I suffered terribly from Imposter Syndrome during my career in Investment Banking. In a culture where mistakes were not tolerated, I constantly worried that I was going to screw up. I had chronic self-doubt. I feared exposure for feeling like I didn’t know what I was doing and for not knowing all of the answers all of the time. I spent a disproportionate amount of time waiting for everyone to discover my deep dark secret. For them to realise that in fact, I wasn’t really good enough to do my job, to be a senior executive in the organisation and to be a role model.
Firstly, know this: if you suffer from Imposter Syndrome, you are not alone. A survey carried out by KPMG  revealed that 75% of 750 high-performing executive women who were one step away from C-Suite, reported having personally experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their career. That’s a lot of women at very senior levels and I know from talking to clients and friends in senior positions, the percentages are similar.
In this post, I shed some light on Imposter Syndrome. I help you understand what it is, how it manifests itself and where it might have come from. Then I give you some strategies to put it into perspective and to overcome it.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter Syndrome is 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.
I want to stress that imposter syndrome is wider ranging that you might think in terms of definition. It’s not just about being exposed as a fraud which is the most conventional and popular connotation. Most women I have spoken to suffer from degrees of imposter syndrome and it manifests itself in a myriad of ways.
For me, Imposter Syndrome centred around a persistent fear that I was going to screw up and be called out on it. This was borne out of a lack of confidence in my ability and the feeling I didn’t deserve the success I had achieved. I also suffered from perfectionism and I worried a lot about what others thought of me. Big time. I spent an unnecessary amount of time trying to get everything ‘just so’ and trying to come across as having my stuff together all of the time. Which I didn’t. Perfectionism, I discovered, is also one of the five types of Imposter Syndrome .
What does it feel like if you have it?
Most commonly, you will feel anxiety and probably fear. Anxiety about being ‘found out’ because you believe you are not good enough. If you have imposter syndrome, you worry excessively about what others think. Because you don’t feel like you are good enough, it’s important to you to give the opposite impression. You put up a façade of having a handle on everything. This means you are less likely to ask for help for fear that others might think you don’t know what you are doing.
Mistakes can feel like major issues for women with imposter syndrome as you are your own worst critic. You will beat yourself up over small things which then leads to further self-doubt and anxiety.
Imposter Syndrome also manifests itself in a lack of confidence. Despite positive feedback or great skills, qualities or experience, women with imposter syndrome feel insecure and feel like they don’t have the capability or competence to be effective in their role.
What causes Imposter Syndrome? Why might some of us be more susceptible than others?
The root causes of Imposter syndrome vary. They may stem from childhood and school experiences where familial expectations are placed on us to be successful or we are required to compete in a school environment. If imbalanced or unhealthy, it causes us to create unnecessary expectations of ourselves and worry about disappointing others if we fall short of those expectations. The opposite can also be true if our parents or role models had low expectations of us that gave rise to feelings of inadequacy and a feeling of never being good enough.
Evidence suggests that a lack of senior female role models means women in particular also suffer from the pressure to fit a certain historic male-dominated mould and to be someone or something else. This can be self-imposed or can also be an unconscious bias present in the organisation in which they work.
Personality traits play a significant part for those who tend towards Imposter Syndrome. Self-esteem i.e., how we rate ourselves, self-efficacy, in other words the power we feel we have to affect situations, perfectionism, self-doubt as well as a tendency towards comparison with others all play a part.
How do you overcome Imposter Syndrome?
Firstly, take comfort in the fact that you are not the only one going through this. When I created Chryse Coaching, one of my objectives was to help women realise that they aren’t alone; that a lot of what they experience, hundreds of other women do too, myself included. I only write about what I know and have experienced and during my Investment Banking career, I was always staggered by how common place matters involving confidence and personal projection were for men, but particularly for women. So, know you are not alone. Millions of other women are experiencing the same thing as you this very minute.
Understand what you are dealing with. I am a firm believer in knowledge equal’s power. If I understand what’s happening for me, I know what I am dealing with. If you start to feel physically unwell and the symptoms persist over a period of time, you see a doctor. You want to know what’s going on. You want to be able to fix it. Mental and emotional phenomena like Imposter Syndrome are no different. Get educated. Work out what is going on for you and why it’s happening. That way you can implement the right strategies to overcome it.
Talk to other women or find a mentor or a coach. Find someone you can talk to about it. Perhaps someone who has also experienced Imposter Syndrome themselves. Chat over a coffee (virtual or otherwise) and have a mutual exchange. A mentor or coach can help with the benefit of their skills or experience but a good friend or colleague who can listen and empathise is equally as valuable. Whomever you choose I guaranty that when you talk to them about what you are experiencing you will have common ground.
