Imposter syndrome or a lack of confidence?
By Annie Makoff on 23 February 2022
Mention ‘imposter syndrome’ to any group of people and the chances are you’ll be met with radically opposing views from all sides – those who experienced it themselves, those who have known people to have suffered with it to varying degrees, and those who are hugely sceptical of the phenomenon itself, viewing it as problematic and unhelpful.
Caroline Flanagan, coach to lawyers with imposter syndrome and author of Be The First: People of Colour, Imposter Syndrome and The Struggle To Succeed in a White World, first experienced what she now knows to be imposter syndrome when she was just six years old: she was the only Black pupil in an all-white boarding school. It was an experience that followed her throughout her school years and much of her career where she was one of very few people of colour at Cambridge University, law school and while working at one of the top magic circle international law firms.
“I experienced the typical imposter syndrome characteristics, but I just didn’t know it had a name then,” she recalls. “I felt a fraud, that I didn’t fit in, that I didn’t deserve this and worst of all, I had the fear that any moment now, someone would tap me on the shoulder and expose me for what I was.”
Overthinking, overworking and playing small
Flanagan experienced racism and microaggressions throughout her school career which exacerbated her imposter syndrome. “Imposter syndrome is very much an internal experience, but then we’ve also got an external environment which mirrors that experience back to you. How does it mirror it back to you? If I’m the only Black woman in the room, what do I see? what do I feel? I feel different, I feel like an imposter.”
Imposter syndrome typically manifests in three ways, says Flanagan. Overthinking (spirals of thinking which never gets resolved, such as ‘what happens if they find me out?, ‘I don’t belong here’, ‘I’m a fraud’) overworking (going over and over a piece of work and never feeling happy with it, or working far longer than necessary to ‘compensate’) and playing small (reluctance to embrace opportunities, not sharing ideas).
“What’s going on is the individuals attempt to compensate for perceived failings. There’s often the feeling of ‘not enough-ness’. Not male enough, not knowledgeable enough, not clever enough.”
In her experience, imposter syndrome is a spectrum, ranging from ‘normal’ self-doubt to full-blown imposter thinking characterised by overthinking, overworking or playing small, all of which can lead to burnout and be detrimental to mental health.
There is no clearly defined gender split, but certain demographics including minority groups who experience imposter syndrome will find their experience is aggravated by their external environment in the form of systemic bias and/or microaggressions.
Luck versus capability
According to Sunita Harley, coach and founder of D&I consultancy Collective Insight and female network Lucky Things®️, imposter syndrome can also create the illusion that success is down to luck rather than skillset and capability. “People can sometimes underestimate their achievements in their careers and put it down to luck,” she explains. “It’s easy to think it’s down to luck that I work with global law firms and corporates. However, clients enjoy working with me because of my credentials, the relationships I’ve built over the years and the expertise that I bring. So imposter syndrome can really diminish our achievements.”
Harley herself experienced imposter syndrome when she moved careers from media, music and fashion to HR twenty years ago. Despite her previous experience working with high profile brands, celebrities and appearing on BBC TV, she worked hard to transition into the corporate world. At the time, she says she felt like an imposter.
Pathologising normal emotions
But Debra Allcock Taylor, chief executive of the Directory Of Social Change is doubtful that imposter syndrome even exists. In her view, it’s a normal human reaction to stressful or difficult situations.
“When we pathologise it like that, when we call it a syndrome, what we’re doing is disempowering people. Because actually, these negative emotions can be really healthy,” she explains. “When I hang around people who are much cleverer than me, I frequently feel like I don’t belong. But I know that pretty much everybody else does, too.”
Allcock Taylor’s concern with imposter syndrome is that it disenfranchises certain groups of people – particularly women and women of colour. “We make them feel like they’re imposters in the environment when it’s the environments themselves which aren’t inclusive.”
Onus of responsibility
Allcock Taylor believes the onus should on organisations themselves to create inclusive environments and in practical terms, as well – to find out what makes people nervous and provide skills and training to help, such as presentation skills, public speaking or assertiveness training.
“There’s a lot to be said for being a proactive ally, too,” she adds. “In meetings or events or panels, never ask members to introduce themselves. As a facilitator or leader, remind people of each person’s experience or specialism, tell others why they will want to hear what an individual has to say. Give people external credibility. Big them up.”
While Allcock Taylor, Flanagan and Harley have different perspectives on imposter syndrome, all agree that organisations have a part to play in addressing systemic bias which can disproportionately affect peoples’ confidence.
“We shouldn’t just put the onus of responsibility on to the individual to manage their confidence,” says Harley. “It’s about making sure they’re not experiencing the confidence dips when it’s potentially down to other people, microaggressions, or systemic bias.”
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