What is imposter syndrome and how do you overcome it?

(Radiohead – Creep playing in the background)

Ever had a feeling that people are onto you and it’s only a matter of time before everybody finds out the truth: you don’t belong here?

In a nutshell, this is called imposter syndrome: a strange yet common psychological phenomenon where even the most brilliant people view themselves as walking deepfakes. 

It is estimated that 2 in 3 people feel like this at work. I wanted to check if this fact truly holds water and, interestingly enough, the first two people I asked immediately responded that they were indeed quite familiar with this feeling. 

So, in the spirit of embracing our strengths (and owning up to our weaknesses), we at Content Insights set out to discover where this harmful belief comes from and what might be done to overcome it.

Why do achievers tend to share this little secret?

We have a lot of hardworking souls here who know how to design visual eye candy, create captivating stories, implement complex mathematical theories and write code with gusto. And yet, there is a surprising number among us who find it hard to own our successes – something that is almost impossible to notice on the surface. 

The thing with imposter syndrome is that many people attribute their accomplishments to complete chance and serendipity. That’s it, just pure luck. But how deep does it go, really?

Well, according to Mia – our Senior Content Marketing Specialist – sometimes even receiving compliments and praise for work can feel uncomfortable. This experience has a lot to do with the tendency to strive for perfection (and the debilitating realization that occurs when perfection isn’t achieved). 

“It’s sometimes very hard to claim my professional success and enjoy it,” she reveals, “especially if I internally frame it like it’s a result of circumstances and luck – not my efforts, intelligence, or skills. When this happens, I tend to feel like a fraud, like I don’t belong here. It’s a very unpleasant feeling that has no basis in reality.” 

Indeed, feeling like a fraud can put immense psychological pressure on an employee, which can be physically exhausting too. For instance, Sasha – our Visual Designer (and spawn of Beelzebub) – describes the sensation as being constantly on the lookout not to get busted. “You have the feeling like you’re one task/project away from being exposed as someone who has no clue what they’re doing,” she says. “Even though you get external validation, you just feel like you’re faking your way through your career.”

Alex – our Head of People Operations – also felt like an imposter in the beginning due to the fact that she had no formal experience as an HR prior to her position here at Content Insights. “The feeling is terrible,” she says, “because, on one hand, you are pouring your heart and soul into your work, while on the other, you keep convincing yourself that you are not worthy of your position and salary.”

So in short, it’s a textbook case of self-sabotage – chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that has the power to override any feelings of success or competence. But like the Many-faced God, imposter syndrome wears many disguises, depending on a person’s background, personality, and environment.

Without further ado, it’s time to spin…

The wheel of imposters

After decades of researching fraudulent feelings among high achievers, award-winning author and expert Dr. Valerie Young has categorized the syndrome into 5 subgroups or competence types: the Perfectionist, the Superwoman/man, the Natural Genius, the Soloist, and the Expert. 

Each represents a set of internal guidelines that people who struggle with their confidence attempt to follow. Perhaps if you identify these habits and patterns, you might understand what is holding you back from being your 100% authentic self. Let’s see what each type entails (here with our own little commentaries):

The Perfectionist

Perfectionism and imposter syndrome often go hand-in-hand like Batman and Robin or Spongebob and Patrick. Capable people who strive for excellence tend to set a really high bar for themselves, which can be an inexhaustible source of self-doubt.

This explains why perfectionists often have a reputation to be control freaks because it’s difficult for them to find satisfaction in their own successes, a behavior that is neither healthy nor productive. 

The Superwoman/man

Wearing a cape to work is fun but pushing yourself to work harder and harder without respite will save nobody’s day. Those ‘super’ men and women rely on work to cover-up their insecurities or to be even more precise, they crave the validation that comes from working, and not necessarily from the work itself.

But here’s the deal: we find that no one is impervious to bullets and work overload can take a toll not just on your own mental health, but your relationships too. The power to feel good about yourself should come from you first, not your boss, your colleagues, or even your mom*. 

