/ 21 November 2023

Impostor syndrome: How to stop it from derailing your career and life satisfaction

Dr Linda Meyer

Perhaps the most effective antidote is embracing lifelong learning and continuing professional development

Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that involves feeling like a fraud, and constantly waiting to be found out despite evidence of your achievements and competence. It can affect anyone, regardless of their profession, education or experience. Impostor syndrome can cause you to doubt yourself, fear failure and avoid challenges, thereby undermining your own success and life satisfaction. If left unchecked, it can derail you from reaching your full potential, a leadership and education expert warns.

“Imposter syndrome does not discriminate. While one might think it’s a challenge faced by those struggling with self-worth, it’s surprising how often the overachievers feel its weight the most,” says Dr Linda Meyer, MD of The Independent Institute of Education’s Rosebank College.

“Even esteemed figures, from decorated scientists to iconic performers, have frequently confessed to feeling like frauds. They think their achievements aren’t the results of their efforts but rather a fortunate alignment of circumstances or, even worse, a well-maintained charade.”

Some studies suggest that as many as 70% of adults will experience impostor syndrome at least once in their lifetime. Although estimates vary, it is clear that the phenomenon is widespread, with a great many people falling into the trap of believing they are an island of well-masked incompetence surrounded by a sea of professional and capable people. 

“Impostor syndrome flows from self-doubt, which is an essential part of the human psyche. It serves as a mechanism that ensures self-assessment and reflection, maintaining a balance to avoid hubris. It’s when this self-doubt, instead of acting as a reflective tool, starts feeding on negative external factors and validations, that it can morph into the all-consuming imposter syndrome,” says Meyer.

Of course it is quite possible that a person may indeed be out of their depth, in which case their self-doubt does not translate to impostor syndrome. It is therefore important to firstly recognise your feelings, and then determine whether they are based in reality, she says.

“The first step to overcoming impostor syndrome is to identify and challenge the negative thoughts that fuel it. Some common impostor thoughts will include ideas that you don’t deserve this success; that you got lucky this time, but won’t be able to do it again; that you are not as smart/talented/skilled as others think you are, and that you are afraid of the penny dropping at some point and that you will be ‘found out’.”

The best way to ward off negative self-talk is to have the objective facts in front of you. It is therefore important to keep a record of your accomplishments, Meyer says.

“Keeping a record of your accomplishments and reminding yourself of them regularly can assist you in acknowledging your strengths and achievements, and counteract the tendency to focus on your flaws and failures.

“You can create a portfolio, a journal, or a folder where you collect tangible evidence of your accomplishments, such as certificates, awards, positive feedback, testimonials, or successful projects. Review your record whenever you feel insecure or doubtful, and celebrate your progress and growth.”

An additional tool is to seek feedback and support.

Speaking to a mentor, respected colleagues or managers is essential for your professional development and wellbeing. They can help you gain perspective, learn from others, and improve your performance.

Perhaps one of the most effective antidotes to ward off impostor syndrome, is embracing lifelong learning and continuing professional development, says Meyer.

“Impostor syndrome can make you avoid new opportunities and challenges, because you fear failure and rejection. However, this can limit your learning and growth, and prevent you from reaching your full potential. 

“Adopting a growth mindset  — the belief that your abilities and intelligence can be developed through effort, feedback, and practice — will keep you in a state of self-empowerment. A growth mindset can help you embrace challenges, overcome setbacks, and persist in the face of difficulties. It can also help you value the process of learning, rather than the outcome of success.”

Not dealing with impostor syndrome can rob an individual of years of professional satisfaction and progress, not to mention enjoying a fulfilling life, Meyer says.

“If you suspect that you may be dealing with this issue, recognise that you are not alone in your struggles, but that it is up to you to grab the bull by the horns and banish this thief of joy from your personal and professional life. Recognising and addressing imposter syndrome within oneself is pivotal. This initial spark of self-awareness illuminates the path forward. Accepting these feelings without judgement allows for proactive measures, setting the stage for transformative personal growth.”

About Dr Linda Meyer

Dr Linda Meyer is the Managing Director of the Independent Institute of Education’s Rosebank College and has held several executive roles in the public and private sectors. She is a serving member of the SAQA Board and a former CCMA Commissioner. She holds several qualifications, including a Doctor of Philosophy (RSA), Doctor of Business Administration (USA), Master of Business Administration (UK), Post Graduate Diploma in Management Studies (UK), Bachelor of Business Administration, B. Com (Law) and several other diplomas, higher and professional certifications.