Skip to content

The Shackles of Imposter Syndrome

Welcome to the start of the 2021 holiday season—a time for celebration and reflection.

Speaking of reflection, when was the last time you worried about meeting expectations? Or you credited luck for your accomplishments? Or felt like other people were overestimating you—secretly fearing that people would find out you’re not as capable as they thought you were?

Does any of this sound familiar?

Let me share a dirty little secret with you. I have these doubts too—as do the vast majority of highly accomplished men and women leaders! What we’re dealing with is “impostor syndrome,” when a nagging inner voice whispers to us that we don’t deserve our achievements. That we don’t really belong. We are at times unable to internalize our accomplishments, and we worry that we’ll be unmasked as a fraud.

What a harrowing mindset to live with! It is estimated that more than 70% of people experience this feeling of being an impostor, including many accomplished leaders such as former first lady Michele Obama, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and the country’s first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Maya Angelou, civil rights activist, poet and Nobel Laureate wrote about her experience with it: “I have written 11 books but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.’”

The problem with the imposter syndrome is it can lead to significantly reduced self-esteem—and ultimately to failure.

Imagine the breakthrough impact we could have on the organizations we lead, our communities and the world but for the fact that at any point in time so many of us as leaders are holding back from “going for it” because we fear that we will be “discovered”!

We are bound by the shackles of impostor syndrome, unable to break from the status quo to make a real difference.

Where does this insidious affliction come from? And why do so many leaders suffer from impostor syndrome?

When we overthink our own qualities and begin to doubt ourselves, impostor syndrome can set in. It happens when we are overwhelmed with where we are in life and begin to doubt ourselves so much that we begin to wonder if we are there just by chance.

I sometimes experience impostor syndrome when I’m faced with a new challenge. I find myself doubting my success, and tend to dismiss, if not forget, my experience and many accomplishments that have positioned me to take on the challenges posed to me.

Researchers have shown that imposter syndrome is the result of multiple factors, including personality traits such as perfectionism and family background. One popular theory asserts that impostor syndrome is primarily found in families that value achievement above all else—which I can relate to, having been brought up in a household where there was a singular focus on the importance of academic and, to a lesser extent, athletic excellence.

We owe it to ourselves, and the significant stakeholders in our lives, to break free from impostor syndrome and, in turn, the tyranny of the status quo. It can and has been done!

To do so, it’s important to be alert to the onset of the following beliefs and behaviors that are associated with impostor syndrome:

  • Worrying that your success in life has been the result of some kind of error, and thinking that everyone around you is more intelligent than you are.
  • Attributing success to luck or other external factors, such as good timing, and not your own abilities.
  • Downplaying success and discounting it as “no big deal”— my persona example: upon learning that I would graduate summa cum laude with a degree in economics, I downplayed it as not a big deal. It’s another way we try to fool others.
  • Exhibiting a fear of failure, as you’re worried about being found out. It’s the inability to enjoy success because it comes with added responsibility and visibility.
  • Feeling like a fraud: Those of us who experience imposter syndrome believe that somehow others have been deceived into thinking we deserve success or professional accolades. That we give the impression we are more competent than we actually are, and feel that we lack knowledge or expertise. Sometimes we even believe that we don’t deserve a position or a promotion—such as the hesitancy I felt taking on a needed and complex restructuring assignment.

Now that you know how to identify imposter syndrome, look for my next article. I’ll be sharing eight highly effective coping strategies that can be deployed when imposter syndrome rears its ugly head. They worked for me. They can work for you!

Back To Top