By Audrey A. Simmons, GRCA Team of Experts for Leadership Coaching & Development
Imposter syndrome was once regarded as phenomena only experienced by women; however, the research is now clear, both men and women experience imposter syndrome. In fact, around 82% of people struggle with imposter syndrome (Bravata et al., 2020). Simply put, if an individual can’t internalize their accomplishments and own their successes, they are experiencing imposter syndrome (Abrams, 2018).
The irony of the imposter phenomena is who it impacts: intelligent, high-functioning, high-achieving individuals where there is plenty of evidence that they should feel successful. Some individuals could be classified as natural geniuses, experts, the perfectionists, the “supermen” or “superwomen” of society (Young, 2011)(Tulshyan & Burey, 2021). But just because one has accomplishments, doesn’t necessarily mean one feels accomplished.
We are at the greatest risk for feeling like a fraud when we are in a new role, environment or group of individuals; additionally, if we have just had a success (i.e., passing an exam) or when we have had a failure after being successful for a significant period (Palmer, 2021). Instead of reassuring ourselves that what we are experiencing is normal and to be expected, we begin to feed the negative self-talk by comparing ourselves with others and deeming ourselves as less competent than those around us.
Thinking we have only had success because of luck or because we fooled people into thinking we are something we are not creates incredible anxiety, distracting us from being able to perform to the best of our abilities. Unmanaged, the imposter syndrome can lead to depression and eventually burnout. Here is how to get out from underneath this upside-down mindset.
Recognize the signs
- Having incredibly high expectations
- Uncomfortable accepting praise
- Feeling like a fraud
- Comparing self with others
- Unable to accept past and current accomplishments
(Palmer, 2021)(Abrams, 2018)
Start to notice
Noticing the above symptoms as they show up allows us to shift from experiencing to observing a symptom when it is occurring. The act of labeling what is happening to us gives us a different perspective. When we notice negative self-talk is happening, labeling those thoughts as negative self-talk and then choosing a different thought, such as, “I have worked hard to be here.” “It is normal to feel uncomfortable in a new environment”. This “emotion labeling” may feel strange initially as is anything new. However, according to Harvard brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, in 90 seconds the intensity of our emotions lessens if we do not continue to feed those negative thoughts by continuing to think negatively about the situation (Taylor, 2021). Taking a course in mindfulness can be a great benefit to us learning how to identify our thoughts and emotions in the moment. In a society that rewards action, taking a moment to think about what we are thinking about sounds and feels awkward, however with practice, one becomes skilled at identifying thoughts and emotions, while pausing before responding.
Challenge your thoughts
When an unhealthy thought shows up, asking ourselves, “Is this true? Is it true I do not belong here?” Listing off our accomplishments as evidence that yes, indeed we do belong.
Studies have shown how we breathe can cause us to feel certain emotions (Philippot et al.). What does this mean? If we are feeling anxious, that anxiety will decrease if we change our breathing. Try box breathing taught to our Navy SEALS in their training programs (Kumar). It’s simple, discreet and can be done anywhere. Here’s what to do, inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, and then repeat for 4 cycles.
Like, really, really celebrate! So many times, we rush from Point A to Point B, thinking Point B will be better than Point B. We arrive at Point B and then look towards Point C. We compare and decide Point C will be better than Point B, and off we go racing again without pause. We forget to enjoy the process; we forget to enjoy the win. We forget our accomplishments.
Gaining perspective. Zooming out from our current situation to consider where we were a year ago, five years ago, and comparing it to the skill set we have today brings perspective (Palmer, 2021). We are indeed a work in progress.
Lastly, understanding that the goal isn’t to never experience imposter syndrome again, but rather the goal is to recognize it and manage it in a healthy way, which will stop it from getting in the way of future successes.
All GRCA members have access to the Team of Experts. Request a free 30-minute consultation with either Audrey A. Simmons or another expert.
If you are interested in joining the GRCA Team of Experts, please contact Jackie Stiles, Director of Membership at JStiles@GreaterReading.org.
Abrams, A. (2018, June 20). Yes, imposter syndrome is real. Here’s how to deal with it.. Time. Retrieved January 16, 2023, from https://time.com/5312483/how-to-deal-with-impostor-syndrome/
Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., Nelson, R. S., Cokley, K. O., & Hagg, H. K. (2020). Prevalence, predictors, and treatment of imposter syndrome: a systematic review. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35(4), 1252–1275. Retrieved January 6, 2023, from
Kumar, K. (2021, November 18). Why do navy seals use box breathing? 4 benefits, 4 steps. MedicineNet. Retrieved January 6, 2023, from https://www.medicinenet.com/why_do_navy_seals_use_box_breathing/article.htm
Palmer, C. (2021, June 1). How to overcome imposter phenomenon. American Psychological Association. Retrieved January 6, 2023, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/06/cover-impostor-phenomenon
Philippot, P., Chapelle, G., & Blairy, S. (2002). Respiratory feedback in the generation of emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 16(5), 605–627. Retrieved January 6, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930143000392
Taylor, J. B., Dr. (2021). Whole brain living. Hay House.
Tulshyan, R., & Burey, A. (2021, February 11). Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved January 16, 2023, from https://hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome Young, V. (2011). The secret thoughts of successful women: Why capable people suffer from the imposter syndrome and how to thrive in spite of it. Currency.