Updated: Jan 26
If you’re a high achiever but can’t quite believe you actually deserve your success, you may suffer from imposter syndrome.
You’re at the top of your game, the envy of your peers, an inspiration to young leaders who aspire to be you. Yet, when you’re alone with your thoughts, you feel like an imposter — someone playing the part of a C-suite phenom. Secretly, you doubt you really know anything about your area of expertise, and you worry: When will the jig be up? When will that infamous shoe drop, and I am exposed for the fraud that I am?
If you’ve ever felt like this, you might be suffering from imposter syndrome. But don’t worry, you’re not alone. It’s estimated that 1 in 3 U.S. employees, roughly 32 percent, and up to 70 percent of the population have experienced imposter syndrome at some point.
For some, experience and career maturity will help you realize that you do deserve your success, that you fit right in at the top. Imposter syndrome, also known as imposter phenomenon, is a form of intellectual self-doubt. First described by Suzanne Imes, PhD and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD in 1978, at the time it was thought to occur mostly in women. That has since been disproved; it occurs in men and women.
Imposter syndrome occurs in high achievers — though not exclusively — who have a hard time believing they deserve their success. They feel like frauds, and commonly contribute their success to pure luck, coincidence, or good timing. Imposter syndrome is often accompanied by anxiety because the person suffers in silence and is always waiting to be found out for the phony they believe themselves to be.
Experiencing imposter syndrome is not uncommon. Albert Einstein and Meryl Streep have had it. Einstein feared that his work wasn’t worth all the fuss, and Meryl Streep didn’t think she could act.
Luckily, there are things we can do to move past imposter syndrome and genuinely appreciate our successes. More importantly, you can do things to ensure this common feeling doesn’t actively derail your career.
I was once a young commodity trader in a highly stressful, complicated position as the general manager, trader and logistics guru for an ocean-going, vessel loading, major grain export facility in Baltimore. I managed the three-shift facility, traded the grain and transported it from the midwest to the east coast—a logistical nightmare running eight, 100 car trains to our small facility, to load ships that would sail the world, all under time constraints.
I had moments of sheer panic where I wondered, what am I doing? Do I even have a clue about this whole thing? I worked 24-7, and eventually “moved” into my office at the facility so not to miss a thing. When the program proved highly successful, I still thought, “Well, anyone could have probably done it.” Turns out, I understood my job quite well. On the other hand, I didn’t have a clue that I had imposter syndrome.
It’s a relief to share that I moved past this, and so can you. First, however, you have to own up to things. Dr. Valerie Young, who has spent decades studying imposter syndrome, identified five subgroups of it in her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of it. They are:
1. The perfectionist: Sets excessively high goals
2. The superwoman/man: Works harder to measure up
3. The natural genius: Has high goals, works hard but wants success on the first try
4. The soloist: Independent, can’t ask for help for fear of exposure
5. The expert: Fears they will never know enough
While these are extremely brief descriptors of Dr. Young’s subgroups, do you see yourself in any of these? Identification could be the first step in determining if you are experiencing imposter syndrome. I was the Superwoman.
For me, the epiphany came when I was asked to be a mentor to a newly minted grain trader. During our sessions, as I taught him our trade, I realized just how much I actually knew. It was an eye-opener for me — I really did know this stuff, and I was pretty good at it! If you have the opportunity and the desire, become a mentor to someone, it might help you more than them.
I have since left grain trading behind, and now I’m an international cultural consultant and etiquette expert. Yes, I’m an expert, and I coach people who, while not necessarily suffering from imposter syndrome, may suffer from a lack of confidence. A good tip to either help you overcome imposter syndrome, to build your confidence, or both, is to take a good look into your toolbox. Open it, and inside you will find all the tools with which you are confident.
How are your communication skills? Do others understand what you mean? Are you present when you listen? Are you creative, persuasive, a good problem solver? Do you make things happen? If you’re reading this, I imagine you do. You are probably a high achiever, and you simply could not have gotten to where you are without good communication skills. Keep looking. I’m sure there are many tools of confidence in your toolbox. Be honest with yourself, and try to acknowledge your best features.
Another tip, and a good one, is to reach out and speak to someone. Perhaps you have had someone in your career whom you admire, who was helpful, perhaps a mentor. Reach out, and listen to what they have to say about you and your career. It might be a pleasant conversation to hear how well you’ve done from a senior colleague you trust. If you simply cannot shake the detrimental feeling of self-doubt, it might be a good idea to contact a professional, a therapist or psychologist.
As an etiquette expert, my final advice to you is my advice to everyone: Be respectful. Be thoughtful, and as always, be kind — especially to yourself. You deserve it!