Anxiety and Depression  |  Building Personal Resilience  |  Stigma and Discrimination

Part II: Feel Like an Imposter at Work? – How to Overcome Self-Doubt

BY SHANE TAN

25 April 2021  |   6 min read

Part I of our series on imposter syndrome explored how gender role stereotypes at the workplace can perpetuate female imposter syndrome, even though both men and women have been reported to experience similar feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. In Part II, we examine about how family environment is an important predictor of imposter syndrome, and what individuals and organisations can do to combat imposter syndrome at the workplace.

Family environment and dynamics in the early years can lay the foundation for developing imposter syndrome. Many of the survey respondents from a 2020 study1 by KPMG felt that women may experience imposter syndrome more than men due to gender differences in upbringing.

KPMG’s US Deputy Chair and COO Laura Newinski shared that respondents from the study frequently cited how boys were encouraged to lead, demonstrate self-confidence and exhibit less emotion than girls from an early age. Female respondents also alluded to family expectations, gender roles, societal stereotypes and cultural differences as root causes of self-doubt. The respondents further identified self-imposed pressures and self-criticism as key contributing factors of self-doubt and uncertainty.

Anthea Indira Ong, an executive coach and social advocate, pointed out that imposing such socially constructed gender norms on children could be harmful. “I would argue that boys being encouraged to lead and demonstrate confidence from young without expressing emotion is a big reason for the state of our mental health across the world, and why men are two and half times more likely than women to die by suicide in Singapore — not to mention the spike in teenage boys’ suicide rates last year.”

Fostering a positive work culture and environment

Rather than focus on solely fixing imposter syndrome, Ong, who has seven years’ experience coaching leaders and managers from all over the world, stressed that leaders play a big role in counteracting imposter syndrome by shaping the culture of a workplace in the following ways:

  • Fostering psychological safety. Strong leaders must have the courage to break the silence and set an example showing how self-doubt and fears are normal in risk-taking and innovation. Having a psychological safety net, role models and positive support will compel employees to seek help without fear of judgment.

  • Lead with compassion and empathy. Impostor syndrome is associated with behaviours like perfectionism and overworking to prove one’s worth. By leading with compassion and empathy, and recognising good work, leaders can make employees feel understood, validated and supported.
  • Recognise not only achievements but also effort. Research by the Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck shows that praising effort (whether big or small) instead of focusing only on achievement works best to build self-esteem, which in turn alleviates imposter feelings. Celebrating incremental progress also keeps morale high.

Be your own cheerleader

The good news is that our self-perception and mindset can be changed. Building confidence is key to overcoming the syndrome.

The good news is that our self-perception and mindset can be changed. Building confidence is key to overcoming the syndrome.

  • Reframe your feelings and thoughts of imposterism and objectively remind yourself why you are qualified. The requirements listed in job descriptions are guidelines, not strict requirements. Yet research2 shows that women feel they need to meet 100 per cent of the criteria while men will apply when they meet only 60 per cent. Know that skills are transferable and that you have unique capabilities and experiences that other applicants do not possess.
  • Make an accomplishment list. Ong had a client who often discounted praise and couldn’t internalise his success. When asked to write an “autobiography” that listed his achievements factually, he was pleasantly surprised. “It was a deep shift for him reading how much he has done and knowing that these are facts, not make-believe. More importantly, he started to believe that these achievements were due to his own ability, not mere luck or circumstance,” she said.
  • Remind yourself that you belong. Imposters don’t feel like they belong, so remind yourself that you’ve earned your place and you don’t have to be exactly like the others to fit in.
  • Focus on your own achievements. Instead of comparing yourself to others, look at your own achievements as a standalone.
  • Own your accomplishments. Women tend to attribute their success to hard work or to others’ help as a way of playing down their success, while men tend to attribute it to self-ability. Own the role you play in your own success. Tell yourself and others: “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.”
  • Talk to a friend or colleague. Your peers may appear confident, but they may be feeling the exact same way you do. Knowing that others suffer from the same self-doubt will help you to realise that negative feelings ebb and flow. Talk to a colleague or peer who knows your work well and can offer an objective assessment of your work. Learn to take constructive criticism and to ask for help, instead of keeping quiet for fear of being seen as a failure.
  • Seek out a mentor or a coach. A trusted mentor or professional coach can provide you with a reality check on your self-doubt, and share insights into how they manage their own negative emotions.
  • Realise that imposter feelings are just feelings. Imposter syndrome expert Valerie Young advises3 acknowledging imposter thoughts and putting them into perspective as one of the first steps to overcoming the syndrome. She encourages her clients to question: Does that thought help or hinder me?

Imposter syndrome can be overcome. There can even be benefits to imposter syndrome, when an individual feels compelled to take a step back and critically assess his or her work. As Dr Clance points out, “Most high-IP [Imposter Phenomenon] people that I have worked with are liked and respected and they’re competent,” she said4.

The contributor is a Singaporean writer and journalist based in New York. Shane’s work has appeared in Esquire Singapore, Salon.com, Surface magazine, Yahoo! News, and Marie France Asia. Find Shane on Twitter at @itsShaneTan.

References

  1. KPMG LLP. (2020, October 7). KPMG Study Finds 75% Of Female Executives Across Industries Have Experienced Imposter Syndrome In Their Careers. Retrieved from:
    https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/kpmg-study-finds-75-of-female-executives-across-industries-have-experienced-imposter-syndrome-in-their-careers-301148023.html
  2. Mohr, T.S. (2014, August 25). Why Women Don’t Apply for Jobs Unless They’re 100% Qualified. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from:
    https://hbr.org/2014/08/why-women-dont-apply-for-jobs-unless-theyre-100-qualified
  3. Abrams, A. (2018, June 20). Yes, Impostor Syndrome Is Real. Here’s How to Deal With It. Time. Retrieved from:
    https://time.com/5312483/how-to-deal-with-impostor-syndrome/
  4. Anderson, L. V. (2016, April 12). Feeling Like an Impostor Is Not a Syndrome. Slate.com. Retrieved from:
    https://slate.com/business/2016/04/is-impostor-syndrome-real-and-does-it-affect-women-more-than-men.html