One day in the 90s a friend and I were chatting about how lucky we were to have found jobs we enjoyed and bosses who appreciated our efforts. We were grateful to work in companies prepared to recognise employee contributions both financially and via promotions to roles of greater responsibility. She was in human resources; I was in marketing.
I confided that secretly I didn't think I was all that talented and that I didn't believe I had any special skills or particular aptitude for the role. "That's impostor syndrome," my friend declared. "Lots of people climbing the career ladder experience it at some stage." (People in HR know such things.)
That was about 20 years ago but it seems imposter syndrome is still a hot topic. According to This column will change your life: do you feel a fraud?, it's "long been known that impostorism afflicts more women than men". Furthermore, "[o]ne of impostorism's frustrating ironies is that true frauds and idiots rarely seem to experience it' - which, of course, is comforting.
What is not so comforting is that sociologists discovered impostorism is more likely to be the cause of women "downshifting" to a less demanding role rather than the frequently cited reason of seeking a more "family-friendly" lifestyle. One reader comment summed up the condition well: "After receiving my doctorate and working in a university, in a position of some authority for 8 years, there is and always will be a sense of 'One day I'll be ousted as the imposter that I am'."
A website devoted to this subject is run by a woman who says: "I've spent nearly a quarter of a century working primarily with women who feel like imposters, fakes and frauds." It asks "Do you dismiss your accomplishments as 'no big deal' or 'If I can do it, anybody can'?" and "When you do succeed, do you think, 'Phew, I fooled 'em this time but I may not be so lucky next time'?"
Read more: You might have imposter syndrome
Managing Your Impostor Syndrome quotes an expert on the subject: "It's the feeling that you're presenting a false self - you project a public sense of presumed competence and command that you know masks the fact that you're just struggling to make it through to the end of the day, week or month without falling flat on your face."
Here it's suggested that both genders experience the phenomenon equally; the observed greater prevalence in women is explained by the fact they're more likely to admit to it. The expert believes the presence of impostor syndrome can be a benefit: "I would not want to work with anyone who didn't have a healthy touch of impostorship, because it keeps you humble and focuses you on improving your practice. Without this syndrome, lies a megalomaniacal belief in your own infallibility!"
Do You Feel Like an Impostor?, another piece from Psychology Today says: "The telltale sign of impostor syndrome is a disconnect between perceived and actual performance". It cites a study which showed over 70 per cent of people have experienced it. And, evidently, "people who are high achievers are ... most likely to suffer from impostor syndrome."
According to Overcoming Impostor Syndrome "some researchers have linked it with perfectionism, especially in women and among academics". This Harvard Business Review piece also suggested coping strategies such as becoming aware of the issue, rewriting your mental scripts and talking about it.
The Guardian article reinforced the theme of sharing: "The only solution, many experts say, is for higher-ups to talk about their own insecurities much more." So here's an open invitation to bosses, CEOs, managers, professors and other leaders to take the pressure off others by declaring their own uncertainties. Are there any takers?
Have you experienced impostor syndrome? How did you choose to deal with it? Is hiding it or revealing it the best approach?