Defining imposter syndrome and ways to overcome it

Anne Elliott takes a look at imposter syndrome – how it is defined and ways to overcome it – in our latest blog.

Imposter syndrome – I’m hearing this term more and more. In my non-executive and executive recruitment work, and in my training and coaching. People are quick to equate their apprehensions with imposter syndrome.

“I struggle with presentations.”

“My first management role is difficult. I’m a useless manager.”

“I didn’t get the job – I’m no good at this.”

“I don’t have enough experience to do my job well.”

“I’m hopeless at networking. I wish the ground would swallow me up.”

Many of us feel challenged during parts of our career. We can all feel apprehensive due to inexperience, lack of preparation, or a new culture.

Before jumping to use a term that might not be correct for you, it’s so important to consider your situation carefully. In fact, incorrectly concluding you have imposter syndrome, could limit your mindset significantly.

What is imposter syndrome?

Some people are incredibly successful in their career, and yet, never acknowledge it themselves. To them, they don’t deserve the recognition at all. In fact, their thoughts can hold them back from further personal development – it’s a constant struggle.

This is real imposter syndrome, and it can be debilitating. Professional support, such as an experienced coach or mentor, can help those suffering to move forward constructively.

Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes initially coined the term in a 1978 study focusing on high-achieving women. They defined it as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud.

Of course, we can all feel like this sometimes. And yet, we don’t all have imposter syndrome.

Labels can be problematic

People increasingly want to attach themselves to labels. It helps make sense of situations. But it’s also potentially damaging.

The term imposter syndrome has grown in use during the last few years. And with it comes unconscious bias. A stereotypical picture of how a person with imposter syndrome will feel and behave. Are things really that polarised?

Consider the labels ‘introvert’ and extrovert’. What pictures build up in your mind? Does everybody fit with one of your two pictures? I doubt it. There’s a spectrum and everyone is different. Also, no single scenario is good or bad – just different.

Many who associate with the label ‘imposter syndrome’ simply lack confidence. And that’s something everyone can experience.

We all have ‘firsts’ to overcome. It’s perfectly normal. First board meeting, first management role, first presentation or networking event.

Sometimes, you must accept being inexperienced, because nobody is born with all the knowledge and experience, they need in life – we learn as we age. And sometimes, we must handle a ‘first’.

So, cut yourself some slack, we’ve all been there. Embrace leaving your comfort zone because it’ll help nurture your growth mindset and self-development.

The post-pandemic cost-of-living crisis

Without doubt, it’s a worrying time for everyone. Hot on the heels of Covid and lockdowns is a cost-of-living crisis like nothing most of us have seen.

With such turbulence, it’s not surprising many people feel unsettled and overwhelmed. Let’s look at what’s happened in the last couple of years:

  • Transitioning to hybrid work or returning after furlough
  • Health worries for yourself, family, and friends
  • Countless job losses and role changes
  • Global insecurity
  • Relentless price rises squeezing our cost of living

Uncertainty is everywhere. When you lead a team, you must embrace this, even when you feel uncertain yourself. Your role is to support your team and maintain productivity, despite everything that’s going on.

That might feel like a tall order. I assure you that focusing on your growth mindset will help.

The social media impact

Fuelling a perfect storm for overuse of the imposter syndrome term is social media. In recent years, more businesses have become more active on Twitter and LinkedIn. Suddenly, terminology can spread rapidly.

“If they’ve got imposter syndrome, maybe I have too?”

“I couldn’t do what they’re achieving. I’m not good enough.”

Social media makes it easier to publicly see the ‘success’ of others and feel insufficient ourselves. But much can be a smoke screen because you never truly know what’s going on in the life and mind of another.

Remember: confidence and experience don’t equal competence.

Avoid comparison. And avoid latching on to a label just because it’s doing the rounds on social media. We’re all different and we all handle change in our own way.

What’s fear got to do with it?

Everybody must cope with apprehension in their lives. From meeting someone new or making a difficult phone call to walking out on stage or hosting the board meeting.

Many who think they have imposter syndrome may just be nervous about new or challenging situations.

And that’s completely normal!

To self-develop (and build on your growth mindset) you must embrace fear. It can be a good thing because it proves you’re stretching yourself beyond your comfort zone. Feeling uneasy about something new is how you grow and develop.

So, if you’re wondering whether you have imposter syndrome, consider whether it’s apprehension instead. If that’s the case, pat yourself on the back knowing you’re a normal human being.

How to handle a challenging situation

I thought I’d share a few tips and advice on handling those challenging situations:

Firstly, appreciate this all goes back to your mindset. The more you can avoid a fixed mindset the better you’ll handle the challenge – whatever the outcome.

Be kind to yourself. How you’re feeling is normal for most of us. We gain our knowledge and experience over decades. We’re continually learning.

Try journaling and learn from your thoughts. Reflection is an incredibly powerful tool in times of change.

Acknowledge a ‘first’ as your opportunity. Then respect your feelings. Yes, it might be scary, but it’ll also help you grow.

Feeling overwhelmed by a huge step? See if you can break it down into smaller steps you’re more comfortable with. In this way, you’ll build your confidence and get there more comfortably.

Always seek help when you need it. Chat it through with your cheerleaders (colleagues, friends, and family) or seek support from your business coach. Talking through your fear will often help you see how to overcome it.

Whilst incredibly real for some, imposter syndrome is not as common as you think, so take time to reflect on your own worries and challenges. You might just need to be kinder to yourself. Appreciate your uniqueness, your strengths, and your weaknesses. We all have them. It’s ok to feel inexperienced – we all started somewhere. To be successful, you don’t have to try and become someone else, just be yourself and build from there. You can learn from every step you take.

Anne Elliott – Managing Director, ema consultancy Ltd

Anne Elliot EMA Consultancy

Anne Elliott

Managing Director

01926 887272