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How to overcome imposter syndrome as a leader

02 August 2021

Do you sometimes feel like a fraud at work, despite your achievements and success? If so, you’re not alone. If you have imposter syndrome, you may feel like you’re not as capable as everyone thinks you are, or that you’re not worthy of praise.

It’s normal to feel this way from time to time, especially when starting a new job. In some ways, imposter syndrome can be a good thing – it may give you enough drive to always go the extra mile. But if your feelings of insecurity are always there, this may be stopping you achieving your full potential, or even lead to burnout.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a form of ‘intellectual self-doubt’, when you don’t believe your achievements are real. It was first described in high-achieving women in 1978, but anyone can be affected, whatever their job.

People with imposter syndrome tend to be intelligent and high achievers. They’re also likely to be perfectionists, feeling self-doubt whenever something doesn’t go as planned. Or even when things do go as planned, they may still feel that they could have done better. They may put things off, always looking for ‘extra information’ before they start a task as they worry about looking stupid if they don’t know something.

Spotting the signs of imposter syndrome

The first step to dealing with imposter syndrome is to admit that you have it. If you have imposter syndrome, it’s likely that you:

  • feel like a fake or a fraud
  • never feel good enough
  • feel like you don’t belong
  • are filled with self-doubt
  • feel uncomfortable when people praise you
  • have a habit of playing down your strengths
  • find it hard to take credit for your accomplishments

You may focus on:

  • your mistakes rather than your successes
  • your weaknesses rather than your strengths
  • what you don’t know, rather than what you do know
  • what you can’t do, rather than what you can do

The impact of imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome can affect your job satisfaction and performance. It can stop you taking risks at work, seizing new opportunities (such as promotions) and taking on new projects. Over time, you may decide to revise your life goals and become less ambitious. You may even just give up trying.

Imposter syndrome isn’t a recognised mental health problem. But it can affect your mental health – leading to high stress levels and eventually burnout. It can also lead to anxiety and depression. If you’re struggling to cope with your thoughts and feelings, it’s important to seek professional help by speaking to your GP or finding a counsellor.

5 ways to overcome imposter syndrome

Raising awareness of imposter syndrome in the workplace can help to normalise it – and help people to recognise it in themselves. If you have imposter syndrome, there are things you can do to change how you think about yourself. You can also help other people by offering support and helping to boost their self-esteem.

1. Recognise self-doubt
Make a note of when you feel any self-doubt, inadequacy or other signs of imposter syndrome. Think about what led to these thoughts, what you were doing and who was there. Recognise that these are your feelings rather than actual facts – they’re not ‘real’.

2. Talk about it
Talk to people you trust about how you’re feeling – at home, with friends or at work. You could arrange a professional appraisal to speak to your manager about your feelings, or speak to a colleague more informally. Other people may be able to reassure you and help you realise that your feelings of inadequacy are irrational. You may be surprised to find that they feel the same way about themselves too. If you don’t feel you can talk to someone you know, find a counsellor.

3. Recognise your strengths
Write down your strengths and achievements. Think about how your qualifications, experience and expertise have led to where you are now. Keep a record of positive feedback from others, too – read this back to yourself whenever you need a boost.

4. Give yourself credit
When things go well, praise yourself and challenge any negative thoughts. It’s all too easy to attribute success to others, or just to good luck. So when someone gives you a compliment or praises you, accept and enjoy it.

5. Accept perfection is impossible
If things don’t seem to go so well, don’t give yourself a hard time. Mistakes are a natural part of life and learning. If you’re not sure about something, ask for help, rather than beating yourself up for not knowing. Remind yourself that no one – and nothing – is perfect, and that everyone has a different perception of success and perfection. So what you think of as failure or ‘not perfect’ may be a success, or perfect, to someone else with different goals.

Sources:

  • Persky AM. Intellectual Self-doubt and How to Get Out of It. Am J Pharm Educ. 2018; 82(2): 6990. doi: 10.5688/ajpe6990.
  • Clark P, Holden C, Russell M, Downs H. The Impostor Phenomenon in Mental Health Professionals: Relationships Among Compassion Fatigue, Burnout, and Compassion Satisfaction. Contemp Fam Ther. 2021; 1-13. doi:10.1007/s10591-021-09580-y
  • Bravata DM, Watts SA, Keefer AL et al. Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. J Gen Intern Med. 2020; 35(4): 1252–1275. doi: 10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1
  • John Castledine. Rethinking your CPD: Lifting the mask of self-doubt. National Institute for Health Research. https://www.nihr.ac.uk/, published July 2020.
  • Armstrong MJ, Shulman LM. Tackling the imposter phenomenon to advance women in neurology. Neurol Clin Pract. 2019; 9(2): 155-159. doi:10.1212/CPJ.0000000000000607
  • John S. Imposter syndrome: why some of us doubt our competence. Nursing Times [online]. 2019; 115 (2): 23-24.


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