You might be surprised to learn that the most successful, accomplished women you know struggle with feeling like a fraud. It's known as Impostor Syndrome, and we're going to look at where it comes from, how it affects our productivity, and what we can do to overcome it.
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What Is Impostor Syndrome, and What Can We Do About It?
Do you feel like you’re about to be found out as a phony? Do you think your success isn’t deserved or just a matter of luck, instead of an earned accomplishment? You’re not alone. Many women (including me) struggle with feeling their accomplishments are a fluke or a matter of being in the right place at the right time. If you feel this way, it may be Impostor Syndrome.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Coined in the 1970s, Impostor Syndrome is the inability to accept and acknowledge one's achievements as earned or real, or feelings of inadequacy, regardless of information proving the opposite is true. Those who are afflicted with Impostor Syndrome feel like frauds.
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. It is basically feeling that you are not really a successful, competent, and smart [person], that you are only [posing] as such,” according to the Caltech Counseling Center.
The American Psychological Association published an article, “Feel Like a Fraud?,” that mentions the 1970s study in which two psychologists, Suzanne Imes, Ph.D., and Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., first identified Imposter Syndrome. They found it occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize or accept their success. Those with Imposter Syndrome tend to attribute their achievements to luck, and they live in constant fear of being unmasked as frauds; it’s a form of self-doubt.
In the study, “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” in which Clance and Imes identified and described Impostor Syndrome, they found women tend to attribute successes to outside causes, such as luck, whereas men tend to attribute successes to their own ability. Men tend to own their success, while women are more likely to project the cause outward or to a temporary internal quality, like working hard on the specific achievement.
Three different mindsets of those suffering from Impostor Syndrome
- “I’m a fake”
- “I got lucky” (or “I'm not talented; I just work really hard”)
- “If I can do it, it must not be that difficult”
Where does this come from?
Many people who feel like impostors come from family backgrounds where constant pressure to achieve was placed on the individual, with a mixture of over-praise and criticism. Society adds to these pressures, according to the American Psychological Association’s article.
It’s more common in women and minorities. Being different from those around you is likely to trigger this sense of inadequacy. It’s also common among those beginning new endeavors. It’s common to have self-doubt in unfamiliar situations, but those suffering Impostor Syndrome tend to have an all-encompassing fear of being found out as not having what it takes.
This goes hand-in-hand with perfectionism, leading to a vicious cycle. The desire to be perfect leads to fear of being inadequate, which drives you to work extra hard to prevent others from discovering your inadequacy. That hard work often leads to success, but then the cycle starts over again when you feel success isn’t deserved.
We disregard evidence of our accomplishments
We may shrug off compliments by telling ourselves, “She’s my friend, so she has to say that,” or “It’s nice he complimented me, but he doesn’t know my field so it doesn’t mean much.”
How Impostor Syndrome affects productivity
- It creates that cycle of procrastination and perfectionism.
- Listen to The Productive Women, Episode 7: Perfectionism and Productivity to find out more about how perfectionism relates to and hinders productivity.
- If we feel like we’re a fraud, we’re going to stall until we can do something perfectly, which leads to procrastination.
- It also affects our productivity because it impairs our ability to maximize our positive influence in the world around us. We can’t enjoy our accomplishments if we’re living in fear of being discovered as a fraud, or we don’t acknowledge our successes are earned.
My personal story of Impostor Syndrome
I came from a working-class family, and nobody in my family went to college. I went to law school in my 30s after being married and having five children. When I applied to law school, despite having good grades and doing well on the Law School Admissions Test, I felt no school would want me because I wasn’t in my 20s and I didn’t have the background many applicants have. I was surprised to be accepted by many of the schools to which I applied, and I eventually chose to go to Cornell.
I felt “I don’t belong here” when I showed up to this Ivy League school. In my first class, the professor had the students introduce themselves. I listened to my classmates tell about backgrounds such as being in the Peace Corps, working on Capitol Hill, or coming from schools such as MIT, Harvard, and Stanford. I felt so out of place when my turn came and my story was simply, “Hi, I’m Laura McClellan, I graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and I'm married and have five kids.”
Especially during my first year of law school, I felt like any day, someone would come up to me and tell me they'd made a mistake in admitting me, and ask me to leave. But that never happened (of course). I made friends with classmates, and I did very well and was rewarded with great opportunities.
How has Impostor Syndrome affected your productivity?
We only have these conversations when we’re vulnerable because we don’t want to admit it. So let’s be real and authentic. Let’s be honest with ourselves.
How can we overcome Impostor Syndrome?
It’s not enough to be successful, because the very nature of Impostor Syndrome is a feeling that we're a fraud in spite of our successes and accomplishments. Succeeding doesn’t prove to ourselves we've earned our achievements or deserve the benefits that come from our accomplishments. In fact, the people who suffer the most are high-achieving women who have accomplished great things. But they still feel like frauds. They don’t take credit, they dismiss it or attribute accomplishments to something else other than talent or ability.
Here are some suggestions offered in the American Psychological Association’s article:
- If it’s an issue at work, talk to a mentor about how they succeeded and get their opinion of your work.
- Recognize your expertise. Remember what you do well. Be able to honestly and fairly recognize what you’re good at and what your great qualities are.
- Remind yourself nobody’s perfect.
- Talk to those who’ve accomplished great things and find others who feel this way. Find similarities between them and yourself.
- Give yourself credit for your accomplishments.
- If it causes you angst or is affecting your life, consider therapy. Some therapists recommend a group setting in which women can see the how others experience Impostor Syndrome. It's often easier to observe it objectively in somebody else, and then apply that objective observation to yourself.
- Keep a journal of positive feedback you receive, including how you respond to it. What are your reactions when someone recognizes your accomplishments? Are you realistic about acknowledging your successes?
Your successes are your successes, and they’re not a fraud.”
What do you think?
How do you deal with this? Have you experienced Impostor Syndrome? Are you able to enjoy and celebrate your successes? I’d love for you to share your experiences, comments, and suggestions in our comments section, on the Facebook page, via email, or leave a voice message on the website.
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Thank you for your feedback!
Thank you to Heather for her encouraging email (and the recommendation of Wunderlist as a versatile task management tool) and to Suzanne for her kind feedback on Facebook!
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