How can you reach your full potential in the workplace? Is it through building up your skills to ensure you’re the most qualified? Or maybe it’s seeking out experience and training opportunities? Researchers suggest that overcoming a lack of self-confidence is actually the greatest factor in overcoming imposter syndrome and becoming the most successful version of yourself (Chowdhury, Endres & Lanis, 2002). But what happens when you lose this confidence in the workplace? What happens if even when things go well, you feel like a fraud?
In its simplest terms, imposter syndrome is a side effect of low self-confidence. More specifically, imposter syndrome is a series of behaviors affecting those even with adequate skill or success, wherein they doubt themselves and have a persistent fear of being found out as a fraud (Mullangi & Jagsi, 2019).
Imposter syndrome was coined in 1978 by Dr. Pauline Rose Clance. In her paper, she proposes a model called “the imposter cycle” in which an individual faces an achievement task then experiences symptoms and behaviors of imposter syndrome (Clance & Imes, 1978). After these feelings of anxiety and self-doubt, the individual will either over-prepare or procrastinate. If they can complete the task even with procrastination, they attribute its completion to luck, On the other hand, if they are over prepared and their feedback does not reach their expectations, they are met with sustained feelings of doubt, depression, anxiety, and perceived fraudulence.
It’s estimated that approximately 25-30% of high achievers struggle with imposter syndrome, with 70% of adults experiencing it at least once in their lives (Abrams, 2018).
The phenomenon was first documented in the 1970s with a focus on high achieving women. While both genders are susceptible to developing it, imposter syndrome is said to be more common among women and minority groups (Clance & Imes, 1978). This is hypothesized to be attributed to these groups lacking representation of successful role models (Mullangi & Jagsi, 2019).
While there is no DSM diagnosis, imposter syndrome is often seen in individuals who have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression (Clance & Imes, 1978). Some other signs you may have imposter syndrome include (Corkindale, 2008):
A characteristic behavior of imposter syndrome is attributing all of your successes to luck. By not allowing yourself to feel any pride or relief from accomplishing difficult tasks, you are more likely to fall into the imposter cycle. Try reflecting on the work you took to reach your accomplishments and fulfill your tasks. An easy way to do this is to actually journal a list of the actions you took to get to your place of success. For example, writing out or reminding yourself that you went out of your way to attend extra meetings, will make you feel more deserving of your achievements.
Journaling these kinds of things is an effective way of reminding yourself to take ownership of your accomplishments. Research has shown the power of journaling to enhance reflective writing. Not only does doing so enhance creativity, but it can also bring clarity to your self and goals, and help you understand and deal with problems instead of ignoring them (Boud, 2001).
A study was conducted to assess life satisfaction and positive affect in correlation with journaling (Işık & Ergüner, 2017). The study included first-year college students with high levels of perceived stress and low university experience satisfaction. Over the course of 3 weeks, the experimental group was asked to keep a journal where they would reflect on their experiences. At the end of the 3 weeks, this group reported better adjustment to university life, greater life satisfaction, and overall positive effects. If a negative outlook is contributing to your imposter syndrome, journaling might just be the key to forming a more positive impression of yourself and life in general.
Imposter syndrome often manifests as a result of how you view the world around you and your role in it. Being told by your parents that you are the “intelligent sibling”, or maybe being labeled as the “funny one” out of your friends all play a role in your self-perception and thus, your confidence. When you feel like your designated roles do not match the situations you are in, you are more likely to experience imposter syndrome (Corkindale, 2008).
Imposter syndrome expert Valerie Young attributes the difference between those with imposter syndrome and those without it to how one responds to challenges (Abrams, 2018). When you believe certain qualities about yourself to be static due to your perceived “role”, you are less likely to think like a “non-imposter”. The trick to thinking like a non-imposter is to reframe your thought process and change the way you believe others perceive you.
This issue of static qualities is very similar to how we develop fixed mindsets rather than growth mindsets. If an individual has a growth mindset they essentially believe in intellectual growth, whereas a fixed mindset person believes abilities to be innate and unchangeable (Dweck, 2008). If you have a growth mindset, you are more likely to interpret failures and challenges as opportunities to overcome and improve from, instead of proof that you are an imposter.
