Exposed: Feeling like an imposter in your own life

Words by Mallory Pace


When I first started my internship at “Folio,” I felt like a fool. After I was accepted into the program, my thoughts quickly turned from excitement to doubt. Despite being well qualified and having a loaded portfolio in my pocket, I felt as if I had somehow tricked my way into the role. I thought they just made a mistake and they’re going to figure it out quickly. Still, I pushed through and wrote my first few articles, feeling the uncertainty and desperation through the screen with each sentence I wrote. After they were published I thought “OK, you got lucky this time, but it won’t last.” Month after month, meeting after meeting, article after article, I prepared to be caught like the fraud I feel like. Here I am eight months later still writing, still feeling uncertain. No matter the amount of praise, positive feedback or support I receive, my brain convinces itself that I’m a phony, and everyone will see right through me; it’s only a matter of time. That’s imposter syndrome. 


Imposter syndrome is the tendency to discount or diminish obvious signs of our success, and it’s a common feeling, especially in an online age of exposure to everyone else’s success. Just by scrolling on LinkedIn, we may find ourselves taking other people’s accomplishments as evidence for our own self-perceived incompetence. Through social media, especially, we’ve evolved to compare our lives, success and happiness to other people, in our circle or not. As a result, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to celebrate or even recognize our own achievements because there’s always something to be done better, quicker and more effortlessly. There are several types of imposter syndrome and how it affects someone, but most commonly it refers to the psychological experience of feeling like a fake or a phony despite any genuine success that you have achieved, according to an article on the website Verywell Mind. The term was first used by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in their 1978 book, ‘The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women” after Clance discovered how many of her students, primarily female, shared these feelings of inadequacy and fraudulence. Since then the term has only grown in popularity among both men and women from a wide range of backgrounds and professional fields. 


According to the Imposter Syndrome Institute (ISI), 75% of executive women say they’ve experienced imposter syndrome, 80% of CEOs feel out of their depth in their role and 84% of entrepreneurs and small business owners report having a similar experience. Though it’s not technically a clinical diagnosis, it’s been observed across populations and disciplines through research studies. 


According to the National Cancer Institute, a systematic review of 62 studies evaluated prevalence of imposter syndrome, indicating rates as high as 56% to 82% in graduate students, college students, nurses, medical students and other professions. From entry-level professionals to successful business owners to top dog executives, this feeling of being a fake or a phony is widespread. Michelle Obama even admitted to sharing these feelings of imposter syndrome during her talk at an all-girls school in North London in 2018. Surely, that’s comforting.


The term is commonly associated with gender as conversations focus around women primarily experiencing imposter syndrome. Anyone can experience these feelings, but it’s well established in research literature and in a number of large scale studies that there’s a significant difference in how men and women perceive and exhibit confidence in the workplace. Women have an inverse relationship with confidence and competence, explained psychologist Tracy Alloway. In women, our competence is typically high, but our confidence is lower when we compare ourselves to our male counterparts, who tend to have higher levels of confidence regardless of where their competence falls. 


In addition to being a licensed psychologist, Alloway is an author and professor at the University of North Florida who has focused her work primarily on the brain and how we make decisions. She explained that imposter syndrome is a stress mechanism to which people respond differently to. As women, our default in the workplace is to underplay our competence, and as a result, we adopt a lower sense of self-confidence. Broadly speaking, men tend to adopt a fight or flight response to criticism as a defensive approach, whereas for women, the general stress response is tend or befriend, meaning we’re more likely to seek social support and reassurance from others in response to stress and criticism. 


She recently conducted a study looking specifically at imposter syndrome among women in the workplace. With over 300 female participants across different industries, job titles and demographics, Alloway’s study found age to be a significant factor in how much an individual experiences imposter syndrome. 


“Interestingly, we found this slope, where the younger the individual, or the female, in the workplace, the higher the incidence of impostor syndrome was,” she said. 


Her study found very different mechanisms in the workplace that can contribute to imposter syndrome based on age. Among the 18-34 population, their perceived stress was the biggest predictor for their sense of imposter syndrome. Alloway clarified that objective stress is distinctive from perceived stress, where levels are dependent upon an individual and how they respond or perceive a stressful situation. She pointed out, however, that the idea of perceived stress can be empowering because if you can learn how to reframe the way you approach stress in the workplace, you can learn to manage it in a healthier way. In the 35-44 age bracket, stress was an important indicator, but this group also heavily looks to workplace support and whether they feel they have access to supportive resources as a predictor for such feelings. In the older population, Alloway explained, it was their sense of social connectedness to other employees in the workplace that best indicated their levels of imposter syndrome. 


Gender aside, identity as a whole typically plays a role in someone’s level of imposter syndrome. In the context of race, people may feel like an imposter in a work environment as a result of their attributes. In a podcast from The Anxious Achiever with Morra Aarons-Mele and psychologist Lisa Orbé-Austin, they discuss the correlation between minorities who experience imposter syndrome and discrimination-based depression. Orbé-Austin explains that if someone faces microaggressions in the workplace related to their identity, it can serve as a catalyst for feelings of isolation, like they may not be cut out for their job or perhaps feeling like they only got the job because of their identity and not their qualifications. It could also be that they don’t feel represented in their environment among coworkers or top-level positions, so they may feel inadequate or out of place.


