Understanding and Combatting Impostor Syndrome

Feeling inadequate in the workplace or at school? Among your friends? Well, you are not alone. And there’s a name for what you’re experiencing: impostor syndrome.

In short, impostor syndrome is when someone second guesses and scrutinizes their abilities to the point that they fear they will be exposed as a fraud. As the Cleveland Clinic notes, on a professional level, impostor syndrome can make a competent employee believe their well-earned achievements are the result of luck. In personal relationships, it may lead someone to believe they are unworthy of the affection they receive from a partner.

Psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance first coined the term in a 1978 study entitled “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” Since then, the phrase has been used to describe an experience shared among people of varying classes and identities.

Issues stemming from impostor syndrome are frequently compounded for marginalized persons, who are often underrepresented in STEM and corporate America. When they are in these spaces, they face being stifled under the restrictive guise of “professionalism.”

“Professionalism was based on the notion that one withstood microaggressions and bias with grace and lightheartedness. The higher the threshold one had to tolerate bias, the more polished the attorney or paralegal appeared. This was particularly the case for women, people of color, LGBTQIA people, and people with disabilities.”

UCLA Law Review

In further analyzing impostor syndrome through a feminist lens, it becomes clearer how and why it is so common among women. Research shows that nearly three-fourths of women in executive-level positions have dealt with it at least once in their careers. Additionally, 81% of women say they believe they put more pressure on themselves than men do.

Studies like these show how closely linked impostor syndrome is to our identities. They also suggest that impostor syndrome isn’t merit-based. Though it may be discouraging on the surface, it can also be comforting to know that almost nobody is spared from these intrusive thoughts, regardless of where we’re positioned in life.

What Can You Do About Impostor Syndrome?

It must be noted that it is okay to experience impostor syndrome. But, it is also okay to find ways to cope with this feeling.

In my experience, one of the best ways I’ve dealt with it is to review my accomplishments. Fighting those intrusive “what ifs” with your tangible, real-life accomplishments is both grounding and validating. It is also imperative to know that it’s okay to make mistakes — it does not mean you’re a failure or a fraud. Giving yourself grace is invaluable.

When it comes to impostor syndrome, there’s a balance between accepting your feelings as valid while also understanding that a lot of us have been conditioned to question the space we occupy. Thriving despite impostor syndrome requires us to celebrate where we are in any given moment. It’s important to understand that the space you’re occupying is yours. You’re exactly where you need to be.


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