Updated: Mar 11, 2021
By Palwasha A. and Mariam H.
You’re sitting at your computer, looking through potential job listings and internships, a blank doc open for the resume you’re about to create. You read through the description for each role, your confidence diminishing. It all seems so far above what you’re qualified to do. You highlight the roles where you think you can get your foot in the door.
As you stare at the blank document of your resume, you think about how you’ve done nothing worthy of being mentioned on there, and try to figure out how to make it look longer than a postage stamp. You exaggerate your achievements and the whole time you wonder just how long you can get away with it.
Can you tell me about a time where you’ve experienced the feeling of not being as good or feeling like a fraud?
Yeah, particularly at the moment, because right now I’m not working; I stopped working in 2016 and moved to Sydney to finish my nursing degree. I’ve been applying for jobs. I used to work in a hospital for disability in Northern Territory. When I apply for jobs, they will call for interview then say at the end of the day, “sorry, after carefully considering…” something like that. It makes you feel bad you know, and you see other people getting opportunities and even when you’re talking among your colleagues, maybe in placement or maybe at school, they say “Oh, I’m working there or there”. So I’m thinking what is going on, what is the matter, is it my resume or what? At times I don’t feel courage. Recently I even applied for a job and they were like, “we advise you to look at the website regularly and apply for the future”. I thought, “If I apply for the future vacancies, am I not going to get the same result?” So it slows down your energy but one thing I know for sure is that it won’t continue that way. Definitely when the time comes, I will get mine, so. That’s what keeps me going.
Sola, Nursing Student, 42 years old
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome refers to patterns of behaviour wherein people doubt their abilities, irrespective of any past achievements (Nelson 2011). In fact, people will attribute most of their success to luck, chance or timing, while taking full responsibility for any failure. The syndrome was first explored in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who described it as “an internal feeling of intellectual phoniness” coupled with the insistent anxiety that you would be found out (pg. 241). The interesting thing was that these feelings persisted despite actual academic and professional experience, resulting in crippling self-doubt and the anticipation of failure (Nelson 2011).
While imposter syndrome can be experienced by anyone, research has indicated that it is disproportionality higher among women and people from minority groups (Mullangi, Samyukta & Jagsi 2019). For women belonging to minority groups facing structural barriers, the experience of imposter syndrome is often inflated by the lack of forerunners or role models of the same background in their field. It’s safe to assume that almost every objectively competent woman, and especially woman of colour, has experienced at least one moment in their lives when they have felt like they don’t belong in a space they are otherwise qualified for.
What Does Imposter Syndrome Look Like?
Has there ever been a time in your career where you’ve felt like a fraud?
When I first got my job as a teacher, I was very scared of my English speaking abilities. I kept thinking, “they’ve got it wrong, they’re going to figure out that they’ve made a mistake and fire me from my job.” For the first two, three years I was like that. My first parent-teacher interview night, I was so nervous I said, “What if I don't understand the parents?” My colleagues, they kept saying “you understand us, why are you so worried?” Finally I went through it, and I understood everyone. But I was scared for a very long time thinking they’d find out that I actually don’t speak English that well. One time that I gained some confidence was when one of the native English-speakers in my biology class asked me a question about English grammar or something, and I answered him. That’s when I thought “oh, they actually think I know English.”
Thoraya, Science teacher for over a decade. 45 years old.
The look and feeling of imposter syndrome can be boiled down to the following three statements:
Intense internal pressure to avoid failure.
Extreme fear of being a fraud and people finding out you’re incompetent.
Worry that you do not have the ability to complete something satisfactorily.
In short, imposter syndrome looks like a person who is qualified to complete a task but cannot see themselves as such. They attribute their success to luck and other external factors without any acknowledgment of their own ability, effort and hard work (which can result in the fear that they won’t be able to replicate this success, creating constant anxiety, especially at deadlines).
A person with it typically downplays their successes and emphasises their failures. If they succeed they will likely attribute it to the ease of the task, or others’ contributions. This will also result in difficulty accepting compliments. Think about times when someone praised you for work that you poured countless hours of sleeplessness into - how many times have you responded with one of the following:
“Oh it’s nothing”
“I actually didn’t even do anything”
“Hahahah thanks, but it could have been so much better”
Has there ever been a time where you felt unworthy of the praise you were getting?
I once made a painting in class, a simple watercolour penguin, that won an award in an art competition. I never submitted it to the competition but the painting ended up being exhibited in a gallery alongside other entrants. They were all framed and invitations were sent out to families to join the viewing. I remembered seeing all the other submissions and thinking “this isn’t right, why am I here?” I looked at my painted penguin and thought, “this doesn’t deserve all this attention, it’s bad, I wasn’t even trying” When I was praised for the painting I questioned their honesty in my mind. I desperately wanted to tell them that I didn’t belong up there with all the other artists. I was only 11 years old trying to convince everyone around me to take that painting down, hide it, rip it or burn it because I believed that everyone would see what I saw, that they’d eventually see with stark clarity that I was never good enough to be there in the first place.”
