Imposter Syndrome and Professionals in Human Services
Updated: Oct 1, 2021
Well, it has surely been a tumultuous year of uncertainty, unrest, instability, injustice, and so forth. With such a year in which change was inevitable and roles have greatly shifted, you may have heard a certain term floating around, imposter syndrome. If you have heard this term years prior, kudos to you. For those who are unfamiliar with it or perhaps just want some more information on it. Let’s get started.
My goal throughout this blog post, is to offer a brief overview of Imposter Syndrome (IS) and how it exists and manifests in professionals in human services. I do not in any way wish to diagnose any one, place anyone in a category, or have any one feel the need to place themselves in a category. I would love for this to be an exploration of this topic and an opportunity for us to learn more about the complexities of being human. First and foremost, we need an origin story and definition.
Origin Story and Definition
Imposter syndrome (IS) was coined by two female psychologists, Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in 1978. It was defined as the “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable, or creative despite evidence of high achievement” (Kerrigan, 2015). However, Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey in their Harvard Business Review article entitled “Stop Telling Women they have imposter syndrome” brilliantly point out that at the time the term did not include the severe impact of systemic racism, classism (class discrimination), xenophobia (prejudice against people from other countries), and other biases. It also excluded many groups from the study, namely women of color and people of various income levels, genders, and professional backgrounds (Tulshyan and Burey, 2021). We will delve into more of these pertinent points a bit later but for the moment, let’s identify some symptoms of IS.
There are a collection of symptoms of IS as cited in Arlin Cuncic’s article entitled, “What is Imposter Syndrome?” (2021). These include:
Chronic self-doubt, sense of intellectual fraudulence (not feeling competent or successful)
Inability to internalize accomplishments, despite level of success in field, education, training, or experience
Berating your performance
Fear that you won’t live up to expectations
Sabotaging your own success
Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short
These symptoms are echoed in the statement that those who have IS, their core beliefs about themselves are so rock solid that they don’t change even though there is evidence to contradict them. So, what are some common thoughts and feelings associated with IS? Let’s talk about it.
Thoughts and Feelings Associated with Imposter Syndrome
“I must not fail” Huge amount of pressure to not fail in order to avoid being found out
“I feel like a fake” Fear of being found out, discovered, or unmasked, belief of giving the impression that they are more competent than they really are, believe somebody made a mistake
“It’s all down to luck” Success due to external reasons and NOT their abilities, belief that it was a fluke
“Success is no big deal” Tendency to downplay success, may attribute their success with it just being an easy task, having support, and often have a hard time accepting compliments
It is estimated that 70% of people will experience at least one episode of IS in their lives, in which they may be absorbed in these thoughts and feelings (Cuncic, 2021). Now, let’s move onto the WHY factors.
The WHY Factors: How IS Manifests in Everyday Life
Starting with the social factor, Jolie A. Doggett from her Huffpost article entitled, “IS Hits Harder When You’re Black” expresses “it’s the feeling that you don’t belong here, wherever “here” is for you: the office, your friend group, the classroom or the boardroom” (2019). In the article she also speaks about not seeing other people that look like her in the workplace and how that affected her work experience which in turn affected her self-esteem. There is also pertinent information from Cuncic on how social anxiety and IS can overlap such as with…
- conversations and feeling like you are masked with this cover that you are better than you really are
- with presentations and the tendency of a type of IS called “the perfectionist,”
- social media and keeping up your outward presentation
- the double-edged sword of pursuing higher education (feeling inadequate to do so or doing so and setting too lofty of goals) (2021).
In Jane Leonard’s article on Medical News Today she speaks about how success is a cycle of doubt for those with IS since they have this inability to recognize their own accomplishments(2020). Other personal factors may be human giver syndrome, which consists of a “moral obligation to give their humanity to the human beings”. Human giver syndrome is a prime recipe for burnout and most common in women. Some stunning statistics are that 20-30% of teachers in America and 52% of medical professionals experience burnout each year (Nagoski and Nagoski, 2019).