Thus, you can use strategies for developing a growth mindset in combating imposter syndrome. As Dr. Dweck insists, mindsets can be changed! She recommends reframing thought processes through praising work and improvement with an emphasis on overcoming struggles (Dweck, 2008). When we are consistently being praised for our innate skills such as intelligence, we lose sight of the work it took to complete certain tasks, goals, and assignments.
Fixed mindsets and imposter syndrome both thrive on feelings that we can never improve, so try congratulating yourself on your ability to adapt. Next time you find yourself struggling on a project, don’t see yourself as an imposter who can no longer keep up. Instead, acknowledge your struggles, push yourself, then congratulate yourself for being able to succeed despite facing challenges.
This is a mindset that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) principles can help with. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy says that our thoughts affect our emotions and behaviors. So, if we think of ourselves as imposters, we will feel like imposters, and also behave with less confidence or growth. By retraining your thoughts, you can start thinking of yourself -- and feeling like -- a fraud.
While it may seem obvious to assume receiving feedback from others creates an accurate assessment of an individual’s skills, research shows that this is only true if the feedback matches the individual’s self-assessment (LaDonna, Ginsburg & Watling, 2018). Those with imposter syndrome feel like they’re doing a bad job, even if the feedback is positive.
In the field of medicine particularly, mistakes are ubiquitous. It is no surprise that many health professionals experience feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, and guilt when faced with error. A study was conducted of 28 physicians in order to better understand imposter syndrome in the medical field (LaDonna, Ginsburg & Watling, 2018). Early in the data collection process, participants were interviewed on their experiences with error and underperformance. Many of them without prompt actually identified feelings of imposter syndrome during these early interviews. Subsequent interviews focused more specifically on these experiences with imposter syndrome. The results found that most participants questioned the authenticity of their successes.
This manifested in various ways. Some felt disbelief in the validity of their achievements and questioned why their peers felt they were adequate with their self-perceived incompetence. Others noted that medical school was their first experience with such immense levels of self-doubt, with some even reporting a rattled sense of identity and belonging. During training they felt constantly braced for critique, struggling to find a balance between insecurity and overconfidence. Lastly, many said their career in medicine felt like an endless series of experiences harming their self-confidence.
This was true even for participants with 26+ years in practice! Aside from rarely sharing these negative feelings with their colleagues, the researchers also found positive feedback to have little effect on improving feelings of imposter syndrome.
So what did help to overcome imposter syndrome? The researchers found that sharing feelings of self-doubt and insecurity with other medical professionals helped physicians to feel less alone and more sure of their abilities. Having a work culture that creates space for communicating feelings and mental health struggles can greatly lessen feelings associated with imposter syndrome. As this study proved, knowing that others have been in your situation and having people there to reassure you that your feelings are normal can make imposter syndrome feel less isolating and scary.
Like we discussed, journaling is an important tool that can help reduce symptoms of imposter syndrome. However, digital tools are also a convenient and cost-effective way to improve mental health and self-confidence.
The LIFE intelligence app is one of these powerful digital tools here to help you manage your self, relationships, and work-life. As a science-backed journey to reaching your full potential, the app consists of 9 "missions" ranging from mental and emotional health, productivity and decision making, and relationships, conflict, and leadership.
Mission 1.3, in particular, focuses on catching cognitive distortions in order to improve your mental health and master your mind. In this mission, you will learn about the unhealthy ways your brain likes to jump to conclusions and disqualify the positive. Just like with imposter syndrome, people tend to overlook the positives in their lives, such as accomplishments or successes, in favor of focusing on the negatives. Learn how to catch these unhealthy thoughts and behaviors before you start feeling like an imposter with the LIFE Intelligence app.
Did you know that 80% of employees prefer firms that sponsor employee development and wellness programs? LIFE Intelligence can help you with that, too. Used as a team-building exercise, LIFE Intelligence can improve productivity, problem-solving skills, leadership, emotional intelligence, and more to boost workplace well-being.
LaDonna, K. A., Ginsburg, S., & Watling, C. (2018). “Rising to the level of your incompetence”: what physicians’ self-assessment of their performance reveals about the imposter syndrome in medicine. Academic Medicine, 93(5), 763-768.
Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc..
Boud, D. (2001). Using journal writing to enhance reflective practice. New directions for adult and continuing education, 2001(90), 9-18.
Işık, Ş., & Ergüner-Tekinalp, B. (2017). The Effects of Gratitude Journaling on Turkish First Year College Students’ College Adjustment, Life Satisfaction and Positive Affect. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 39(2), 164.