Staying Grounded, Finding Support is Essential to Combating Imposter Syndrome

As leaders, we should ask ourselves if any of our people might feel imposter syndrome and what can we do to calm their anxiety and boost their confidence.

I have always been a curious learner. In high school, college, and graduate school, I looked forward to taking on the next challenge and writing papers to demonstrate my unique analysis of various treatment modalities for my patients. As a world traveler, I found joy in embarking on cumbersome journeys. I challenged myself both mentally and physically to summit some of the hardest mountains, from base camp at Everest to Kilimanjaro. I did it all. I even had the courage to join my fellow nomads to provide care for hundreds of trauma victims on the front line in stark environments in Northern Iraq and Western Syria.

This all changed when I found myself leading an entire organization. Now that I was its very first female executive, a role I worked hard to obtain, I was no longer the ambitious, curious learner and trauma-informed pharmacist who was eager to apply her training to change the lives of the patients she oversaw on the psychiatric unit. "What gives me the right to be here?" I asked. In those moments, I didn’t feel that I was lacking certain skills. I just wondered whether I belonged there at all.There was a sense of being thrown into the deep end of the pool and needing to learn to swim. I wasn’t just questioning whether I could survive. In a fundamental way, I was asking, “Am I a swimmer?”

In the back of my mind, I knew I was in a different situation. I was in a new role that required a different skill set, different goals, and an expansive leadership role, which my colleagues said I did diligently. However, I still felt as though I was not up to the task, even when others thought I was doing an excellent job. I was often reminded that I was smart, quick in scanning the environment, and natural in attracting people to my leadership style. I was told I exuded confidence, positivity, and the ability to overcome the most daunting challenges. Yet none of this was enough to calm the self-doubt in me. Perhaps it was the 7-year-old displaced refugee in me, who was scared and uncertain of her future, crying for home and a sense of belonging. The same child that had to overcome ridicule, racism, war, and familial trauma to become the woman she is now.

In retrospect, I realize that I was experiencing typical feelings of imposter syndrome. First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s, imposter syndrome occurred among high achieving women who were unable to internalize and accept their success. They often doubted themselves and attributed their accomplishments to luck rather than ability and feared that others would eventually unmask them as a fraud.

Imes and Clance explained that, “…despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter syndrome persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

The introduction of imposter syndrome spurred decades of thought leadership, programs, and initiatives to address the syndrome in women. Even famous women — from Hollywood superstars to business leaders, and even former First Lady Michelle Obama and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — have confessed to experiencing it. A Google search yields more than 5 million results and shows solutions ranging from attending conferences to reading books to reciting one’s accomplishments in front of a mirror. What’s less researched is why the syndrome is experienced in the first place.

Though it is not officially listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychologists acknowledge imposter syndrome as a specific form of intellectual self-doubt, which is accompanied by anxiety and often depression. Most women with imposter feelings suffer in silence and refuse to talk about it because of a fear they will be found out.

Almost everyone experiences self-doubt now and then, particularly when embarking on a new life journey or facing a new challenge. However, “…someone with [imposter syndrome] has an all-encompassing fear of being found out to not have what it takes" Imes said. “Even if they experience outward signs of success—getting into a selective graduate program, say, or acing test after test—they have trouble believing that they're worthy. Instead, they may chalk their success up to good luck.”

Impostor syndrome and perfectionism often go hand in hand. Those with imposter syndrome think every task they tackle must be done perfectly, and they rarely ask for help. They feel they are only as good as their perfectionism and that perfectionism can lead to 2 typical responses, according to Clance. An impostor may procrastinate, putting off an assignment out of fear they won't be able to complete it to their own high standards, or they may overprepare, spending much more time on a task than is necessary.

I have certainly been accused of being a perfectionist and I tend to obsess over small details until I get nudged to let them go. I have caught myself bending over backwards to do things perfectly, and yet I can still feel unsure about the outcome. Those with imposter syndrome go through contortions to do a project perfectly. When they succeed, they begin to believe that all that anxiety and effort paid off. “Unconsciously, they think their successes must be due to that self-torture," Imes said.

