Imposter syndrome: are we all our own worst enemy?
Beth Proctor
Beth Proctor • Jul 15

Imposter syndrome: are we all our own worst enemy?

by Beth Proctor

Imposter syndrome is not a new phenomenon. The phrase was first coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, but many throughout history have felt what they described. “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” lamented John Steinbeck in one of his journal entries, whilst Abraham Lincoln was famously “plagued with melancholy” and doubts during his presidency. 

The Cambridge dictionary defines imposter syndrome as “the feeling that your achievements are not real or that you do not deserve praise or success”. Sadly, this seems to be something many people can relate to. A recent article published in the International Journal of Behavioral [sic] Science revealed that an estimated 70% of people will suffer with imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. It can affect anyone from hedge fund managers to high school students, and, like every other human emotion, it manifests in many different ways.

... sometimes the behaviours we praise and take pride in, such as a strong work ethic or being incredibly self-sufficient, are not as ‘positive’ as they seem

In The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Dr Valerie Young identifies five different ‘types’ of people who suffer from imposter syndrome. Generally, “perfectionists” hold themselves to incredibly high standards whilst “experts” won’t undertake a task unless they know everything about it. “Natural geniuses” feel that they’ve failed if they don’t accomplish something on their first try, and “soloists” see asking for help as a sign of weakness. Meanwhile, “supermen” and “superwomen” push themselves harder than anyone else to prove that they deserve a seat at the table. Young’s work reflects an uncomfortable truth; that sometimes the behaviours we praise and take pride in, such as a strong work ethic or being incredibly self-sufficient, are not as ‘positive’ as they seem. 

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What is clear is that imposter syndrome affects everyone differently. For some, it manifests as crippling self-doubt, whilst others cannot shake the feeling that they are suddenly going to be exposed as a fraud. A recent study has suggested that ironically these feelings can have a positive knock-on effect. Research conducted by Basima Tewfik, an assistant professor of Work and Organization Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that perfectionist tendencies can improve the quality of ‘imposters’' work. In relation to these findings, psychologist and professor Adam Grant noted that imposter syndrome “can motivate us to work harder to prove ourselves and work smarter to fill gaps in our knowledge and skills.” This makes sense, but it seems like a very thin silver lining on the large black cloud that hangs over many people’s heads. 

How, then, should we deal with imposter syndrome? Luckily, the pair who identified the phenomenon in 1978 have several suggestions. Clance recommends trying to celebrate small successes instead of always focusing on achieving perfection. Similarly, Imes suggests that ‘imposters’ write down a list of their own abilities and make a conscious effort to return to them in times of doubt. She also recommends taking gradual steps to reduce the amount of time spent on any given task. For example, you might limit yourself to spending 6 hours on a report, instead of the usual 8 or 10. Opening up to others is also always a good idea. Whether it’s with a therapist or a friend, having an honest conversation may help those struggling with imposter syndrome to feel less alone. 

“Hey, you, yes, you - you belong on this podium just as much as anyone else!”

As the issue becomes more normalised, many are discovering that the feelings they battle daily are shared by millions of others. Self-doubt is part of human nature, and it can drive people to excel and go for gold. Yet those accepting the medals often feel like they deserve it the least. Ultimately, it seems that the best thing we can do, is to keep reminding each other: “Hey, you, yes, you - you belong on this podium just as much as anyone else!”.

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