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How to tell if you have imposter syndrome

15 Jul 2019

Do you think you’re suffering from imposter syndrome? If so, you may be exhibiting these symptoms in the workplace.

Imposter syndrome is a scourge of the modern workplace, and something that can impact people regardless of what level of their career they’re at.

The term was first coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. They defined it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”

Psychologist Gerry Hussey defines this affliction as an instance when you feel dislocated in time and place. “It’s where you don’t feel at home, and that could be because you’ve outgrown this place.” He added: “What happens then is, we underestimate what we can bring to it and we overestimate the challenge ahead of us.”

It is associated with feeling like a fraud, like you are unqualified or that you are otherwise undeserving of your current role. There are multiple types of imposter syndrome, as Dr Valerie Young has detailed in her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. There are distinct categories, but all of them are unified by being underpinned with feelings of inadequacy, a tendency to overwork and anxiety about one’s prospects.

This is a term you’ve likely seen bandied about repeatedly in broad discussions concerning working life, wellness at work and career progression.

You may even have found yourself wondering whether this term could be applied to you. Statistically, it’s quite feasible that it could – some estimates say that as many as 70pc of people have experienced imposter syndrome.

Yet is there a way to know for sure if you have it? Though it’s not necessarily an established psychological diagnosis as of yet, there are some key symptoms to keep an eye out for, both within yourself and in your work.

Your feel deflated after a career achievement

In most people, achieving career success is a good thing that leads to a growth in self-esteem. Yet for those with imposter syndrome, as research published in Frontiers in Psychology outlines, success can lead to “an increase in their sense of fraudulence, negative feelings and dissatisfaction”.

You see, when you have imposter syndrome, you’re perceiving a discrepancy between how you’re regarded and how you actually are. You feel as if your colleagues overestimate your ability, ultimate because your lack of self-esteem in the professional arena doesn’t allow you to envision you being held in high regard.

Every achievement will, instead of confirming your competency, deepen your entrenched sense that you have everyone around you fooled.

You struggle to plan effectively for your career

Studies have also shown that the more someone feels they have imposter syndrome, the less they report doing any actual planning for their career progression.

Perhaps – and this is just conjecture, not necessarily explained in the research – the sense that you feel like you do not belong in your present role begets a feeling of impermanence. Why, after all, should you plan for something that a negative cycle of thinking has convinced you will fall apart as soon as you are revealed to be a ‘fraud’?

The research does, however, identify imposter syndrome as “an inner barrier to moving up to higher occupational levels and leadership positions”. So, not only will feeling this way make it harder to plan, it will also become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy – the very thing that holds you back from the progression that you have convinced yourself you do not deserve.

You have trouble asking for help

Asking for help is normal, even encouraged, in a typical and supportive professional environment. Yet if you feel like an imposter, you may feel compelled to never ask for a dig-out or admit that you’re confused about something.

This is likely a defensive strategy born of anxiety. If you are constantly walking a knife’s edge and living in fear of being exposed for the incompetent person you think you are, you won’t want to ever admit that you can’t do something.

No one is expecting you to be perfect. If anything, not being able to admit to your weak points can blinker you and stifle your development – hence why ‘What is your biggest flaw?’ is an interview question so common it now errs on clichéd.

You’re overworking

Do you find yourself staying late at the office, obsessing over either finishing your tasks to perfection or working extremely far ahead? Do you struggle to switch off when you leave work, stealing furtive glances at your work email and bringing work home with you?

You’re working yourself too hard, and doing so may actually stymie your productivity. The brain needs adequate breaks, and staring at your work until your eyes are crossed isn’t going to magically make you feel like you are worthy of your success. If anything, it may inspire stress and burnout, making it harder to be creative, to solve problems and to innovate – all highly prized qualities in the modern workplace.

Does this sound like you?

If you think you have imposter syndrome, you should take some time to reflect on the roots of your anxiety and low self-esteem. Perhaps there was a particular professional flashpoint that made you feel like you weren’t capable.

Also, it could be a good idea to mention this to a more senior member of staff or mentor. They might dispel your fears and also are likely to have their own experience of imposter syndrome, too.

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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