Being different from the majority of your peers—whether by race, gender, sexual orientation or some other characteristic—can fuel imposter syndrome. Growing up in a patriarchal culture and being treated as a member of a minority group, I was more prone to imposter syndrome. When we immigrated to the United States, a country where everything was foreign to me, I questioned my belonging. I often caught myself doing whatever it took to fit in and be accepted by my peers. In my culture, I was taught that I would need to “work twice as hard to be half as good.” While this instilled a goal-oriented mindset in me, it also keeps me feeling as though my efforts will never be enough. My interests were different from those of my colleagues, which at times felt incredibly isolating and further fueled my feelings of inadequacy.

Imposter syndrome is also fueled by growing up in a dysfunctional family system where your feelings and initiatives were not validated as a child. That invalidation can be traumatic to a child, which leads the child to disconnect from themself. According to Gabor Mate, a child developmental trauma specialist, trauma is a disease of alienation and the very person that we become alien to is ourselves. This happens when parents place a big emphasis on achievement rather than growing up to your maximum authentic potential. Parents who send mixed messages, such as alternating between over-praise and criticism, can further cause their child to become disconnected from their authentic self and true feelings.

Dysfunctional family systems are based on relationships, processes, and rules that govern the system from within. This can prevent members from developing the freedom to feel, behave, think, desire, and imagine. Members are only allowed the freedom to use the ideals set by the family rules. Caregivers expect and assume that all family members will follow in the footsteps of the “hero” member without regard for each member’s own identity and individuality. For example, if one family member becomes a doctor, the caregivers will assume that the remaining members should consider the medical field, regardless of whether the others have similar career aspirations or aptitude.

Despite the dysfunctionality of the system, members will assume other roles to try and keep the system in balance. Members learn to take on other roles to cope with their turbulent environment. If one caregiver is not able to assume his or her role, another family member will subconsciously jump in to assume the caregiver’s role. This fills a void, but it also helps temper conflict and keeping the family system intact

The 6 common roles identified by the literature that are prominent to the dysfunctional family system include:

  • The martyr is someone who attempts to keep everyone satisfied and happy by denying the existence of problems when they arise. The martyr will keep fixing problems to prevent the situation from getting out of hand. They mask the problems within the system by showing a glowing image to the outside world.
  • The scapegoat is angry, defensive, and gets blamed for problems that may have nothing to do with them. The scapegoat is the only family member who is honest about issues within the system, while the caretaker denies or is unable to see them. The scapegoated member is aware of their role and often feels unloved or uncared for because they are pitted against other members to divert the attention from the issue at hand. From the outside, they look totally careless, while deep inside they are incredibly hurt. They may purposely get in trouble to get the love and attention they desperately need.
  • The hero, or the golden family member, is the overachiever of the family who is high-functioning and someone the family can point to as an example that the system is just fine. The hero is wise beyond their years, yet they suffer in silence, carrying the burden of the toxic family environment. From the outside everything seems fine because they’re chronic achievers, but the irony is that they feel “less than” on the inside. They are only as good as the last presentation, the last talk, and the last book they have written. Societal pressure adds to the problem. "In our society there's a huge pressure to achieve," Imes said. "There can be a lot of confusion between approval and love and worthiness. Self-worth becomes contingent on achieving."
  • The mascot uses humor to distract from the issues that plague the system. They are always ready to lighten the mood with jokes or entertainment. The closed family system leaves them powerless, so they feel immense pressure to step in with fun and humor when tension in the system escalates. When they succeed in diffusing a situation, it reinforces their role in keeping the family system intact. Mascot members grow up with a pleasant demeanor and are nice to others. They love helping others because it distracts them from their own trauma. Beneath all the fun and humor are deep layers of hurt, depression and anxiety. They struggle to ask for help and choose humor to cope with their mental struggles.
  • The lost member role exists because the system is so caught up with the hero and the scapegoat. In other words, the lost member is meant to be seen but not heard. The lost member receives less attention and feels left out.
  • The peacemaker, or mediator, is often drawn into the middle of arguments between opposing parents to keep the system in peace. The peacemaker must constantly assess the environment for tension and be ready to jump in to de-escalate the situation.