So Why Does It Matter?
Identifying imposter syndrome within yourself is important for numerous reasons. The first and most immediate reason is that when you live with the feeling that you are a fraud, it stops you from achieving the best in your work. The tendency of imposter syndrome to stop you from internalising your achievements, and so downplaying them, often means that you will likely not be credited for them. This is where imposter syndrome starts to have very real life effects. It can lead to lost opportunities, career setback due to not taking credit for your work, and not asking for opportunities or promotions.
Research has shown that this is unfortunately a common trend for women, who while excelling in meritocratic institutions such as students in school and university (eg. high marks on a test you’ve been assigned), do not carry this over to the ‘real world’ setting of work, which is far more dependent on self-promotion (this means networking, talking about yourself, appearing confident in your own abilities) (Mullangi, Samyukta & Jagsi, 2019). There is an undeniable gendered dimension to this, as the same revered traits of self-assuredness, confidence and aggression in men, are often viewed as pushy, domineering, and unsocial in women (Fitzpatrick, & Curran, 2014).
Additionally, the structural barriers, lack of strong role models, mentors and sponsors for people from minority groups means that the assertion that you are entitled to success, and deserve to be rewarded for the work you do, is not a reality for all and cannot be accepted the same way by minorities. Mullangi, Samyukta & Jagsi, Reshma (2019), even state that in this way imposter syndrome can be conceptualised as “a symptom of inequity.” Essentially, the effects of imposter syndrome end up meaning that you are ultimately stopped from achieving the things that you are most suited to do.
A more immediate consequence of imposter syndrome is that it can actually affect your performance in your work. Feelings of inadequacy, or failing to recognise your expertise in an area can mean that you are unable to exhibit the appropriate level of professionalism and competence required for the role, despite the actual skills, knowledge and experience that you possess. For example, in a profession where a client needs to feel safe and confident in their carer’s ability to do a job, the carer’s own perception of their abilities can severely influence the client’s. This affects the quality of care they are able to deliver.
How Do You Overcome Imposter Syndrome?
“When I was still in the early years of working as an Occupational Therapist, a doctor was speaking to me and told me I was nothing but a glorified administrator. If it had come at an earlier time in my life, or if I hadn't been questioned my entire life, maybe I would have let it go. But it wasn't just about representing myself and women, it was about advocating for my entire profession. So it told him "No. Actually what I do is get people back to living their life in the way that they want"
Sara, OT of 36 years, professor at the University of Sydney
So now that we’ve established that imposter syndrome is crippling and terrible, what do we do about it? After scouring the internet and raiding the minds of some of the people that have made it to the other side, here are some tried and trusted ways of overcoming imposter syndrome:
As the old cliche goes, the first step is to admit you have a problem. Consider those pestering thoughts of inadequacy. Do they have any basis in reality? Are they really justified? Do you fail consistently or is it that you’ve never really kept track of your successes?
Be a realist (and we don’t mean a pessimist catfishing as a realist)
Consider your context and where you are at in life. How much are you really expected to know at the stage you’re currently at? If you’re just starting a job for example, it is completely normal and acceptable not to know all of its ins and outs yet, and to feel as though you're out of your depth. Not knowing everything just means that you will continue to progress and develop. And remember that it's ok to ask for help if you need it.
Talk it out!
Discuss your feelings with trusted friends or colleagues. High chances are they are also feeling or have at some point felt the same way. Work out strategies together. Don’t let the feelings of inadequacy fester in your own mind. Talking about what you’re feeling will also help you to get another person’s more objective perspective on your abilities.
Reframe your negative thoughts
Think of real life instances and examples that contradict the feeling that you haven’t achieved anything, and more likely than not you’ll find examples you haven’t thought of since the time you achieved them. It’s important to isolate and identify the cruel voice of IS in your head and do the work to learn your worth, so that next time you’re confronted with feelings of inadequacy you can identify them for what they are and start to reframe them.
And finally, failure really isn’t all it's cracked up to be.
In a capitalist society like our own, becoming obsessed with the idea of success, all the ways we can achieve it, the things we’re going to do when we have it, is normal. Expected, in fact. So, in an environment where the ‘self-made individual’ is king, it’s easy to see how we’ve internalised the idea that failure is a personal defect. Context, structure, circumstance and sheer luck are not factored into the equation. For people who are from minority groups this obsession can also be compounded by feelings of responsibility as a representative for your entire community.
Failure is inevitable in the same way that death, a holiday themed Krispy Kreme release, and an unnecessary Hollywood reboot of a great franchise is. It's important to understand that failure is a part of life, expected but not constant. The hard part isn’t the failing, but being able to learn the lesson from it and use it to build your wisdom.
To paraphrase the great SRK in the Bollywood classic ‘Om Shanti Om’, failure isn’t the end of the story, it’s just a chapter. Maybe even several chapters. But the point is, by recognising that failure is just the complementary toy in the Happy Meal of life, the shame of failing gets lifted. Failure itself is not synonymous with an unchanging intrinsic part of you, it’s just one of the stages in the process.