Exploring the Nature of Imposter Syndrome
by Eleanor Hooks Ph.D.
April 5, 2023

Feeling Secretly Incompetent?

In 1978, Georgia State University psychology professor, Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes, who studied high-achieving women, coined the term, impostor syndrome, a common experience that affects many women, particularly in the workplace. It’s the feeling of being a fraud or phony, “ secretly incompetent,” despite evidence of your abilities and accomplishments. Those feelings are closely related to fears of making a mistake and confirming thoughts that you think others have about your competence.

But there’s another theme for this story. Women often struggle with this syndrome because they face systemic barriers and biases that make it difficult to recognize their achievements and feel confident in their abilities. Self-judgments are reinforced by the lack of helpful feedback about their work, unreasonable expectations, or disparate opportunities for professional development.

There are ways to manage this feeling. One of the first steps is to recognize that the impostor syndrome is a common experience, so it’s important to have self-compassion. Many successful women have felt the same way at some point in their careers, and have embraced the idea that mistakes are gifts that open up new possibilities.

Another way to combat the impostor syndrome is to identify your strengths and accomplishments. Keep an updated resume readily available to remind you of your professional value, but know that you are always valuable, regardless of what others think. Update your LinkedIn profile regularly to continually keep your accomplishments visible to the broader professional community. This can help to reinforce your sense of worth and remind you that you have a network of support.

If you’re a stickler for perfection, recognize that perfectionism can contribute to the impostor syndrome. Nothing in life is perfect. What we may regard as a perfectly straight line is curved. We live in a world that is constantly changing, so what is “right” today will change. Perhaps you believe you have to be perfect in order to be successful, which can create a sense of pressure and anxiety. Instead, try to embrace the idea that mistakes are the reason changes occur. The status quo is an enemy of progress. Mistakes are a natural part of the learning process, they can help you to grow and develop. But, admit your mistakes when they occur, and embrace feedback as a gift. As a professional practice, request feedback instead of waiting for a performance review; you can then control how and when you make use of it to improve.

Learn to ask questions so you can learn and gain clarity. Be okay with not knowing and ask open-ended questions – What?, When?, How?, Where? so that you can discover the “Why.” Become comfortable as a listener, allowing and encouraging others to speak, in other words, give “the microphone” to others. Learn to check what you have heard to be certain you can proceed with accurate information. Real power exists in the questions, not having the answers.

Finally, seek out support from others. Talk to trusted friends, family members and colleagues about your feelings. You may find that others have experienced similar feelings and can offer advice and support. Consider seeking out a coach who can help you to develop individualized strategies for overcoming the impostor syndrome.

© Eleanor Hooks, Ph.D, an Executive Coach specializing in Mental Resilience