Balance & Lifestyle / Image / Influence / Lifestyle

Imposter Syndrome – is it real? Part 1

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and  wiser people so full of doubts. —Bertrand Russell 

I have mentored several high performing women within companies I used to work for. More recently, as  an Executive Coach, I coach successful women at mid or senior levels. 

It is rewarding to see powerful, ambitious women making strong strides in their careers. Typically, these  women are self-aware, self-assured and clear about what they want at work, at home and all the places in between. 

And, yet, I still see a lot of women uncomfortable with the growth, success and the power that comes  with it. They also often attribute their success to luck or being in the right place at the right time or a  mentor who helped them. They suffer from self-doubt that perhaps they don’t really deserve to be  where they are and hence hesitate to aim even higher. 

This experience is called Imposter Syndrome, which is defined as a persistent inability to believe one’s  success is deserved or achieved by working hard and possessing distinct skills and capabilities but by  other means such as luck or being at the right place at the right time. It is often accompanied with  feelings of self-doubt, fear of success or failure, or self-sabotage. 

While both men and women can experience it, a significantly higher number of women experience it  and women experience it more intensely than men. 

In this Part 1 of 2 part series, we look at existing research and relevant information on how prevalent is  the occurrence and what are some of the common ways it shows up. Part 2 we will examine how to deal with it at individual and organization levels. 

In her book: The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor  Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Valerie Young offers the following questions to assess  oneself: 

  • Do you attribute your success up to luck, timing, or computer error?  
  • Do you believe “If I can do it, anybody can”?  
  • Do you agonize over the smallest flaws in your work?  
  • Are you crushed by even constructive criticism, seeing it as evidence of your ineptness?  • When you do succeed, do you secretly feel like you fooled them again?  
  • Do you worry that it’s a matter of time before you’re “found out”? 

If you answer Yes to one or more of the above, you suffer from Imposter Syndrome at some time or the  other. 

The irony is, only if you have achieved some level of success can you still feel you don’t deserve it or fully  earn it! If there’s no accomplishment, you cannot be a fraud, can you?

In a study of successful people conducted by psychologist Gail Matthews, 70% reported experiencing  impostor feelings at some point in their life. (Gail M. Matthews, “Impostor Phenomenon: Attributions  for Success and Failure,” paper presented at the American Psychological Association, Toronto, 1984). 

Referring to a more recent study by KPMG in 2020: Advancing the Future of Women in Business The  2020 KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit Report, the key findings include: 

– As much as 75 percent of female executives report having personally experienced Imposter  Syndrome at certain points in their career.  

– Most of the survey respondents (85 percent) believe it is commonly experienced by women in  corporate America. 

– 74 percent of executive women believe that their male counterparts do not experience feelings  of self-doubt as much as female leaders do. 

– Nearly half (47 percent) of executive women say that their feelings of Imposter Syndrome  results from never expecting to reach the level of success they have achieved. 

So, why do so many women experience this?  

The clue is in the last point – their feelings of Imposter Syndrome result from never expecting to reach  the level of success they have achieved!  

The environment one grows up in has a lot to do with how comfortable you stay with your  achievements and successes. If you were told to be nice and not brag or show off, you are likely to  underplay your achievements. If your successes were not appropriately acknowledged and celebrated,  you are likely to wonder if they are worthy. There could be several other factors in the environment  contributing to one’s belief that they don’t deserve what they have achieved! 

While this can be one of the major reasons, it is not the only one. Young’s book identifies 7 reasons why  you might feel like a fraud: 

– family expectations and messages;  

– being a student;  

– working in an organizational culture that feeds self-doubt;  

– working alone;  

– working in a creative field;  

– being or just feeling like a stranger in a strange land; and  

– having to represent your entire social group.  

So, what can help women handle success and power better at work and truly believe they deserve it and  more? 

An inclusive, supportive environment seems to have a significant influence on women being able to  accept their growth and develop a sense of belonging. 

The report indicates:

– Having a supportive performance manager was identified by 47 percent of respondents as the  primary workplace factor to help reduce feelings of Imposter Syndrome. 

– 29 percent cited that feeling valued and being rewarded fairly is integral to a positive work  environment. 

– To overcome imposter syndrome, 72% of executive women looked to the advice of a mentor or  trusted advisor when doubting their abilities to take on new roles. 

– 54% of executive women agreed that the more successful they become, the lonelier it gets at  the top because they enter new peer groups.  

– 32% of women identified with imposter syndrome because they did not know others in a similar  place to them either personally or professionally. 

– 25% of executive women cite that being part of a collaborative team helps create a sense of  belonging that counters Imposter Syndrome. 

Along with developing a higher sense of self-worth and belonging, women also need to be in an  environment that promotes acceptance of their capabilities – successful women don’t want to be  perceived as growing into leadership because of anything other than the fact that they deserve it and  have earned it! 

– 56% of executive women have feared that those around them will not believe they are as  capable as they are expected to be. 

– 81% of female executives believe they put more pressure on themselves not to fail than men do. – 57% of female executives felt like an imposter when they assumed a new leadership role or  becoming an executive. 

Companies can do a lot to foster an environment that enables successful, capable women to believe  that they deserve all the success and more! They have earned the right to be where they are and grow  even more…. 

In next part, we see what companies can do and what individual men & women can do to minimize the  impact due to Imposter Syndrome. 

Gowri S Ramani, MCC (ICF), MP (EMCC),  Master Executive Coach, Mentor Coach  Learn more at www.gowrisramani.com

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