Also, for all my fellow music therapy colleagues out there (woot woot!), Clements-Cortes has a great article on factors contributing to burnout for music therapists including the lack of social support and control, social isolation, and degree of contact with other MTs and individual factors in which as a healthcare professional you may fall into the category of being more of a provider of care rather than care receiver (2013). Let’s move onto some cultural factors which we touched on periodically throughout this post because of its historical elements being so prevalent to the origin of IS.
As Pandika says in her article, “Why IS looks different in BIPOC,” navigating IS as a BIPOC can be especially “thorny” (2020). This is stressed upon in Dr. Lisa Orbé-Austin’s quote that “you experience the imposter syndrome internally, but externally you’re also told by systemic oppression and racism that you don’t belong…you’re a fraud” (2020). IS can greatly add to the stress minorities already feel. Doggett supports this statement with the statistic that African Americans are 20% more likely than the general population to experience a mental health problem and that being said, are also the least likely to receive diagnoses or treatment (2019). All of these reasons highlight the strong cultural factors of IS that contribute and perpetuate its cycle. Lastly, let’s take a look at work factors.
IS affects many components of our work performance, work environment, and can greatly impact our own uniqueness as workers. According to Jane Leonard from Medical News Today, IS greatly affects work performance with fears that colleagues and supervisors expect more than they can manage and fear not being able to succeed on tasks. This impacts a person with IS in how they may limit tasks for fear of compromising other assigned tasks. Fear of not taking on other tasks often spirals into holding themselves back and avoid seeking higher achievements. This increases the self-doubt that further grounds someone to this “warped cycle of inability to do something for fear that it won’t be good enough” (Leonard, 2020).
Okay, thank you for bearing with me through all this heavy information, let’s move towards the light at the end of the tunnel of IS and talk about ways to reduce the effects of IS.
Ways to Reduce Effects of IS
The Orbé-Austins and Pandika both state that one of the most important factors about recovering from IS if you’re a BIPOC is the importance of building a sense of connection to who you are such as finding a community of people whose racial identity is similar to yours. They also share the importance and significance of reminding yourself of your own achievements and being weary that the comfort zone can often maintain IS (2020). In Corkindale’s Harvard Business Review article, she speaks about recognizing imposter feelings when they emerge, the power of rewriting your mental programs, and simply talking about your feelings (2008).
A final point of reducing the effects of IS is highlighted in the book, Burnout by Amelia and Emily Nagoski, and supports the evidence behind getting adequate rest. Scientists recommend that each person get 42% of rest each day. This equates to about 10 hours a day of sleeping, connecting with others, exercise, food (eating and preparing), and a wildcard activity. The payoff of spending more time resting is that during the remaining 58% of your life, you’re more energized, focused, creative, nicer to be around, less likely to make mistakes, and more likely to enjoy what you’re doing (whoo hoo!) (2019).
WRAP IT UP (aka Conclusion)
I absolutely love this kick-a quote from Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey from their Harvard Business Review article entitled “Stop Telling Women They Have IS”. They say “the answer to overcoming IS is NOT to fix individuals but to create an environment that fosters a variety of leadership styles and in which diverse racial, ethnic, and gender entities are seen as just as professional as the current model, which Tina Opie describes as usually “Eurocentric, masculine, and heteronormative.” This solidifies the idea that IS is NOT an individual’s issue and that we can help those who suffer from IS by fostering a much more inclusive and diverse environment. They also highlight the cruciality of “fix(-ing) bias, not women” and a call for leaders to create a culture for women and people of color that addresses systemic racism and bias, and in this way, we can help channel healthy self-doubt into positive motivation, which is best fostered in a supportive work environment (2021).
Lastly, as Jolie A. Doggett says so simply and beautifully “you are capable, you are talented, and you belong” (2019). Remember to remind yourself every time you look in the mirror that you are worthy of it all and whether you identify with IS or not, that it is entirely normal not to know everything. Practice reframing failure as a learning opportunity and if you are experiencing IS strongly consider how your imposter syndrome took shape, its origin story, and know that you are not alone and most certainly not at fault of it.
BONUS: Recommended Books!
“Own Your Greatness: Overcome Impostor Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life” by Lisa Orbé-Austin and Richard Orbé-Austin
“Confessions From Your Token Black Colleague” by Talisa “Tali” Lavarry
“Burnout: The Secret of Unlocking the Stress Cycle” by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski