8 Effective Strategies to Tackle Impostor Syndrome

Gain confidence and boost your career.

Impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome can be a major stumbling block in getting ahead in your project management career. Recognising it and dealing with it effectively can make the difference between coasting and outperforming your peers.

According to the CalTech counselling Center in California, Impostor syndrome can be defined as “A collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.“.

Anyone who suffers from it is likely to feel that they don’t deserve the success they have, that they are frauds just waiting to be found out, or that their success is down to external factors such as luck, timing or the benevolence of someone else. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that these feelings can be debilitating, and stand in the way of continued success.

The diagram below illustrates the way one might feel when suffering from the syndrome; everyone around is thought to perform better, and be more competent, when in reality the diagram on the right-hand side more accurately describes reality.

Impostor syndrome diagram

Research conducted in the 1980s suggests that two out of five successful people consider themselves frauds, but other studies have found that as many as 70% of high achievers feel this way

In the last few years there are a number of high profile personalities, in a range of fields, have publicly talked about how they suffer from impostor syndrome. Sheryl Sandberg, chief executive of Facebook and arguably one of the most successful people on the planet, is well known for speaking about feeling like a fraud. Other people are Tina Fey, the US comedian, Emma Watson, the actress, and Neil Gaiman, who famously said that even after having published several books, had recurring nightmares of someone showing up on his doorstep telling him that he didn’t deserve to write every day, and that he should get a ‘proper job’.

It was long thought that women were more prone to suffer from the affliction than men, but recent research suggests that men are just as likely to struggle with it. Pauline Rose Clance, who is one of the people credited with coining the term claims that in her research, men tended to not talk about it in sessions, but when they were afforded anonymity, they were expressing it to the same degree as women. Amy Cuddy, who gave a now famous talk at a TED conference on the Impostor Syndrome puts it like this: "men who deviate from the strong-assertive stereotype — in other words, men who are able to express self-doubt — risk experiencing what psychologists call 'stereotype backlash': punishment, which often takes the form of harassment or even ostracism, for failing to conform to societal expectations.".

"I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people."

John Steinbeck in his diary, 1938.

So why do people get impostor syndrome? Well, there doesn’t seem to be any definitive cause that’s been identified, but some psychologists believe that it has its origins in childhood experiences. Sibling rivalry is thought to play a key part, where a sibling, often the elder one, is seen as ‘the smart one’, creating (and cementing) the notion that there is a permanent difference in intelligence and capability that stays with the younger one into adult life. Equally, family expectation may also feed the impostor feelings: the feedback from parents is discounted and distrusted, creating self-doubt in the child.

The good news is that there are ways of dealing with it, mitigate the effects and overcome the barriers to your future success. We’ve gathered some useful strategies below. hopefully, you’ll find them useful.

1. The first step on the path to change is to recognise the signs. Spend some time reading about it, link your own feelings and experiences to it, and admit to yourself that it may be an issue that needs dealing with (or at least recognising you might be better off if you deal with it).

2. Identify occasions when you receive positive feedback and affirmation, write them down and make a conscious effort to internalise it. To train yourself in internalising external validation will over time become automatic.

3. Take some time and look over your career and your life. Identify achievements and progress, and what positive actions you took to accomplish what you have.

4. Sufferers of the impostor syndrome are often perfectionists, which can be very counter-productive when it comes to overcoming feelings of being an impostor. A good strategy of dealing with perfectionism that’s become an obstacle to performance is to adopt a ‘good enough’ formula (this example is from the world of content creation, but the central tenets are universal)[

5. Make a conscious effort to identify vocabulary that you use when you receive praise, and eliminate any negative terms. These could be ‘merely’, ‘only’ or simply. Practise receiving compliments and praise, and use positive terms like ‘thank you’ or ‘pleasure to help’. And remember, you are worthy of praise.

6. Find someone that you can talk to about it. It may be a cliché, but self-administered conversation therapy can be a powerful way of dealing with an issue. And who knows, you may well find out that they have had exactly the same thoughts, and you may end up helping each other.

7. Write. Personal writing can be a powerful way of understanding oneself and one’s behaviour, and can go a long way in dealing with various issues, including impostor syndrome. Specifically keeping a diary of achievements, positive feedback and how you reacted/received it is commonly used, but a more free type of writing could also help.

8. And if all fails, or if you feel that it’s becoming a serious obstacle for you, you may find that it’s worth enlisting the help of others. For example, a performance coach may well not only help you deal with the impostor syndrome but improve in other ways too.

 As always, if you have any suggestions or comments, please let us know via email – we would love to hear your feedback.

// The Programme Recruitment team.