Imposter Syndrome

What is Imposter Syndrome?

‘Imposter Syndrome’, is a psychological phenomenon, first named in the 1970s by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, two psychologists, and refers to the feeling of being inadequate or incapable and attributing successes to ‘luck’ or external factors, despite evidently being a high achiever. The ‘imposter’ element of the idea refers to the feeling of fraudulence and chronic self-doubt held by sufferers, regarding their achievements or successes and a fear of being found out. Constant self-criticism and disengagement are common among people who suffer from imposter syndrome, and no matter how successful ‘imposters’ are, they are unable to feel deserving of what they have achieved in their lives.

Imposter Syndrome in Men

Imposter syndrome sufferers were initially believed to be mainly women, particularly in male dominated industries, however in recent times research has pointed to imposter syndrome being a feeling that is, in fact, more prevalent among men. A 2018 study of 500 students at a US university found that men suffered more after receiving negative feedback than women did, in addition to performing worse when they believed a higher authority was going to be monitoring their performance on a task, demonstrating how feelings of inadequacy disproportionately affect males.

An article by business insider refers to Amy Cuddy, a Harvard psychologist, who gave a TED talk on power posing and was inundated with emails from people who were struggling with feelings synonymous with imposter syndrome, with around half of the emails she received coming from men.

Men often feeling uncomfortable discussing struggles is said to be a factor exacerbating the struggle felt among men with impostor syndrome, however it is important to understand that even the most successful men struggle with feeling like their success is underserved.
More of Cuddy’s research on imposter syndrome demonstrated how imposter syndrome affects men regardless of their levels of professional success, as she interviewed Neil Gaiman, a highly successful and award winning author, who said that even after he became a bestselling author he still feared that one day someone would turn up at his door and tell him he did not deserve to be allowed to write every day for a living, and needed to get a “proper job”.

The Roots of Imposter Syndrome

Many researchers believe the roots of imposter syndrome to lie in childhood, associated with the labels that parents may attach to their children, such as ‘the intelligent one’ or ‘the lazy one’, with some also believing that parents’ labelling of children can also positively affect their perceptions of themselves, should they be brought up to believe they have a high level of self-worth. Childhood also comes into play due to the idea that coming from a family that valued high achievement adds to the pressure in later life to perform well, often professionally.

Imposter syndrome is also believed to be triggered when starting a new role, where feelings of not belonging and being incapable in comparison to your colleagues are often evoked.

Imposter Syndrome in Parents

Whilst imposter syndrome is often linked to professional environments, feelings of inadequacy as a parent are also commonly felt. Often parents can discount their own successes, blaming their children’s successes on “getting lucky” or “whoever elses’s genes”. Imposter syndrome can also manifest in parents’ inability to recognise the achievements of their children, heightened through comparison with other children, leading to a failure to internalize the individual successes of their children.

Parenting imposter syndrome also occurs as parents feel like they are not capable of raising and caring for another human being and suffering from high levels of self-doubt at parenting efforts and fear of the long-term outcomes. Social media sites and posts are often sources of these feelings of inadequacy, however when scrolling through these sites it is important to remember that these posts are not true reflections of people’s parenting experiences, and everyone else may be feeling the same.

Dealing With Impostor Syndrome

In order to tackle impostor syndrome, one of the first steps to take is being aware of your feelings and keeping track of feelings when they emerge. Being kind to yourself is also important when overcoming imposter syndrome, as it is normal not to be perfect at everything, particularly in new situations, and with time these feelings often subside. It is important also, to remember that sometimes feeling less than confident in your ability is normal but these feelings are not truly reflective of your ability.

Often people with imposter syndrome feel alone in their suffering, believing that they are the only ones who are feeling like imposters, causing the situation to only worsen and lead to isolation. It is important, therefore, to speak to someone about your feelings, allowing an open conversation, and meaning that your suffering is not something you are going through alone.

In terms of what employers can do to tackle imposter syndrome among their employees, it is recommended that they seek to tackle the issue in career development activities, such as training and mentoring, to normalise the phenomenon and then, in turn relieve the guilt that can be felt by those who are suffering.

Imposter syndrome is not something that can be instantly cured, however keeping perspective on the issue is key; realising that you are not the only one feeling this way, and that you may never truly get over these feelings. But it is important to remember that even the most successful people, people who you may even look up to, struggle with feeling that their success is not deserved.

Article by Sorcha Simons

Supporting Men & Dads in the workplace

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Supporting Men & Dads in the workplace

Download our free guide to help employers create a more inclusive and supportive work environment for men and dads.