Demystifying Imposter Syndrome
“I got here out of luck.” Sound familiar? We are inclined to focus on our role models’ successes and achievements. We analyze their trials, turbulences, and obstacles undertaken to reach the position they have today and how they overcame them. Personally, I can think of several individuals that I look up to as a young woman, such as Michelle Obama, Zaha Hadid, and Amelia Earhart. What may be shocking to hear is that despite a variety of achievements, many successful individuals suffer from Imposter Syndrome.
Imposter Syndrome can include feeling like a fraud and worrying that an outsider will discover one’s inadequacy. There is no limit to who this can affect. Bringing this to a university audience, I have noticed a common trend with students, particularly women, that performed very well in high school in their transition to post-secondary education. A race of anxious thoughts often arise: “What happens when I’m placed with students that have similar achievements?” “How can I distinguish myself?” “Do other students’ successes downplay my own?” The fact of the matter is, many people with imposter syndrome, no matter how much they accomplish, will continue to feel an urge to do more. A need to excel is often embedded in those with high ambition, which can have positive effects if managed correctly– or negative effects if paired with little time to rest.
A study by KPMG finds that seventy-five percent of female-identifying executives have experienced imposter syndrome at certain points in their career, and eighty-five percent believe imposter syndrome is commonly experienced by women in corporate America (KPMG, 2020). The main question I have is as follows: why are so many influential women obstructed by a mental block that invalidates their hard work? Emily Hu, a clinical psychologist from Los Angeles, may have the answer for us: “We’re more likely to experience imposter syndrome if we don't see many examples of people who look like us or share our background who are clearly succeeding in our field” (Nance-Nash, 2020). It can be difficult to feel like you are doing the right thing when you do not have a variety of examples to follow and look up to. With the influx of women in STEM and business, perhaps there will be a correction in the future: More women in related fields = lower rates of imposter syndrome. This societal construct will have an effect on most women in leadership; however, I believe there are a variety of other reasons that could increase the risk of imposter syndrome, such as poor self-esteem, high pressure environments, and possessing the stereotypical “Type A” personality. It is challenging to identify the various dimensions of individuals’ identities and how they affect our thoughts and behaviours. It is safe to say that imposter syndrome can result from societal pressures, individual thoughts and beliefs, and general upbringing.
I was often told in athletics that sports are 20% physical and 80% mental. Tying this into academics and the workplace, I am a firm believer that we are often capable of things that we desire from setting goals and working diligently towards them. Easy, right? But that is only the physical part, 20% of the task. Now try adding in the mental part, where you have to battle feelings of self-doubt, low motivation, and the fear of being “found out”. In this generation, mental training, through the use of mentorship or mindfulness, is more important than ever for athletes and students alike. In fact, 72% of executive women looked to the advice of a mentor or trusted advisor when doubting their abilities to take on new roles (KPMG, 2020).
Think of any successful woman that you know. Chances are, they have felt like an imposter at some point in their career. We do not realize this at first glance, because we can only see how they choose to present themselves; however, something we can realize is their ability to spark change and display an individual passion for a specific cause. Let these influential women in leadership provide inspiration, to prove that you are capable and worthy of any and all of your achievements— even if your mind likes to tell you otherwise.
KPMG. (2020). KPMG study finds 75% of executive women experience imposter syndrome. Retrieved 30 August 2022, from https://info.kpmg.us/news-perspectives/people-culture/kpmg-study-finds-most-female-executives-experience-imposter-syndrome.html#:~:text=Key%20findings%20of%20the%20study,by%20women%20in%20corporate%20America.
Nance-Nash, S. (2020). Why imposter syndrome hits women and women of colour harder. Retrieved 30 August 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200724-why-imposter-syndrome-hits-women-and-women-of-colour-harder