The Imposter Syndrome: It's Not Just You

One of these things is not like the others…

One of these things is not like the others…

Have you ever heard that small nagging voice at the back of your mind that tells you that, any minute now, someone is going to realize that your skills aren’t as cracked up as they seem and that you’ve been faking it all along?

This feeling is called Imposter Syndrome and it is a psychological phenomenon that arises from an incorrect evaluation of our abilities compared to our peers, as Alicia Liu puts it in her article “Imposter Syndrome is Not Just a Confidence Problem”.

How long will it be until they find out I’m a fraud?

I can’t possibly have the skills for this.

She/he/they have so much more knowledge than I do, it’s probably better that they handle this.

There is no way I deserve this awesome project/promotion/assignment.

As you can see, the Imposter Syndrome can be crippling.

If you’ve ever felt yourself spiraling into any of the above statements, you are not alone. In fact, you’re in great company! From leading ladies to tech VPs, many have spoken on their experiences with Imposter Syndrome and self-doubt, including Emma Watson, Kate Winslet, and Sheryl Sandberg. Researchers estimate that over 70% of people have experienced or will experience these feelings; some even say the experience is nearly universal. In her book Presence, Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy states that “researchers have found impostorism in dozens of demographic groups, including but not limited to teachers, accountants, physicians, physician assistants, nurses, engineering students, (...) people who have recently experienced failure, people who have recently experienced success … and so on.”

So while the Imposter Syndrome, or Imposter Phenomenon we should say (“the impostor syndrome doesn’t fit the clinical criteria for a psychological syndrome”, as Slate puts it here), is cited as affecting all populations (equally or not is up for debate), it’s frequently referred to as an issue affecting women in particular. Why is that?

Imposter Syndrome: A Very Brief History

In 1983, Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes authored the paperThe Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention, where they first coined the term. Clance and Imes discussed an “internal experience of intellectual phonies” and how it appeared to be particularly prevalent amongst high-achieving women. This topic was explored by several other research groups, including a study of Imposter Syndrome in university faculty members (1983) and The Impostor Phenomenon: When Success Makes You Feel Like A Fake (1985).

Fast forward to today, where new studies suggest that a third of millennials suffer from Imposter Syndrome at work and that “40 per cent of young female professionals said they felt intimidated by senior people, compared with just 22 percent of males”. While this statistic doesn’t directly correlate this population to an affinity with Imposter Syndrome, it may begin to explain why this phenomenon is often attributed to women.

Not Just An #enggirlproblem

We know that women aren’t reaching the upper hierarchies of companies at the same rate as men. Women also only account for 17% of newly licensed professional engineers in Canada. With environments like these, it is easy to see that outnumbered women may lack a sense of belonging in an organization or in a particular field. Though Imposter Syndrome is not solely based on self-doubt or lack of confidence, these factors contribute to the feeling that your skills are misplaced and that your peers have stronger abilities than you do.

Another element that may explain the association between women and Imposter Syndrome is the unfortunate state of our world that gives women permission to actively discuss their feelings and struggles, but encourages men to stay quiet even if they experience the same things. This toxic masculinity helps no one. Clance and Cuddy agree on this topic, suggesting that men are less likely to talk about imposter feelings for fear of “stereotype backlash”.

To compound on these gendered woes, Independant reminds us that social media (aka the internet highlight reel) can amplify the Imposter Syndrome with its tendency to overplay the accomplishments of others and downplay their struggles. What better place to feel inadequate than on your couch scrolling your phone, am I right?

Time for a Personal Touch

Now that I’ve lured you this far into the article with prose, studies, and factual content, welcome to the part of the program where I reflect on some personal experiences with Imposter Syndrome and touch on the prevalence of the phenomenon in technical industries.

When I started my first engineering job a year ago, I was excited to jump in and apply the theory I (gruelingly) studied for over 5 years. I knew I had a lot to learn in terms of actual application, but was looking forward to doing the “real stuff” that isn’t taught in school. What I wasn’t prepared for were the feelings of not being ready that would come to visit me.

Over the last year, it’s safe to say that I’ve learned a lot. And I mean a lot. But at times it can feel like I’m the same person I’ve always been and that everyone around me is still more technically capable than I am. In engineering, technical expertise generally leads to solutions. At times, it’s hard for me to feel that my input could even possibly be valued because I’m so new at this. This has led to feelings of unpreparedness, followed by thoughts of “I’ll be found out any minute now”. I don’t have these feelings all the time, but they are hard to ignore when they do arise and they definitely affect my confidence in my abilities.

So What Can We Do?

Feelings of self-doubt are common when starting new roles. The Imposter Syndrome has also been widely discussed lately as it relates to technical roles; many software developers report feelings of inadequacy that may relate to programming’s ever-changing pace or its inherent nature of having to fail many times before a successful solution is found. Alicia Liu discusses how defeating this process can feel, and how it can lead to self-doubts in a role (despite oftentimes great programming skills). The topic of Imposter Syndrome in technical roles is so broad it could be an entire article in itself, so there may be some more unpacking here to do in the future.

When I started brainstorming ideas for this article I wasn’t even sure I had the right qualifications to put pen to paper on this topic - talk about irony. I may not have a personal #enggirlsolution to Imposter Syndrome, but I do know how to google! Here is what the experts recommend for tackling your Imposter Syndrome.

Hearing of others’ experiences with Imposter Syndrome can alleviate your own fears and provide people with the context that it is something we all experience. The Muse also suggests strategies such as reminding yourself of your accomplishments, confiding in others, turning to a mentor, or taking solace in the fact that Imposter Syndrome is often connected to the most successful people. It is important to recall that it is a symptom we all face, and that we don’t have to give into it. Now that’s a strategy we can get behind.

Have you experienced Imposter Syndrome? We want to hear about it! Where, when, and in what situation? We are all ears in the comments below.