This week I am going on a mental health first aid course with work. I have wanted to do this for a while and when the opportunity came up I leapt at the chance to sign up. I suffer from General Anxiety Disorder where I generally struggle with worry on a daily basis. Don't get me wrong there are people who suffer far more than I do, but this is something I have to deal with.

If I am honest I hadn't heard of Imposter Syndrome until a last year when I suffered my last anxiety attack.  During this I started to read - a lot.  It turns out that Imposter Syndrome seemed to be linked to anxiety but not only that I started to recognise the signs of the syndrome myself.  

My personal experience is summed up by the following:

  • I often go home thinking - "When am I going to be rumbled?".
  • I've been known to say "I've been faking it for 20 years".
  • I feel threatened by people thinking - "They will do better than me, they know more".
  • I question my career and ability to succeed at it.
  • I struggle to accept praise when I have achieved it - often passing the praise to other people.
  • I ruminate over problems, overworking into the night until I solve it (or fall asleep).
  • I want to know everything about anything.
  • Criticism reinforces my belief.

As a result of the above, I often can appear to act defensive in nature to others - not ideal in a team environment.

A lot of articles online address Imposter Syndrome from the 1st person view, however I am hoping the following post can help raise awareness amongst teams and leaders in the workplace.

High Performers affected the worst

Imposter Syndrome is the inability for people to recognise that their achievements is through skill.  They believe any success is likely down to luck. It also causes people to have a fear that they will be exposed as a fraud.  The condition is not diagnosed as a mental disorder but is recognised as a condition that can affect people in the workplace. Affecting high performers the most, it is not gender biased but women are more susceptible.

People who are ambitious, success focussed and work hard for achievements can often become fearful once they accomplish what they set out to do.

Psychologists prefer to label Imposter Syndrome as "Imposter Experiences" because it is a temporary state of mind rather than a medical decision.  It is often trigged following a success or opportunity such as getting a new job or promoted within a job.

Signs everywhere

It can be difficult to identify because it requires people to be open and talk about it which won't always happen because people feel shamed over it. Being aware of the signs however can make it easier to identify.  Typical signs may involve:

  • Feeling they are a fraud?.
  • Not valuing themselves.
  • Negative self talk or putting themself down.
  • Dwelling on mistakes.
  • Thinking "If I can do it, other people can do it".
  • Assuming compliments are a result of people being nice.
  • Using minimising language like "I'm pretty sure....".
  • Procrastinating work.
  • Being a perfectionist.
  • Any success is simply luck.

It can affect your business.

It is important to recognise employees who may suffer from Imposter Syndrome as it can hit a companies bottom line.  Employees who suffer from it will unlikely take risks, show innovation or put forward their ideas.  They will often work to solve problems themselves than working with others in fear of being "exposed".  

This is a particular problem as the individuals who often suffer are high achievers and may appear confident on the outside.

Imposter Syndrome Perception

Raising Awareness To Help Identify

Due to the nature of the syndrome, it can be difficult to recognise and easy to not spot.  There can be a number of ways that leaders or employers can assist in raising awareness.

  • Launch an awareness campaign in your business and on your Intranet to highlight the syndrome and encourage people to talk.
  • Engage and listen to the tone and nature someone talks about when they are praised.
  • Invest in training and effort for employees on Imposter Syndrome and mental health.
I think the most creative people veer between ambition and anxiety, self-doubt and confidence. I definitely can relate to that. We all go through that: “Am I doing the right thing?” “Is this what I’m meant to be doing?” -Daniel Radcliffe

Assisting Employees

By now, we know what Imposter Syndrome is,  but what can we do to assist people who suffer.  Fundamentally we need to encourage people to recognise themselves they may be suffering.  

  • Provide guidance on the condition and help them reframe the situation.
  • Reassure them they are not alone and others will be experiencing it.
  • Create a supportive culture, with psychological safety to allow mistakes to happen without persecution.
  • Encourage leaders to share scenarios they have failed in.
  • Provide managers and leaders training on how to deal with Imposter Syndrome.
  • Explain that Imposter Syndrome is something they will likely always experience, but provide structure to allow them to live with it without fear.

These are just a few ideas on how the workplace can support employees suffering from Imposter Syndrome.  Remember as leaders we owe it to our employees to assist them and not to add stress but enable them to do their job to the best of their abilities.

Finally, as for me!

As for myself, I continue to learn and deal with Imposter Syndrome, having recognised it in myself I do believe that the link with my anxiety is clearly a contributing factor. It is something that I have to accept is part of me and I try to use it as a positive to encourage members of my team and use it to drive myself further.  I have started to accept when people compliment my work.  After all, if someone takes the time to appreciate my work, the least I can do is gratefully receive it.

The irony is, do I feel like a fraud writing about a subject a psychologist would generally cover.  Possibly I do, but equally I feel that it is important to raise awareness of it and to ensure we all can get the most out of the teams and people we work with.