Reflect on what you have achieved. When I work with clients on their personal brand, we spend time on their story, their skills, their qualities, their experiences, and their achievements. If you have imposter syndrome, you doubt yourself and your ability. You have to change your mindset. You have to believe in yourself. I know that is easier said than done. Take a long hard look at what you have done in your life and all of the things you have achieved. Write them down. You need positive affirmation and not in a ‘I will stand in front of the mirror and tell myself how great I am’ kind of way (though if that works for you, go for it). You need a concrete list of all of the things you have achieved in your life. This includes when things haven’t gone your way and what you have learned as a result. My biggest personal achievements have come from moments of adversity. List your achievements. Read them over and over again and read them often. Don’t downplay them. Marvel at them.
Are you building a positive environment around yourself? In 2017 and into 2018 I went through a really tough time both personally and professionally. At work, I was in a cut-throat environment where I was being thrown under a bus every day. I was constantly having to defend myself, my team and my capability as a leader. On a personal level, I realised that people I cared deeply about simply didn’t view me in the same way. In doing so, they were comfortable letting me down on a regular basis and messing me around. Both situations eroded my self-confidence in different ways but I was the common denominator so I had to act. I moved out of the business I worked in and walked away from relationships that were doing me harm.
Are you working in an environment that brings out the best in you? Do you feel nurtured and supported? Do you feel valued and respected? If any of that is under question then you need to think very carefully about your job and your place of work. A hostile working environment is unhelpful and unhealthy for anyone but for those who suffer from Imposter Syndrome it can be toxic.
On a personal basis, get your cheerleading squad together. Surround yourself with people who have your best interests at heart and who make you feel good about yourself. They don’t have to be yes people but you want people who are in your corner and who value you and treat you with the respect that you deserve.
Build your resilience. Recent research is starting to suggest that phenomena like Imposter Syndrome are actually good for us. I have to say, as one who struggled with it, and who still does, it doesn’t feel like it is good for me but I get the sentiment! Use the knowledge of what you are experiencing to build your resilience. Each time you suffer from self-doubt, take a moment. Pause for reflection. Understand what’s going on for you. Take a breath, tell yourself you are good enough and move through it. Then celebrate getting through that moment. If you make a mistake, learn from it. Fail fast, fail small and fail often. It will help you get to where you want to be as you learn what does and doesn’t work.
Building your resilience is also helped by challenging yourself. Push yourself to change even when (or particularly when) you are comfortable. Growth comes from change. Do the things that make you uncomfortable and you know will challenge you. Again, start small but do things that you know push you outside of your comfort zone and reflect on the experience. Put into practise what you have learned for the next iteration. Micro movements of change are one of the most helpful and self-affirming things you can do.
Stop caring what others think. As a coach, I have noticed the proliferation of books telling you stop giving a **** (insert appropriate swear word) about what others think of you. They are everywhere but I get why. Caring what others think holds you back. And I do mean really holds you back. Here are some of the reasons why caring too much about what people think is a problem:
- It inhibits you from living your life freely because you are driven by an idealized standard of what other people want to see (or what you think they want to see) or what impression you want to give.
- Being driven by the opinions or validation of others means you will struggle to determine your own success and your own path. Your actions are determined by others and you give them the power to control your life.
- You know you better than anyone else. You have been with yourself for all of your life. Your judgment of you is the most experienced and the most learned. Why wouldn’t you trust that over anything else? By handing that judgement over to others, you open yourself to unhelpful and biased input. Not all input is good input.
- Learning to trust your gut and your own judgment comes with time, experience, but also practise. If you don’t allow yourself to trust your own judgment or instincts you don’t develop the ability. It’s like a muscle you never build.
- It’s exhausting and a waste of your focus and time. Imagine getting in your car and driving to work. You know the outcome you want (getting to work) and you know the route you want to take. Now imagine that 5 people are giving you feedback on how to make that journey all of which differed. Now imagine listening to that feedback as you are making your way to work and reacting to it. You would be changing direction and taking different routes as you go along. It would be hugely inefficient and take you forever to get to where you need to be. You will always be blown off course if you allow yourself to be steered by others and not yourself.
- Invariably, what you think others might be thinking, they likely aren’t. We never really know what others think. Therefore, actions you take on the back of your assumptions may not give you the outcome you expect anyway.
- Other people have their own hang ups. What they think of you is often wrapped up in what they think of themselves and their own issues. Why would you take that on?
I could go on I hope you have got the idea by now. Listening to feedback from others, being mindful of what others might think is fine. It should be additive to your internal voice and you can determine the credence you give it. It shouldn’t however be a substitute for your own view and it shouldn’t influence you so heavily that you go against what makes sense for you.
 Advancing the Future of Women in Business – The KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit Report. October 2020.
 The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of it. Dr Valerie Young 2011.