Types of imposters


The way someone experiences imposter syndrome is partially dependent on their perception of what it means to be competent, according to Valerie Young. Since co-founding ISI in 1983, Young has led the way in providing information and tools to organizations and individuals on this phenomenon. Her book, “The Secrets Thoughts of Successful Women,’” dives into her decades of research and studies on why capable people (men and women) suffer from imposter syndrome and how to thrive in spite of it. In an article by Young on ISI’s website, she writes, “People who feel like impostors hold themselves to an unrealistic and unsustainable standard of competence, falling short of this standard evokes shame.” However, not all people experience failure-shame the same way because they don’t all define or perceive competence the same. Young has determined these different types of competencies, or imposter syndrome, in five unique categories.


The Perfectionist focuses on the quality of the work to the point of perfection. One minor flaw or shortcoming results in feelings of failure and shame. They believe that unless they were absolutely perfect, they could have done better. 

The Expert focuses on what or how much they know or can do. They measure competency in quantity and can feel like an imposter if they don’t know everything there is to know about a subject or haven’t mastered every step in a process. Because they expect it of themself to know everything, any lack of knowledge results in failure.

The Soloist believes a task needs to be completed on their own and to need help is a sign of failure and consequently, shame. Because they couldn’t reach success on their own, they question their own capabilities.

The Natural Genius measures success by the ease and speed of completing a task. If they have to struggle to master a skill or can’t quickly complete a task on the first try, they may feel like a fraud simply because they don’t believe they’re naturally intelligent enough.

The Superhuman believes they must be the hardest worker or reach the highest achievement possible, or else they’ve failed. They base competency on how many roles or tasks they can juggle and excel in, including in their job, as a parent, friend, student, etc. Falling short in any role results in feelings of shame.


A fine line of insecurity


Alloway emphasized that imposter syndrome does feed into a bit of anxiety, but the question isn’t whether it’s good or bad, but is it healthy or harmful? A healthy dose of imposter syndrome can encourage us to continue growing and challenging ourselves in the workplace, she explained. But it becomes harmful when it’s crippling or paralyzing to the point where we don’t seek promotions and opportunities or speak up to share our ideas because this idea of imposter syndrome is keeping us from doing so. It can be difficult to acknowledge that what’s holding you back is all in your head, but Alloway said it’s important to have insight into our own mechanisms and drivers. For example, if a promotion comes up at work and you decide not to go for it, consider what’s truly driving that decision. 

You recognize that while impostor syndrome, or that self doubt, may be one of the factors influencing your decision for promotion, it’s not a major factor,” she said. “Conversely, if you recognize ‘Hey, this is a job I’ve always wanted; this is a job I know I can do’ and you feel you have the competence to do it, but that self doubt is affecting your confidence.” 


Stepping back into yourself


A large part of managing or healing these feelings is in how you choose to let it affect you. If you give into these thoughts and let them take control over your choices and actions, you give them the power to overcome your life. The average human brain generates roughly 6,000 thoughts per day, and some studies have found that at least more than half are negative. Our brains are powerful, especially in the weight of our thoughts and how they affect self-perception. Because of negativity bias, we’re more inclined to dwell on negative thoughts and allow negative situations to affect our psychological state more than positive ones. When you combine that tendency with an over-saturation of social media and a comparative outlook on life, it’s no wonder why people experience imposter syndrome. But, by picking apart that equation, we can start to recognize triggers and begin to learn how to respond. 


Though it’s a personal experience, it’s important to consider that systems also play a significant part, according to the American Psychology Association (APA). On the other side of what Alloway found regarding people needing access to a support system in the workplace, there are ways that employers and companies can foster success among their employees, especially in underrepresented groups. This can look like hiring and promoting people with underrepresented identities, increasing access to internal support resources and creating an overall safe, supportive work environment. 


On an individual level, Alloway suggested a tip that can almost reverse engineer our sense of self-doubt by making our bodies trick our brains into feeling confident. She called it power posing, where you stand up straight and tall, hands on your hips, chin up and shoulders back like Superman or Wonder Woman. Typically, our brain communicates to our body how we should act; if your brain is feeling nervous and intimidated, your body will respond to that by slouching, making itself look small or you’ll engage in self-soothing behaviors like nail-biting or fidgeting. 


“But we can reverse engineer it by having your body tell your brain ‘Hey, look at me, I’m standing upright, my shoulders are back, I’m standing in a very confident posture’,” Alloway said. “It’s almost like you’re tricking your brain into feeling confident.”


The APA lists several tips for dealing with imposter syndrome, including sharing your feelings, fears and failures with others. Opening communication, especially with coworkers or people in your similar position, helps break down the wall of insecurity and can invite others to relate to your experience. They also suggest letting go of perfectionism and learning to cultivate self-compassion. Adjusting your standards to be more reasonable helps lower the fear of failure; resist the urge to see your failure as exposure, according to the APA. Finally, celebrate your successes — allow yourself to be proud of your achievements. By celebrating the small things, you can learn to redirect your thoughts and responses when you’re faced with a challenge. Push through the negative thoughts, especially when facing new opportunities, and when you come out the other end — because you always have before — be proud. Take your accomplishments as evidence of your strength, not your ability to “fake it” because you’re not. In your inevitable failures, find room for growth, not corroboration for what your brain is trying to convince you of. Remind yourself of the things you have done, and if you’ve made it this far, you can certainly keep going.


About Mallory Pace

Friends and family knew Mallory Pace would become a writer when she wrote and illustrated a hand-made children’s book in the third grade for her class to read. It didn’t indicate a prodigy-in-the-making, but all the elements of a good storyline were there, waiting to be improved. Now, Mallory is about to graduate from the University of North Florida with a multimedia journalism degree and minors in political science and marketing, with which she hopes to continue storytelling and exploring avenues of multimedia journalism. In Mallory's free time, you’ll either find her taking her cat, Peter, on a walk via stroller, or galavanting around the beaches.