*(P.S. you’re the best, mom!)

The Natural Genius

How many times you heard someone say to you: ”you’ve got potential, kid.” Well, the truth is, we are all talented and full of potential, but those who rely on their natural genius tend to value effortlessness over their efforts.

Just like the Perfectionists, they set the bar too high, but the difference is that this type is no stranger to being judgemental of others, and not just of themselves. The challenge for this type is to try and see themselves as a work in progress because feelings of accomplishment and self-actualization will require lifelong learning.

The Soloist

Does asking for help equate to phoniness? Well, for Soloists, it does. While self-sufficiency is an admirable quality, refusing assistance does very little to prove someone’s worth, especially in environments that are built upon open-flowing communication and, more importantly, cooperation.

The Expert

People of this type tend to base their competence on how much they know or are capable of doing. But if we are to scratch the surface, we will uncover a debilitating belief that they will never know enough. While constantly striving to improve your skills can help your career in many ways, the fear of being exposed as inexperienced or unknowledgeable is nothing short of self-sabotage.

Similar to the Soloists, the Experts need to understand that there is no shame in asking for help and admitting mistakes – that does not make you a fraud

If you can recognize yourself in at least one of these types, it is highly likely that you are being too unfair and unkind to yourself. We believe that the road to regaining confidence starts by accepting the fact that we are indeed quite capable of feeling like an imposter (which takes a lot of courage). But how we choose to act on it can determine how deserving of success we really are.

The remedy: look but don’t stare

The thing with imposter syndrome is that it never really goes away. Moreover, that complex feeling has a tendency to creep in at the most inconvenient time. At Content Insights we like to say that it’s OK to look, but not to stare. 

For instance, Sasha endorses a more hands-on approach, and we mean this literally. “I like using the mental equivalent of a child’s tantrum,” she explains, “something like putting my fingers in my ears and yelling ‘la la la, I can’t hear you!’ – but mentally.”

Mia, who is no stranger to pursuing perfection, suggests practicing a little humility in one’s work because it fuels your gratitude and motivates you to continue learning and stay open to new experiences. She also advocates giving yourself a pat on the back every once in a while, which, to be candid, people often forget to do.

“My advice would be to always be aware that just because you feel something – it doesn’t mean it’s real,” she says. “Taking a few steps back to see the bigger picture and gain clarity is also a good way to get outside of your head and objectively see how far you’ve come.” 

Indeed, when you achieve something, it is always good to think in retrospect: map out everything you did that got you to where you are now and your successes will start feeling more tangible. If that doesn’t spell progress, I don’t know what will. 

Alex mentioned that her conversations with Dejan – one of our founding fathers – really helped her soldier on during her tough times. Unfortunately, companies in Serbia (and probably further afield too) generally uphold the practice that positive feedback is something that is implied, not necessarily talked about out in the open.

To tackle this issue, we introduced Friday show-off and we also share our successes transparently on our announcement Slack channel. “We encourage our team leaders and founders to support our employees more openly,” she says. “After all, it’s often the little things that matter most – and the sweetest thing of all is when we go out for a night of merry drinking together and start praising each other.”

To wrap it up…

In the spirit of mindfulness, everything is important: looks, charm, capabilities, talent, the environment, and all manner of external and unpredictable factors, including luck. At Content Insights, we accept the fact that some of these things are well beyond our control but as the famous life coach – Ashton Kutcher – once said: opportunity looks a lot like hard work.

So if you work hard enough despite the doubts, failures and obstacles that are in your way, we will do our best to make it abundantly clear that your successes should be celebrated.

After all, we’ve all got our inner-saboteur telling us we are not good enough. We all have ideas which have been lost to us somewhere in the ether. We all probably have to deal with imposter syndrome at some point in our careers. It’s all perfectly normal. Trust. 

Just don’t forget that what may seem everyday business to you is rocket science to someone else. In somebody else’s eyes, you’re probably kicking ass as we speak. 

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