Imposter Syndrome

“Don’t believe everything you think about yourself.”

Byron Katie

If you experience feelings of inadequacy, or believe you have taken too great a risk, or even think that people might find out that you can’t actually do what you have been pretending to do for years, you may be suffering from imposter syndrome.

This syndrome is a psychological concept where those affected are unable to accept their accomplishments, are convinced that they have achieved them fraudulently, and fear that they will be found out at some point. Achievements are dismissed as being due to good luck and coincidence; evidence of even the slightest lack of knowledge is seen as proof that the qualifications acquired are undeserved.

Although women and men may be affected to the same extent by this syndrome, it occurs more frequently in women who also tend to manifest it more externally. It has a negative impact on self-marketing, appearance and networking, and, in consequence, results in those affected not even having the confidence to apply for positions appropriate to their level of education and experience.

Many women apply for jobs only if they meet no less than 100% of the qualifications of the job profile, while men often already feel ready to apply for a job if they meet 60% of the qualifications. Whereas during the interview, even the less confident men in this group focus on those qualifications they have acquired, women tend to list all the gaps in their education and experience without being asked about them. They believe that this will help pre-empt anybody discovering the “truth” and finding out about their deficiencies. “I don’t really have much experience of project management” is what a woman with the same qualifications as a man might say, while he will only refer to the issue in response to a question from the interviewer: “Yes, I’ve been involved in various projects and would love to be given the opportunity to take on the management of a larger-scale project.”

Imposter syndrome also affects participation in discussions and speaking time in meetings. If you constantly feel that you do not have adequate knowledge of your specialist field or of an item on the meeting’s agenda – adequate here means no less than one hundred per cent! – you will speak only on rare occasions and only if you are completely secure in your knowledge. This means that the majority of contributions to discussions are made by people who are relaxed about having only approximate knowledge and who have realised that speaking time is not primarily used to convey content, but to take up space and position oneself. This in turn results in the best-prepared women sitting in silence during meetings and leaving the stage to other less conscientious colleagues, which sabotages successful self-marketing as good achievements are neither seen nor heard. So how does this affect networking? If you spend the whole time before a meeting preparing and perfecting documents, you will not be present during the important informal discussions that take place before the meeting and will often miss out on the no less important private agreements that arise from these discussions.

If you see any sign of suspected imposter syndrome in yourself, it is a good idea to question this critically and to seek to change your self-image by, for example, obtaining qualified feedback. There is a lot at stake!