Perspectives on Imposter Syndrome

An interview with Temasek Foundation’s My Mental Health Page

This was the full email interview for two articles published:

1. Imposter syndrome is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. It often disproportionately affects high-achieving people, who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments. As such, someone can be highly-accomplished, successful, and talented and yet, doubt their own abilities and talent.

Do you think there is awareness among the business leaders who you’ve come across that others might have the same feelings of self-doubt and minimizing one’s abilities and achievements, or do they feel alone in this?

First, let me speak for myself to start with given my 30 years in the corporate sector, and 25 of them in senior leadership, I would say I felt alone in this. I definitely didn’t know the term but when I was made a General Manager at 25 in Singapore, and subsequently Managing Director for Jakarta of an international events company at 27, I had a strange mix of confidence and self doubt. The confidence comes from the recognition given to assume the leadership responsibility, the self doubt comes from the lack of experience and in Jakarta, the challenge of having to manage in a different culture. I definitely felt alone when I was working overseas, I think being in a foreign land also added on to that.

When I later, at 29/30, became Managing Director for New York Institute of Finance (a company founded by the New York Stock Exchange in 1922) overseeing its Asia Pacific and Middle East operations, I also felt some self doubt including being the only woman leader and youngest person in this role at this level. The strange thing is none of this prevented me from being competent or actually excelling in my role, but looking back, there was certainly the stress of being ‘outed’ that I was not good enough! I definitely felt that too when I first became an NMP. :) I didn’t feel that I was alone though in my later years as a leader because I could observe the same concerns in my peers.

As a leadership/executive coach for leaders and middle level managers of different nationalities in the last 7 years, I would say that most of my clients came to me because they felt like they could do better in their work and/or vocation when many were already accomplished in their own right. For some, it may be imposter syndrome because they don’t seem to think they deserve where they are. But most if not all hold varying sense of self doubt and fear of failure. Yes, many thought they were the only ones amongst their peers, and even juniors, who feel this way.

Now I know that what is seen as ‘imposter syndrome’ for me came from my childhood experiences of not being welcomed as a girl when born, and being called ‘slow’ because a birth eye defect that got many to assume I was developmentally challenged. I was not, and was in fact very good in performing in school and later at work but this early psychological imprint definitely played a role in my self doubt as a female leader who was successful. Similarly with my coaching clients, we can trace back this self doubt to the influences and experiences they had in their earlier years.

2. Imposter syndrome is often seen as more prevalent among women, but recent research shows that it is not unique to women — in fact, men and women experience feelings of self-doubt in roughly equal numbers. However, the different ways in which boys and girls are raised in childhood which leads to the gender norms in society today factor into how women’s behavior in the workplace is perceived. From an early age, boys are encouraged to lead, demonstrate self-confidence and exhibit less emotion than girls. Women are penalized more for demonstrating the same confidence as men.

How do you think we can start to combat these societal gender norms, stereotypes and myths?

I believe imposter syndrome was initially thought to affect only women when it was first described in 1978 but that has since been disputed. I would also beg to differ that is the same today, to be honest. Especially from my coaching clients and observations of those leaders who work with me in my social projects.

I don’t think men suffer less from imposter syndrome than women. In fact, I would argue that boys being encouraged to lead and demonstrate self confidence from young without expressing emotions is a big reason for the state of our mental health across the world, and why men are two and half times more likely to die by suicide than women in Singapore — not to mention the spike in teenage boys’ suicide last year.

Women are called difficult or unreasonable when we demonstrate the same confidence and ambition because the rules for success and competence are decidedly written by men. Often, I find that women tend to judge confident and successful women more harshly because of the legacy of patriarchy and perhaps our values too.

So I think we women must watch our own unconscious biases even more intently. We mustn’t perpetuate the masculine ethos of competition and confrontation because we see that as being ahead of the game. My male friends often share that many of them learn about the place of women from their mothers. Many mothers would ask them to go for women who are not “ambitious”, who can cook, who want children etc. This is of course from millennia of women believing the way to get ahead is masculine premise of one-upmanship. So we need to blaze a different trail to success consciously and intently, and collectively.

Behind a successful woman is a tribe of successful women who have her back. You can always tell who the strong women are, they are the ones you see building one another up instead of tearing each other down. I think if we do that often with our fellow women colleagues and friends, we can combat these stereotypes and make each other feel we are deserving of our place in the world as confident women.

I will always remember this powerful reminder from Maya Angelou — that each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.

3. What can someone who is experiencing imposter syndrome do to overcome it?

First, I think it is important to note that imposter syndrome is not recognised in DSM or ICD although both of these classifications recognise low self esteem and sense of failure as associated symptoms of depression.

