one’s own skills, intelligence or abilities despite evidence to the contrary.
  • Difficulty internalising praise and compliments from others.
  • Unable to acknowledge, own or feel deserving of their accomplishments or if you do, you can only do so for a short while before you quickly find reason to dismiss it (eg; they only gave me that job because they felt sorry for me).
  • Worry and anxiety that you will be ‘found out’ or that you will be exposed for who you believe you really are (eg; unintelligent, clueless, winging it, a fraud).”

Who is most prone to imposter syndrome?

Phoebe Rogers, Clinical Psychologist, Couples Therapist and Relationship Coach, suggests that imposter syndrome is more common in people with depression and anxiety.

“Those with high levels of anxiety, and particularly social anxiety and depression with high levels of self-criticism and perfectionism are more prone to impostor syndrome; this is because we often see low self-worth or low self-confidence and shyness in these clients,” Phoebe says.

Female at work bench.

How to overcome imposter syndrome

There’s no quick-fix for overcoming imposter syndrome. But there are various ways individuals can deal with it.

“The best way to manage imposter syndrome is to firstly, understand where it has come from because we are certainly not born with this. You may need a therapist to help with this part,” Trinity says.

“If that doesn’t suit, start to approach yourself and this issue with curiosity and compassion – ask questions of yourself and your earlier life experiences that get to the bottom of why you can’t feel into your own worth and perhaps why you often feel plagued by not feeling good enough.”

Trinity also advises that, “As uncomfortable as it may be, practice accepting compliments instead of rebutting them with self-deprecating comments.”

“Pause before you respond, smile and say ‘thank you.’ Then, spend a little time entertaining the idea that perhaps that person really meant what they said and that it is okay for you to start believing it, if only a little.”

You also can’t be hard on yourself and expect to overcome your imposter syndrome overnight, according to Trinity.

“Don’t put pressure on yourself to get rid of this experience. Know that it is a real part of you that will take some to work through. Keep it real and realistic and know that change is slow.”

Female entrepreneur looking away while standing by table at workplace

Do I have imposter syndrome or normal self-doubt?

Phoebe shared that you can determine whether you have imposter syndrome or normal self-doubt by looking out for a few “red flags”.

“With normal self-doubt, we are more likely or able to talk ourselves out of it, and identify our strengths, and are more likely to take action.”

“With impostor syndrome and the red flags to watch out for, I’d look out for overwhelming anxiety, chronic shame and low self-worth, that prevents you showing up in life and taking action in the way you want to,” Phoebe says.

“Normal self-doubt would tend to be more fleeting, whereas impostor syndrome can be more persistent and hard to shake. Also watch out for fear of negative evaluation or judgement from others which contributes to anxiety and avoidance of certain activities, as this may point to Social Anxiety Disorder, and is suggestive of needing professional help.

“And the good news is there is certainly help available for overcoming impostor syndrome and reclaiming your self-worth and confidence.”

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