The Tyranny of the Imposter
September 25, 2023
Reflections on a phenomenon that at times limits, and at others, incites a change of mentality.
‘In his book, The Burnout Society, South Korean-born philosopher and cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han, explains that we are facing a society that makes you sick and then makes you take responsibility for it,” shares Argentine relational psychoanalyst Mercedes García Santillán. “In other words, we burn ourselves out, believing that we fulfill ourselves, and when we can’t take it any longer, you, the person who suffers from Imposter Syndrome, are at fault.”
The term Imposter Syndrome was first coined in 1978 when clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, after studying 150 “outstanding” women in diverse areas, published a research paper entitled ‘The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.’ The term grew in popularity and enabled deeper analysis and debate regarding the role people play in the world of work and how this syndrome can affect them personally.
But first, let’s define the term: Imposter syndrome is the condition of feeling anxious and not experiencing success internally, despite being high-performing in external, objective ways. This condition often results in people feeling like “a fraud” or “a phony” and doubting their abilities.
The article published by Clance and Imes specifies that it is a phenomenon largely experienced by women, and that over the years its manifestation became a syndrome that was categorized in different ways.
Alejandra Marcote, Organizational Coach and author of the book, How to make Imposter Syndrome Your Ally, shares: “Infuenced by the work of many specialists, and based on my experiences working in this area, I have identified [some] beliefs that form the basis of Imposter Syndrome.” These are:
1. Do it perfectly: When this belief is present in our lives, we consider that, unless something is done to perfection, it is not acceptable. Even the most minute error can lead us to believe that we are a fraud.
2. Superhuman: This leads us to believe that in the majority of our roles–partner, son or daughter, friend, boss–we must be able to do it all perfectly, while making it look easy! That is why it is generally associated with the notion of being superhuman.
3. Know it all: This can be tied to the belief that we must have all the answers, and that no certificate or degree is enough. This belief refuses to give room to the learner or apprentice in us all, which allows us to say: ‘I don’t know’, or ‘I made a mistake.’
4. Extraordinary efforts: The belief that if an activity comes effortlessly or is enjoyable, then we are not worthy of receiving any merit associated with it.
5. Innovate to stand out: This leads us to think that, unless we create something unique and original, we will be a fraud.
Those who have Imposter Syndrome can identify with several of these beliefs. “Each belief comes with extremely high expectations about what we should accomplish, and the latent possibility of not reaching them leads us to believe that we are not capable of living up to the circumstances,” says Marcote. “While it is probable that we can identify one or two of these beliefs as predominant throughout our lives, different ones can then appear in certain contexts, further elevating our already impossible standards and self-imposed demands.”
At StarMeUp, we posed the following question: Is it not true that these beliefs appear regularly in the world of work, which tends to reflect bias and disparity? Mariana Trindade, Marketing Manager at Globant’s Create Studio, explains: “Often, working environments are so competitive that it is difficult not to experience this syndrome at some point in our career. It is more common in women, as we tend to feel that our efforts are never enough to stand out or to reach real positions of leadership due to the gender gap that is still present in many companies.”
In their article, ‘Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome,’ published in Harvard Business Review, authors Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey state that, “Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.” Perhaps, then, the intention of highlighting a business problem only served to exacerbate decade-old biases, instead of providing the necessary tools to deal with them.
Career management expert and executive coach Ginny Clarke, in a video where she lays out tools for tackling negative or self-defeating thoughts at work, states that talking about having Imposter Syndrome “subconsciously wears you down.” Instead, she recommends that people accept the compliments they receive at work, that they embrace their achievements, and ask for help when they need it. She describes coaching and mindfulness tools, such as meditation and positive affirmations, that can help mitigate our work insecurities.
So, does that mean that combating self-sabotage or negative thoughts is better than accepting we have Imposter Syndrome and creating this label for ourselves? Is this point of view in line with a study realized in 1978? An article written by Leslie Jamison in The New Yorker tells that, “Every time Imes hears the phrase ‘impostor syndrome,’ she told me, it lodges in her gut. It’s technically incorrect, and conceptually misleading. As Clance explained, the phenomenon is ‘an experience rather than a pathology,’ and their aim was always to normalize this experience rather than to pathologize it. Their concept was never meant to be a solution for inequality and prejudice in the workplace—a task for which it would necessarily prove insufficient.”
Adriana Sclar, Partner of Globant’s Cultural Hacking studio, shares that she likes to think of this paradox in a more positive light, offering that perhaps the phenomenon was an inflection point that led to many changes. From then on, certain issues in the world of work came to the forefront, and questions were raised. Ontological coach Sol Romero explains that the first way of tackling any work-related problem is talking about it. “I think it is a topic that is not given the importance it deserves,” she says. “I have not heard many organizations discussing it.” She also suggests implementing a way to give and receive feedback on a regular basis: “Receiving feedback at least once a month, where your leader can tell you what you are doing well and what you can improve, can be very positive, whether someone is experiencing Imposter Syndrome or not. It is also fundamental that suggested improvements be taken as learning opportunities and not as negative criticisms. In the past, it was common for people to know exactly what they were doing wrong in their job, but not have as much clarity around what they were doing right. Receiving regular feedback opens the door for receiving recognition for their work, and helps people know how they can improve their performance.”
Jessica Wilson, Customer Success Director at StarMeUp, shares that Imposter Syndrome is a reflection of a larger structural problem that is being swept under the rug. “In a world of work that is revising structures and trying to reduce gaps, it is necessary that leaders receive better training, that there be greater rotation, and, above all, that leaders have the tools they need to foster trust in their teams and help them grow,” she says. “If I had to name the features that StarMeUp offers to help tackle this issue, the first would be those related to recognition. A culture of recognition is fundamental for people to feel valued. I would also recommend that leaders have an Actionboard at their fingertips, where relevant data regarding engagement and the status of their team is processed and displayed. I would then recommend that they have a tool to help them turn those insights into action, and that is where our 1:1 feature comes in. This enables leaders to schedule individual meetings with team members, providing personalized support to help them grow. As a leader, it is important to know that each person needs a different style of support, and StarMeUp helps you tailor that journey to suit individual needs.”
The world of work seems to be a mirror reflecting the everyday questions that we try to answer in order to create a more equal and harmonious world. At StarMeUp, we want to empower organizations to create a working experience that puts people–regardless of gender or role–where they need to be: in the center.
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The Burnout Society, Byun Chul Han.
“The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”, Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes.
3 Tools for Overcoming Imposter Syndrome and Stepping into Your Power, Ginny Clarke.
“Stop telling Women They Have Impostor Syndrome”, Ruchika Tulshyan & Jodi-Ann Burey, Harvard Business Review.
“Why Everybody Feels Like They Are Faking it”, Leslie Jamison, The New Yorker.
Sol Romero, Ontological Coach.
Alejandra Marcote, Organizational Coach and author How to make Imposter Syndrome Your Ally.
Mariana Trindade, Marketing Manager de Studio Create, Globant.
Adriana Sclar, Cultural Hacking Studio Partner at Globant.
Jessica Wilson, Customer Success Director at StarMeUp.