You smirk as you read your boss’ appraisal letter. He actually used the words “capable and confident” to describe you. Alas, he too hasn’t seen through the facade you have managed to project your whole life. Though you did well academically in school, you knew you weren’t among the smartest ones. Your peers really didn’t know how hard you studied. While you grew more outgoing in college and even won a few intercollegiate quizzing contests, you never saw yourself as an achiever. That you got admitted into a premium MBA program was more strategy than skill. And, when you landed a job in one of the “big four” consulting firms, you felt you would be finally caught out. But here is your boss lauding your competence and confidence. Instead of feeling elated, you feel guilty for having pulled it off yet again.
First posited by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in the late seventies, impostor syndrome refers to the phenomenon of people feeling they are not up to the mark despite having stellar academic credentials and impressive career accomplishments. While the experience was first believed to be specific to women, it is now applicable to all people who feel their achievements are unmerited.
On the website verywellmind.com, author, Arlin Cunic, outlines the main features of impostor syndrome. Despite being overachievers, those with impostor syndrome tend to attribute their success to extrinsic factors. Rather than credit themselves for being intelligent or persevering, they may believe that they got a promotion because another competitive colleague quit the organisation or their boss is a kind soul. Overcome with self-doubt, they are also unable to estimate their own abilities and talents objectively. They also tend to shoot for very demanding goals and feel let down when they don’t measure up.
To combat feelings of insecurity and inadequacy that accompany impostor syndrome, Cunic suggests that we harness the tools of cognitive behaviour therapy. This involves identifying and challenging negative core beliefs about ourselves. If we feel undeserving of our achievements, then, perhaps, we should assess ourselves more realistically by writing down our strengths and skillsets, using the same yardsticks we deploy for others.
Learning to distance yourself from your thoughts is also a good technique to gain objectivity. Remember, your thoughts are like bubbles, fleeting and ephemeral. We don’t have to believe every thought we have as many of them may be false, misleading and worse, damaging.
While many successful women, including celebrities like Michelle Obama and Sheryl Sandberg, have confessed to falling prey to impostor syndrome at various points in their professional lives, authors Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey offer a refreshing perspective on this phenomenon in Harvard Business Review. When women and other stigmatised groups exhibit a lack of confidence in the workplace, it’s easy to shift the onus back onto them, which is what impostor syndrome does. If you feel insecure and anxious in spite of garnering accomplishments and accolades, then the problem lies within the individual.
Tulshyan and Burey argue that when we point a finger at the victims of impostor syndrome, we tend to overlook cultural and institutional practices that also contribute to people feeling like they are underserving in the first place. So, instead of changing workplace practices that subtly yet systemically undermine the confidence of various groups, including women, impostor syndrome “directs our view toward fixing women at work.”
The term 'impostor' is also loaded with umpteen negative connotations, aver Tulshyan and Burey. That a person’s insecurity should be compounded by guilt for being a fake or fraud only intensifies the emotional load they have to bear. Though imposter syndrome is not classified as a psychological disorder, appending the term ‘syndrome’ to an experience faced by many stigmatised groups tends to pathologise them.
So, according to Tulshyan and Burey, remedying impostor syndrome involves organisational shifts that include creating more inclusive workspaces that welcome a diversity of voices and management styles. Instead of solely favouring an alpha-male culture that prizes confidence and bravado, organisations may also applaud competent colleagues who exhibit excellence, albeit more quietly.
Further, by explicitly trying to minimise prejudice that often stymies the growth and ascent of marginalised groups, workspaces may become truly diverse across all rungs of the corporate ladder.
(The author is a psychologist and a writer)