When We’re All Different, There Is No Imposter Syndrome

by | Nov 12, 2018 | Wellbeing

This blog is part III of a five-part series on the theme of ‘Valuing Your Difference: Your “Shortcomings” Are Your Superpowers’. It is based on the presentation of that title delivered at Nottingham UK’s #WomenInTech event in October 2018.

Read Part I: Diverse Thought Prevents Dangerous Echo Chambers

Read Part II: Discomfort Is A Learning Space


Imposter Syndrome. That disheartening feeling of being a fraud or feeling like you don’t belong. Sound familiar? An estimated 70% of people experience imposter feelings at some point in their lives, so rest assured; you’re not alone.

The Impostor Phenomenon was first identified by Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes in 1978, based on clinical observations during therapeutic sessions with high achieving women. Despite objective evidence of success, these women believed that they were intellectual frauds and feared being recognised as imposters.

The experience of Imposter Syndrome can be a fleeting episode (for example, the first time you’re asked to sit on an expert panel) or a chronic experience as you struggle to recognise your outward achievements as your own doing. Long-term sufferers are likely to experience anxiety, a deep-rooted fear of failure or exposure, and general dissatisfaction with life.

When you consider the consequences of such distress and its impact on mental health, Imposter Syndrome shouldn’t be dismissed as a trivial buzzword that celebrated achievers cling onto to demonstrate their humility. Imposter Syndrome is real and it is painful. And it’s all too common.

Imposter Syndrome: Internalised Self-Doubt

Our default response to Imposter Syndrome is to internalise its origin. In other words, we ask ourselves: What is it about me that is less-than? What can I do to improve my confidence in my abilities? We search for answers about our psyche to address our perceived “shortcomings”.

But what if we’ve internalised social stereotypes and narratives which manifest as low self-esteem and self-worth? What if sufferers of Imposter Syndrome are so because of society, history and circumstance, and not their inner make-up?

Whilst more recent research has proven that it is not just women who experience Imposter Syndrome, it is logical that those in minority groups are more at risk. In non-diverse business scenarios, your race, gender or sexuality will (even if just subconsciously) certify that you are in the minority; you are an outsider.

As women, the further we progress in our careers, the more of an imposter we are likely to feel. Most business structures are the product of the patriarchy and in many cases, we have been invited into those structures, we haven’t built them ourselves.

Furthermore, belonging to a group which has had a reputation as incompetent or less-than can exacerbate imposter feelings. Women carry an emotional, collective history of oppression and are still striving for equality – our experience doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Being an imposter has, at different stages, been a reality and not just a psychological phenomenon.

So what can we do about it?

Imposter Syndrome: The External Factor

Arguably, there are two factors at play which generate an “imposter”; the subject and the environment. So, what if we switch focus from ourselves to the environment? Can this help us to feel more accepted and less of a fraud?

Here’s the secret – when we’re all different, there are no imposters. When a team, company or industry is diverse and gender-balanced, when society is well-represented, it becomes impossible to impose. All are welcome.

A sense of belonging fosters confidence, as the more people look or sound like you, the more confident you feel. And conversely, institutionalised discrimination prompts imposter feelings. The structure of our environment can serve to lift us and welcome us or isolate and discourage us.

Business leaders who nurture a diverse and inclusive culture will help to reduce Imposter Syndrome amongst their employees. It may not dissipate immediately, but the positive effects over time will surely erode the causes and lead to a more confident and less fearful workforce.

What is your experience with Imposter Syndrome? How do you think it can be overcome? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Keep an eye out for the next part in the series ‘Don’t Rise Alone’. You can sign up to our newsletter below so you don’t miss it.

Read Part I: Diverse Thought Prevents Dangerous Echo Chambers

Read Part II: Discomfort Is A Learning Space  


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