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How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Have you ever stopped yourself applying for your dream job for fear you’d one day be “found out”?

Most of us have suffered from ‘imposter syndrome’ at some point in our careers. Here we explore how to overcome it, and why recruiters need to take it seriously.

Elijah Hiett on Unsplash

The Psychology Bit

Many very successful men and women have publicly admitted they’ve experienced ‘imposter syndrome’ – the fear they’re going to one day be exposed as a “fraud”....

"No matter what we've done, there comes a point where you think; how did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?". Tom Hanks
"It doesn't go away, that feeling that you shouldn't take me that seriously. What do I know? Here is the secret. I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of, I have worked at nonprofits, I have been at foundations, I have worked in corporations, served on corporate boards, I have been at G-summits, I have sat in at the UN; they are not that smart." Michelle Obama.
"You get into a tux and try and look like a grown-up, but to be honest, I still feel like a freckle-faced kid, faking it until I make it." Ryan Reynolds.

The phenomenon was first described in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes who recognised there were a large number of people who had the internal experience of feeling like an ‘intellectual phony’.

Research shows it appears that experiences in early childhood and societal stereotyping contribute significantly to people having a hard time internalising and really owning their accomplishments. Instead, they might view their success as being due to ‘luck’ or receiving ‘help.

For evolutionary reasons negative thoughts tend to stick to our brains like Velcro, whereas positive thoughts bounce off us, like repelling magnetic poles.

Is Imposter Syndrome Holding Back Top Talent?

Our in-house talent development expert, Zia Paul-Birabi, HR & Commercial Director at HVO Search, told us:

"It used to be believed that imposter syndrome plagued women more than men. However new research suggests that men also suffer from imposter syndrome, and, in certain circumstances, experience its effects more than women.

For some, the fear of being exposed as a "fraud" is so great, it becomes career limiting. So, how can we challenge this?

Rewiring Your Brain

External Factors

In many cases, impostor feelings are actually a result of environmental factors. If you aren't surrounded by people that look like you or there are perceived stereotypes about your race, age, or gender, you are bound to feel like you don't belong.

So, you might want to consider whether your job or work culture is actually having a negative impact on your confidence and self-belief. If you’re constantly working in an environment where you feel excluded or your achievements aren’t celebrated, it may be time to change jobs.

Internal Factors

For those who still feel like imposters regardless of their environment, mental well-being exercises may help.

For example:

  1. Remind yourself that your peers, even the most successful ones, are likely to be feeling the same – although they’d be unlikely to admit it.

  2. Try and normalise self-doubt. It had an evolutionary purpose. Give yourself permission to learn, make mistakes and grow.

  3. Develop your own inner coach. Instead of the negative interpretation of events, listen more to your internal best friend. Ask, is there another way of thinking about this? What would you say to a friend thinking the same thing?

  4. Decide not to engage with the ‘imposter’ voice. Think of it as a tantruming toddler. You can’t stop them bringing chaos into your life, but engaging with them when they’re having a ‘moment’ just makes it worse. Acknowledge their presence but wait for the feeling to pass, rather than fighting with it and empowering those thoughts.

You can also try these confidence-boosting techniques:

  • Write down 10 things that show you’re just as qualified as anyone else for the role you’re in.

  • Practice positive affirmations every morning: “My name is [insert name]. I am, and always will be, enough!”

  • Every time you achieve something, write it on a post-it note and stick it to the fridge/noticeboard at home so you can look at it and remind yourself of all the amazing things you’ve done that your brain has chosen to forget

  • If you’re nervous about a particular event, mentally rehearse a positive experience in your mind. It will increase your chances of a positive outcome actually taking place. And if it doesn’t – no sweat! You’ll nail it next time.

Have you experienced imposter syndrome at any point in your career? How did you overcome it? We’d love to hear from you.

Email us your thoughts.

Photo by Elijah Hiett on Unsplash.


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