I have just worked with a coaching client who is very senior and a top expert in his field on this in the last three weeks. Because of childhood bullying and a series of debilitating failures despite him being very talented in his field, and given much recognition, he was depressive and certainly carried a strong dose of imposter syndrome. He admitted that he needed to feel special, yet he couldn’t internalise success and often discount praise. I suggested that he tried doing a simple ‘autobiography’ of himself by suspending all judgement and assessment but only listing what he has done in his life, factually — in other words, like a ‘technical report’. For e.g, I was born on xxx at xxx, I obtained these scores, I was promoted to xxxx etc. He was pleasantly surprised at what he has done, it was a deep shift for him reading how much he has done and knowing these are assertions, facts — not make-believes. More importantly, he started to believe that these achievements were due to his own inability, not mere luck or circumstances. (“Imposters” often deny that their success is due to their own ability).

Because of our childhood experiences that may cultivate perfectionist tendencies, we grow up judging ourselves harshly to the point of ignoring the good we have done or the strengths we have but focusing only on our weaknesses and failures, and multiplying our attention to the latter many times the former.

One of the first steps to overcoming imposter syndrome is to acknowledge these thoughts and try to reframe them as my client has done in the above example.

Because ‘imposterism’ is often a self-perception of fraudulence, I would also suggest having a trusted circle of people that you can check in with to talk through your imposter-induced anxiety concerning an achievement-related task that has been assigned. And listen to their feedback about your ability and competence because they would not be carrying the same sense of fraudulence as you do. Learn to listen to constructive criticism and to ask for help (instead of keeping quiet for fear of being seen as a failure) are other ways to tame the imposterism. If not, get yourself a mentor or coach.

There are some recent arguments that are promoting the hidden upside of imposter syndrome. These posit that a trait most people dislike in themselves may in fact be motivating them to perform better. I am not so sold on this unless the person has a strong support structure that doesn’t allow imposterism to lead to unhealthy psychological distress.

4. What can companies and organizations do to establish and foster a supportive work culture that eases self-doubt and increases confidence?

Imposter syndrome is linked to perfectionism and conditional self worth of “I am good if I perform well (in school/at work/at home/in a relationship)”. Is it solely about the person or is this also a result of an environment that is evaluative, critical and controlling? Studies have found that to be both which is not surprising.

Since we spend most of our waking hours at the workplace, much of our self worth is derived from this environment. If we feel validated at work, this confidence also feeds into how we play our roles in other aspects of our life.

Leaders play a big role in counteracting imposter syndrome because they shape the culture. This is what we at WorkWell Leaders focus much of our work on with the CEOs and Leaders at our CEO dialogues.

First, fostering psychological safety. Strong leaders must have the courage to break the silence and share how admitting that they don’t have all the answers don’t make them a fraud. By having open discussions about how self-doubt accompanies success normalises the fact that fears come with taking risks and innovating, creating psychological safety. This also builds trust and a culture of inclusion that helps employees with imposter syndrome feel that they are not alone if they have to seek help.

Impostor Syndrome is associated with behaviors like perfectionism and overworking. It’s great to have high standards and are detailed oriented, but no one wins when team members burn out from overworking. Leaders must lead with compassion and empathy and see employees as whole persons who need to be understood, validated and supported. Nothing is more affirming when one is treated as a human at work and by their leaders.

Recognise not only achievement but also the effort is also how leaders and the organisation can support increasing confidence amongst employees. Research by world-renowned expert, Harvard Professor Carol Dweck, showed that praising effort instead of solely on achievement is the best way to stroke a strong sense of self esteem which can reduce imposter syndrome. Celebrating incremental progress/success also keeps the morale high, a good practice might be to log in these wins, small or big so that employees can feel a sense of ownership/pride and like my client above, would not forget that these actually happen because of their effort.

I do think that it might also be helpful to look at how we give feedback and do performance review at the workplace to help stave off imposter syndrome. I had another coaching client whose self doubt went through the roof because the system at her workplace equated Performance Improvement as being synonymous with being incompetent and ‘on the way out’. Maybe structure feedback and performance review with a strengths-based approach, and work through a competence ladder with the staff. Confidence is a learned skill, so adding coaching and humanness to the process helps develop resiliency so that everyone can bounce back a little easier when setbacks inevitably occur.

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Anthea Ong is a former Nominated Member of Parliament, Social Entrepreneur (A Good Space, Hush TeaBar, WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, SG Mental Health Matters), Leadership Coach and Author of 50 Shades of Love. www.antheaong.com

Here’s a link to my long and short bios.