Pallavi Pinakin believes the ‘imposter syndrome’ needs urgent attention

If you’ve ever felt like a fraud at work, you can take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Experiencing a nagging feeling that you don’t deserve success despite there being evidence of it, a sense of professional inadequacy and fear of being exposed as incompetent are part of what’s known as ‘imposter syndrome.’

According to a study, 70 percent of the population suffers from imposter syndrome at some point or another. Ironically, young achievers
on the fast track to growth or newly promoted to leadership roles are prone to experiencing such feelings of inadequacy.

While both men and women are susceptible to imposter syndrome, it’s more evident in women.

Since women in most societies haven’t traditionally been expected or encouraged to achieve professional success, their accomplishments often make them feel out of place. This sense of not belonging is even more severe in male dominated fields. In fact, the concept of imposter syndrome was first studied among a group of high achieving women in the 1970s, many of whom were plagued by secret insecurities.

Imposter syndrome isn’t linked to a person’s actual competence level. Even those with brilliant track records are vulnerable to it. Pulitzer prizewinning author John Steinbeck famously wrote in his diary: “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.”

The Chief Operating Officer of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg has admitted that “there are days when I wake up feeling like a fraud – not sure I should be where I am.” Celebrated actor Tom Hanks has also shared his fears publicly: “No matter what I’ve done, there comes a point where I wonder how I got here and when will they discover that I’m a fraud, and take everything away from me.”

So what causes these feelings of self-doubt?

Some experts suggest that perfectionism is to blame; because if you hold yourself to an impossibly high standard, you’ll inevitably feel like a fake. Others claim that low self-worth can be traced back to childhood. If parents or teachers don’t expect a child to accomplish much, then their success in life can feel undeserved – as if it happened by mistake or luck.

The fact is that many professionals will face imposter syndrome at some point during their careers. And interestingly, this isn’t always a bad thing.

Occasional feelings of inadequacy can nip egotism in the bud, and spur you on to keep learning and improving yourself. They can also help you cultivate a sense of humility and be more open to seeking guidance from other experts.

The problem arises when imposter syndrome goes from being an occasional visitor to a constant houseguest and cripples your self-confidence in the process. This can drive you to constantly second-guess yourself, make poor decisions and become completely risk averse. Job satisfaction also takes a hit since you can’t derive any pleasure from your achievements.

To stop chronic self-doubt from taking over your brain and hijacking your performance, consider the following guidelines.

FAILURE IS OKAY Make friends with failure. If you are in the grip of imposter syndrome, you’re probably terrified of making a mistake and being ‘found out’ as incompetent. To counter this irrational fear, you can train yourself to fail. Mistakes are rarely as disastrous in real life as they are in our minds.

Begin by taking a few small risks with the genuine possibility of failure. If things don’t work out, ask yourself what you would do differently next time. Learn the lesson, forgive yourself and move on. By removing the taboo on failure, you free yourself from the shackles of perfectionism and allow yourself to take chances.

A NEW SCRIPT Self-talk plays a huge part in how you perceive yourself and rewriting the script can dramatically change your state of mind. Next time your inner narrator starts nagging you about how you’re not good enough, intentionally focus on your successes. One by one,
list all the great things you’ve accomplished.

HAVE CHAMPIONS When you’re feeling exceptionally vulnerable and low, self-reassurance may not do the job. This is where your personal cheerleaders come in. Identify a few close friends or coworkers who believe in you wholeheartedly and see your talents clearly even when you can’t. When imposter syndrome is at its peak, reach out for their support to bolster your self-esteem.

TEAM STRENGTH If you’re a team leader, you may feel like a fraud because you don’t always have all the answers. Not having all the answers isn’t a flaw and the job of a leader isn’t to know everything.

Leaders need to bring together the expertise of various people to develop solutions. So instead of trying to find immediate answers to problems, focus on enabling team members to use their strengths and work effectively together.

Make friends with failure