Not everyone has heard of the term “imposter syndrome”, but the chances are that, at some point in your career, you have experienced it. It’s the feeling that you don’t deserve the position you are in, that the faith others have in you to do a good job is unsubstantiated or that any success you have is mere luck.
Imposter syndrome can be summed up as believing you are not as competent as others perceive you to be.
It was first identified in 1978 by Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes. They interviewed 150 women – mainly undergraduates, graduates and PhD faculty members of Georgia State University – and noticed that, despite their objective successes, these highly successful, intelligent and respected professionals “fail to internalize their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or imposter.” Their research paper describes a woman who, despite having two master’s degrees and a PhD, as well as authoring numerous publications, still considered herself unqualified to teach basic refresher college classes in her field of expertise. This example of imposter syndrome might be more than 40 years old but many people today would be able to relate to it.
Since Clance & Imess paper of 1978, a lot more research has been done on the topic of imposter syndrome. A study in 2019 of 14,000 people from various backgrounds found that it will affect up to 70% of all people at some point in their life, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or career. So, it’s not just the fate of females and/or high-achieving individuals – imposter syndrome can affect men and women from every walk of life.
For some, it’s especially hard to break free from. Someone with imposter syndrome can become anxious when they achieve any form of success or are praised for a job well done. To cope with the anxiety, they will become more perfectionistic and work even harder, which usually leads to even more praise and success, and in turn fuels feelings of self-doubt and the fear of being caught out as a fraud. It’s a vicious cycle that can lead to burnout.
The five types of imposter syndrome
Further research in 2011 by Dr Valerie Young also revealed that imposter syndrome manifests in five different ways, based on how people with imposter syndrome define competence. Let’s look at each of the types.
Experts expect that they should know everything about everything and feel ashamed when they don’t.
Perfectionists set impossibly high standards for themselves and measure their competence on whether they were 100% successful or not. Many people in the legal profession are Perfectionists. Their detail-orientated, meticulous nature makes them great lawyers, so it can be difficult for someone in the legal profession with this imposter syndrome style to know whether their perfectionism is harmful or helpful. For example, when going through a witness statement with a fine-toothed comb to find that one sentence that proves the client’s case, perfectionism is advantageous and can be reframed as being conscientious or goal orientated. However, when perfectionism is used as a coping strategy for feelings of self-doubt and fear of failure, it is no longer helpful and can lead to increased feelings of anxiety.
Soloists believe all work they do must be done alone. They believe asking for help is a sign of weakness or incompetence.
Superheroes feel they should be able to excel at absolutely everything they do and should be doing more than anyone else.
Natural Geniuses believe that putting in any effort is a sign that they don’t have “natural talent”. Working hard at something or not getting it right the first time is seen as a weakness.
This handy flowchart will help you identify which category of imposter syndrome you fit into. It also offers ways to overcome each type of imposter syndrome.
But no matter what the type of imposter syndrome, at the root lies a sense of fear and self-doubt. By turning fear into excitement and self-doubt into self-belief, we can make great strides in overcoming imposter syndrome.
Replace fear with excitement
Celebrating your successes is the best way to replace fear with excitement. It will reframe your accomplishments as something to enjoy instead of something that might expose you as a fraud. Go for a celebratory dinner, call a friend to share the news of your promotion, take a photo of the flowers your boss sent you as a thank you for arranging a fantastic client event. Facebook is excellent for celebrating successes because, every year, the Memories feature will remind you of the status update or photo you posted, and you can relive your accomplishments again and again.
Say “thank you” and leave it at that. Don’t make excuses for your achievements. What we say in response to positive feedback is a clue to our imposter syndrome type. The Natural Genius would say, “Thank you, but I had to work really hard.” The Soloist would say, “Thank you, but I don’t deserve the praise because I had a lot of help from the law library.” By learning to accept a compliment, you are also unlearning self-doubt.
Replace self-doubt with self-belief
An excellent self-esteem-building exercise is to ask five people to answer the following four questions: (1) What word/phrase describes me best? (2) What do you think is my greatest achievement? (3) What do you value most about me? (4) What do you believe to be my greatest strength?
The five people you pick should be a friend, a family member, someone from work who has a more senior role than you, someone with the same job as you, and someone with a different job or who works in a different department to you. When you have all the responses, you will have a list with 20 positive traits from a cross-section of the people in your life. There will be no denying what a fantastic person you are! Keep your List of 20 in a place where you can look at it often to remind you of how other people see you. The more you look at that list, the more you will start to believe the words and strengthen your self-belief.
Whenever imposter syndrome rears its head – usually at times of significant life changes (e.g. a change in job, a promotion or a graduation) or when you push yourself out of your comfort zone – remember your past successes and challenge the belief that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. You have the evidence to disprove the belief: a list of 20 of your strengths, achievements and positive traits written by five people who know you best. That’s your proof, which disproves the belief at the core of imposter syndrome.
You are as competent as people perceive you to be – they think you are good at what you do because you are. All it takes is for you to believe it too.
Article written by Natasja King.
Natasja is a Fellowship Member of ILSPA, currently working as a Legal PA at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in London. Natasja has more than 20 years’ experience as a Legal Secretary and PA, and has worked in both the UK and South Africa. She also practices as a Resilience and Wellness Coach through her company, Natasja King Coaching.