Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
By Alys Kay, University of Manchester.
My new boss: "You used to be a web developer – will you look at developing this website for us?"
My first thought: ‘My skills are rusty, and it might be a struggle to understand how to do that.’
Do I say that to my new boss? No, my instincts tell me to conceal the fact that I might find this difficult. Familiar self-doubt emerges: ‘If they find out that you find it difficult, they will know that you are not capable and they will regret giving you the job and not value you as a person.’
Procrastinate, avoid speaking to anyone about the request, but then think about the imposter syndrome. Recognise that I was letting my feelings get in the way, and that the most constructive thing to do is ask for help.
Ask a colleague for support on task and, feeling brave, share my experience of self-doubt. I am greatly reassured by the response: “It’s okay to ask for help, web development is a team effort, and no one could do it on their own, especially if they have had some time out”.
The moral of the story is that acknowledging self-doubt and choosing to overcome it through constructive action, and communication, resulted in a positive outcome. My colleague mentored me, I was able to update my skills and successfully complete the project, and we also built a great working relationship.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Many of us have thoughts, feelings or behaviours that cause us to get in our own way. Even though we may have years of practice or study behind us.
Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes developed the concept, originally termed “imposter phenomenon”, in their 1978 study, which focused on high-achieving women. They said:
‘Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are not really bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.’
How Common is Imposter Syndrome?
A recent review of 62 studies revealed that over 82 percent of people report having self-doubt or perceived personal incompetence.
Many Academics Struggle with Imposter Syndrome. There are compounding factors in academic environments. At an event recently I asked a group of Early Career Researchers to anonymously share the situations that triggered their imposter thoughts, here are some of the responses:
- ‘At this conference! Every time I think of a question to ask a presenter, I worry that other people will think it’s a silly question.’
- ‘Listening to colleagues talking about something I have no clue about that I should know by now.’
- ‘Seminars: these events are attended by PhD academics, lecturers, and others far smarter than me. They dress better, they have more interesting viewpoints, and they simply appear more comfortable.’
- ‘I feel it continuously, I question if I am cut out for this.’
- ‘I have a manuscript accepted at a thing. I promised to post the code I used in the paper. But now I have a sinking feeling, that when I post it, everybody will pick it apart and tear me apart for not-great/bad coding practices.’
- ‘I work with people much smarter than I am. At the same time that I'm inspired to rise to their level, I feel like I don't even deserve to be where I'm at. A couple of weeks ago I had a paper declined and harshly reviewed. I know that's the beauty of science and peer review, yet I can't help but feel worthless.’
As these responses show, imposter syndrome or self-doubt can be influenced by our perception of the environment: how other people behave towards us and what this communicates. For example, beliefs about how success or worth is evaluated.
If any of these are things you have said to yourself there is a good chance you have experienced imposter syndrome. We rarely talk about this with our peers, or friends or advisors, so we don’t often have a chance to evaluate these feelings around performance and competence.
You are not alone. We all have emotional issues that build up over time. Humans are messy and this is our nature.
Are There Upsides to Imposter Syndrome?
Research shows that there are interpersonal benefits associated with experiencing imposter thoughts.
For example, if you experience imposter syndrome, you’re probably really good at shifting your focus to others. This is a strength.
An ‘other-focus’ means you listen better, are more empathetic and take more of an interest in what other people are saying. The researchers write:
“Employees who more frequently have such thoughts are evaluated as more interpersonally effective because they adopt a more other-focused orientation and this does not come at the expense of competence-related outcomes like performance.”
Feeling like you have not made it can be emotionally draining, but it isn’t always a problem, the key thing is to identify whether your thoughts or feelings are stopping you from taking constructive action or making progress on your goals.
Actions To Overcome Imposter Syndrome
1. Record and Balance Thoughts
When we have an unhelpful thought we can struggle to get perspective. This is a popular technique that comes from CBT, it is a way to balance your thoughts:
They won’t value me if I ask for help
They only promote smart people!
Maybe smart people ask for help too?
Maybe this action won’t seal my fate?
Rather than being unrealistically positive, a balanced thought is a thought that takes into consideration the evidence that does and does not support your unhelpful thought.
It can help to dilute the pattern, and can also tease out why some of these have such a strong grip on us.
2. Record Proof of Wins
Have a specific folder for evidence of positive feedback. Ask for and explain the wins in detail. Ask for more specific feedback: ‘Thank you for saying well done. Can you tell me one thing that really stood out for you in my work?’
3. Talk About it With Others
When you are feeling brave, talk about it with others. Normalise it: when you do a debrief on a project, speak up: ‘I know what I am doing, but I was worried that I didn’t’ - people will say ‘me too!’.
I am not cured. New imposters emerge with every job change, every new challenge, but now characterising and making fun of them is a game. We can make choices about how we speak to ourselves, but it is not as simple as flipping a switch. Practise is power.