Now that we have a better appreciation of imposter syndrome, it has become clear that overcoming the syndrome is not about fixing the individual. It’s about creating an environment that fosters a variety of authentic leadership styles into which an individual can grow. As leaders, we should ask ourselves if any of our people might feel like this and what can we do to calm their anxiety and boost their confidence.

In my own role as a female executive, I find it imperative to do the following 7 things to keep me grounded in my day-to-day role:

  1. Remind Myself that Confidence Doesn’t Equal Competence. We often falsely equate confidence in male leaders with competence and good leadership. The same systems that reward confidence in male leaders (even if they’re incompetent) punish female leaders, and especially those from minority groups, for showing too much confidence, and punish all women for demonstrating it in a way that’s deemed unacceptable.
  2. Promote a Culture of Belonging. Leaders must create a culture where women and members of minority groups feel they belong, and that their backgrounds and experiences are valued. Only by doing so can we reduce the experiences that culminate in imposter syndrome among employees from marginalized communities — or at the very least, help those employees channel healthy self-doubt into positive motivation, which is best fostered within a supportive work culture. For more how I promote a culture of belonging, click here
  3. Support a Trauma-Informed Work Culture. Imposter syndrome may also be a trauma response that is fueled by growing up in a dysfunctional family system, in which a child’s feelings and initiatives were not validated. There are several tools available to help identify and validate your staff’s needs. The 2 resources that stand out for me are The Saboteurs by Dr. Shirzad Chimene and Know your Love Language by Dr. Gary Chapman.
  4. Promote a Mindful Work Culture through Metacognition. When I first heard about mindfulness, it was through the words of Ariana Huffington and Jon Kabat-Zinn. Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote, “In Asian language, the word for ‘mind’ and the word for ‘heart’ are the same word. So, when we hear the word ‘mindfulness,’ we have to go inwardly and also hear ‘heartfulness’ in order to grasp it even as a concept, and especially as a way of being.” In other words, mindfulness is never about the mind alone but about the whole body. To Kabat-Zinn, the mind alone can become rigid because it focuses on detail and attention, and the heart alone can be chaotic, because it focuses on empathy. When the heart and mind are not in sync, it can cause stress.However, when your mind and heart work together, you become a harmonious human being. In her book Thrive, Huffington wrote, “Through mindfulness, I found a practice that helped bring me fully present and in the moment, even in the most hectic of circumstances.” The key to recovery from imposter syndrome is a thorough awareness of your feelings. Through mindfulness, you learn to use your brain to guide your body towards healing through the “top-down” vagal tone pathway. You learn to notice and tolerate the physical sensations when remembering the past. Because trauma is a visceral disease, we need to open ourselves to our inner experiences and focus on sensations through mindfulness. Mindfulness calms the sympathetic nervous system, and we are less likely to be thrown into a fight-or-flight response. The goal of mindfulness is to identify some consistent activities that train your mind to stay in the present moment.
  5. Build a Healthy, Supportive Network. Family and friends may reject a person with trauma or lose their patience as the person continuously recalls painful memories. It is extremely hard for a trauma survivor to feel safe in an environment that judges them for their feelings. Finding a professional, non-judgmental support group can provide a healthy network of people who have similar experiences and are finding healthy ways to manage them.
  6. Journaling.Another way to access your feelings is through unedited writing. Use your writing to pour out all your anger and sadness. You can use a journal to record events and feelings or write a letter to yourself about the way people made you feel. No one else needs to read your letters, so do not worry about polishing your writing. Express yourself freely and let the energy flow out of you. We usually feel better after we let negative energy out of our system.
  7. Understand that I am not alone. Imposter syndrome is more common than you may realize. Some of the most successful and innovative people such as Albert Einstein and Maya Angelou experienced episodes of imposter syndrome. Discovering that a respected mentor, peer, or loved one has experienced imposter syndrome helps us realize we are not alone.