Workplace Mental Health | Professional Women | Impostor Syndrome

Have you ever met a successful woman who didn’t deal with impostor syndrome? 

Impostor syndrome, as it’s commonly known, refers to the experience of feeling inadequate or like a fraud, despite your achievements. This is a common phenomenon that up to 70% of people will experience in their lifetime, but there’s actually a bit of controversy related to calling this experience a syndrome, which implies that it’s a diagnosable condition. 

A Black woman with shoulder length hair sitting at a desk in an office, holding a cup of coffee and smiling.

Underneath these very real feelings of inadequacy are connections to what impostor syndrome really is – a reflection of our cultural systems of power, and how they impact people at work.

What does impostor syndrome feel like?

There’s no way to formally assess if someone has impostor syndrome, because it’s not an actual diagnosis in the DSM-5. However, many people who identify as dealing with impostor syndrome have similar experiences. Some of the signs that are attributed to impostor syndrome include: 

  • Assuming their achievements are a fluke, or a result of luck
  • Struggling to assess your own skills at work
  • Being overly hard on yourself
  • Fearing that you’ll be exposed as a fraud
  • Worrying that others will find out you don’t know what you’re doing
  • Downplaying your achievements or successes
  • Pressuring yourself to over-achieve or be perfect at all times
  • Questioning what gives you the right to be in your position
  • Doubting yourself and your abilities
  • Being unchanged in your belief that you don’t belong, no matter what evidence to the contrary you have

One of the tricky aspects of impostor syndrome is people often don’t see their achievements as evidence that they do know what they’re doing. Success just adds to the feeling of pressure that with one wrong move, the whole charade will crumble.

Is impostor syndrome even real?

Yes and no. 

Yes, because individuals who experience impostor syndrome really do feel this way. Feelings are real, but the problem is that they’re not always based in fact. Learning how to determine if a feeling is based on facts is something that takes practice and skills which can be taught in therapy. 

No, because impostor syndrome is not an actual medical syndrome, or something you can be diagnosed with. Impostor syndrome is actually often a response to the unjust systems at play – like racism, capitalism, and patriarchy – that impact us at work.

The biases that people carry stem from these power dynamics, and those biases have a real impact on those who have less power. If we look at impostor syndrome through an intersectional lens, we can recognize that it helps reinforce oppressive power dynamics that impact people with marginalized identities the most. 

Rather than being a diagnosable mental health condition, impostor syndrome is more of a psychological response to our social and cultural values, which prioritize wealthy, cisgender, heterosexual white men above all else. 

A woman with medium length wavy hair sitting in a cafe, writing in a notepad.

If impostor syndrome isn’t at the root of these feelings, then what is?

There are lots of human experiences that are pathologized rather than being accepted as a normal part of being alive. The feelings of inadequacy or fraud that people relate to impostor syndrome is an example of this. We all have moments of doubt, or feeling less than. We all have times where we don’t believe in ourselves. This doesn’t mean that we have a diagnosable condition. 

These moments of self-doubt occur for everyone, but biases and systems of power can mean that some feel the impact of impostor syndrome more than others. 

Impostor syndrome isn’t a problem for individuals, it’s a problem for society. Or, as the Harvard Business Review puts it, “Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”

Let’s talk about what’s really going on

Women are paid less than men, and women of color even less. This constant devaluation of women’s work, especially the work of women of color, can cause women to internalize feeling less than or like they’re not doing enough.

Women are often made to feel responsible for more than just their job description. Think of the last party that happened at your office. Was it planned by a woman? Is planning work events a task she is compensated for? Lots of times, women in the office take on more labor than men in ways that men don’t often recognize. This labor can take up time that could be spent on other tasks, which can leave women feeling like they’re always behind.

Racism, classism, and xenophobia also play a role in the phenomenon of impostor syndrome. When our culture still to this day sets the default of success as a wealthy white person, everyone who isn’t is made to feel like they fall short.

So, what can I do if I’m feeling impostor syndrome?

None of us can individually change the cultural landscape that has led to impostor syndrome – upending the power structures at play that feed impostor syndrome will be a massive undertaking. That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can do when you experience the phenomenon of impostor syndrome. If you’re feeling like you’re a fraud who hasn’t earned any of their achievements, here are some things you can do in the moment to feel less distressed: 

Practice coping skills that help you self-soothe

Feeling like you’re not good enough to be where you are – whether that’s at work, at home, in your social life, or somewhere else – can be anxiety provoking. Some people who experience this phenomenon deal with constant worry that they’ll be exposed as a fraud, or that the truth will come out in some way, and that pressure is extremely stressful. 

Explore coping strategies that are designed to help lower your level of distress in the moment, and practice the ones that feel supportive to you. The more you practice your coping skills when you’re not in distress, the easier it will be to remember them when you are upset. 

Remind yourself of the facts

Remember that feelings are not facts, and just because you’re feeling something doesn’t mean it’s true. This is a skill that takes some practice, but you can teach yourself to pause and consider the facts of a situation before you get overwhelmed with feeling like a fraud. It might be helpful to keep a list of “evidence” handy to remind you that you are successful, you have earned your achievements, and it’s okay to be proud of yourself. 

A woman with brown skin and short dark hair with blonde highlights, sitting at a laptop at a long desk between a Black woman, to her left, and a Black man, to her right. She is wearing red lipstick and smiling as she types.

Name how you’re feeling

It can be helpful to name what’s going on in your mind to get some distance from it. When the feelings of inadequacy come up, it’s okay to say, “Oh here’s good old Impostor Syndrome again!” This can help you separate some of the negativity you’re experiencing from how you feel about yourself. Instead of feeling like “I am a fraud,” you can recognize “I’m feeling like a fraud.” Naming what is happening can help you calm down. 

Recognize the advantages

While feeling inadequate or like a fraud doesn’t feel great, there are some positive aspects of impostor syndrome. People who experience impostor syndrome also tend to have strong social skills and ability to work as part of a team, both of which can be valuable at work and elsewhere. They are more likely to recognize their growth areas, put in work to improve, and approach their work conscientiously. What’s more, despite how it feels, research has not found that people with imposter syndrome perform any worse than their more confident counterparts. 

Talk to someone

When you’re in the middle of feeling like you’re not good enough, talking about it with someone else might be the last thing you want to do. Sharing how you’re feeling can be vulnerable, but it’s also powerful to connect with someone who cares about you. 

Remember, the majority of people will experience the phenomenon known as impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. Being open with how you’re feeling can help you feel less alone and less panicked. Talking to a therapist, especially one who specializes in working with professional women, can help you find strategies to cope with impostor syndrome.

Are you struggling with feeling inadequate or less than at work? Our therapists specialize in working with women and nonbinary professionals, and can offer support as you navigate this complicated phenomenon. We have appointments available, so reach out to us to schedule a free consultation

Group of 4 Stella Nova therapists walking in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.

About the Author

Stella Nova is a mental health clinic specializing in therapy for women and nonbinary professionals. We are located in San Francisco, CA and work with clients all over the state of California. Our team of therapists and psychologists offer counseling for a variety of concerns, from anxiety and depression, to chronic pain, to disordered eating and more.

Stella Nova is a LGBTQ+ and BIPOC affirming practice, and we welcome people of all genders who are seeking a feminist healing space.

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