Chances are you’ve heard the phrase ‘imposter syndrome.’ It’s a concept that has gained a lot of traction in recent years, having been referenced in everything from glossy magazines to academic papers to social media posts.

Originally identified in a 1978 study as ‘imposter phenomenon’ by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, the idea that high-achieving individuals might consider themselves to be ‘imposters’ in their working lives – regardless of any evidence to the contrary – is clearly something that continues to resonate. And although imposter syndrome is often spoken of in particular relation to women’s careers, it is a phenomenon that can affect anyone, at any level of their career, regardless of gender.

For some of us, imposter syndrome is even more likely to strike at a time of otherwise positive change. For example:

  • After a promotion
  • Starting a new company
  • Interacting with new colleagues for the first time
  • Delivering a public speaking engagement

Achievements such as these are real career highlights, and yet imposter syndrome can cause uncertainty even during times of celebration.

So what does imposter syndrome feel like?

“Imposter syndrome is a constant feeling that you're going to be found out,” explains RADA Business tutor Lisa Åkesson.

“Essentially, you feel like a fraud, even if you are actively delivering your best work. So imposter syndrome is about the mismatch between how we see ourselves, and what we are actually delivering.”

Should you ever listen to your inner critic?

At RADA Business, we also refer to other terms – the inner critic voice, or self-doubt – which may in many cases be symptomatic of imposter syndrome, but can also be experienced separately.

As Lisa explains: “imposter syndrome sits at an identity level. It’s often emotional, illogical, and appears without evidence. You might believe that you can’t do something, even as you are doing it. Your imposter syndrome ignores outside evidence that says you are good at your job, for example, and tells you that you aren’t.”

Having an inner critical voice is sometimes a result of imposter syndrome, and yet, self-doubt can also serve a function. In certain circumstances, it can even be useful. Your inner critic voice might encourage you to seek advice, for example, or to ask a colleague for help. It is only if your inner critic starts to undermine your confidence and have an impact at an identity level that it needs to be addressed.

Dealing with imposter syndrome

If you’ve ever felt like an imposter at work, then you’ll know it can be challenging to overcome. But the good news is that it can be dealt with, and it begins with one simple technique.

As Lisa says: “you need to label it. We all have self-doubt; it’s an unconscious emotional programming that affects our behaviour and choices. But if these beliefs start to limit you, you can address it by calling out your doubts and reframing them to empower you.”

So, the next time imposter syndrome comes knocking on your door, try these three steps:

  1. Label the voice in your head. Identify it as something other than you.
  2. Investigate it. Ask if what it’s saying is actually true. And if it’s not true, lay down the real facts – write them down. Think about positive feedback you have received from your boss, colleagues or clients; how your appraisal went; what specific wins you have had at work.
  3. Base your response on the informed data identified in step two. Then, find a new label to describe yourself – one that reflects your strengths and your capabilities. Use that empowered phrase to enhance your confidence and celebrate your full potential.