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  • Writer's pictureClarity Consultants

Imposter Syndrome: Is It Really Such a Bad Thing?

Reading the news, it seems like everyone from billionaire CEOs to Oscar-winning actresses are being hit by a mysterious malady: imposter syndrome. That’s right, some of our brightest minds are confessing to feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and the uneasy sense that their success is all a big fluke.

But are we really suffering from a mental malady each time self-doubt creeps in? Or if we feel like a career win was down, at least in part, to a stroke of good luck?

If even the world’s highest-achievers are feeling this way, perhaps it’s time to call imposter syndrome what it really is: a natural reaction to stepping out of our comfort zone. By reframing imposter feelings as inevitable by-products of professional growth, we can stop them from holding us back and fully celebrate our wins.

The Power of Naming

Although ‘imposter syndrome’ might seem like a new social media-fuelled buzz term, it was actually coined in the 1970s by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes.

Fleeting feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt are part of human nature – so why does it need a name? Often, labelling a phenomenon helps individuals understand their experiences. By wrapping up all these complex emotions in a neat term – imposter syndrome – people can recognise that it’s a common feeling, particularly among high-achievers.

But is the label truly helpful? Basima A. Tewfik, an assistant professor at MIT Sloan, doesn’t think so. She says, ‘it’s OK to have imposter thoughts sometimes. It’s not a ‘syndrome’ or a pathology.’ The bottom-line: having self-doubt doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us. Normalising Growth and Learning

When we’re doing something for the first time, It’s only natural to feel uncomfortable. Whether it’s presenting at a conference or getting to grips with a new piece of software, any learning curve comes with inevitable feelings of doubt or fear.

Feeling out of our depth is often a sign that we’re exploring new horizons and pushing our boundaries. So, instead of stigmatising them as imposter syndrome, wouldn’t it be better if we embraced uncomfortable feelings as a sign of growth?

Equally, recognising and dissecting imposter feelings - instead of instantly labelling them as symptoms of a ‘syndrome’ - can lead to greater self-awareness and personal development. It can be an invitation to self-reflect on the underlying beliefs or experiences that have contributed to these complex feelings.

Also, there are often tangible steps we can take to overcome that out-of-my-depth feeling. The uneasiness can stem from a knowledge that there are skills or knowledge we could afford to brush up on or develop. Whether it’s taking a short online course or making time to deep-dive into some research, we often have the power to level-up our skills and confidence.

Still feeling doubtful? Find comfort in the Dunning-Kruger effect. This concept explains how individuals with a low ability for a task - let’s say learning a new language - often overestimate their own ability at first. Interestingly, as expertise grows, confidence often initially decreases as the learner suddenly becomes aware of everything they don’t know.

With time and a little work, confidence is replenished. By pushing through initial self-doubt, a person will end up with an advanced ability that matches up with a strong sense of self-belief.

When Imposter Syndrome Becomes a Problem

Whilst we can use imposter feelings as a springboard to self-development, there are times when chronic self-doubt is deeply detrimental. Constant fear of being ‘exposed’ as incompetent is mentally and emotionally draining. This can act as a barrier to pursuing opportunities and progressing in a career. Yet, is this deep-seated sense of inadequacy really due to a ‘syndrome’ - or could it be a direct result of things like as a toxic work environment, unreasonable demands from managers or clients, or a lack of available training opportunities?

Ultimately, if chronic self-doubt is causing stress and crumbling self-esteem, it’s a sign that something needs to change. It might be time to switch up how or where we work, knowing that we deserve an environment where we feel supported, valued, and encouraged to grow.

Reframing Imposter Syndrome

Rather than thinking of imposter feelings as problematic symptoms of a syndrome, we can reframe them as opportunities for self-compassion, self-awareness and growth. This reframing empowers us to confront and dissect feelings of self-doubt and take action to change them.

After all, feeling one hundred percent confident in our abilities often comes from having done something a hundred times. Whilst comfort zones can be peaceful places to rest for a while, they don’t necessarily foster professional or personal growth.

So, next time you find yourself thinking, ‘I can’t believe I did that’ after a workplace win, reframe it as a celebration! You’ve exceeded your own expectations – and the only way is up.

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