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It’s a phenomenon… not a syndrome

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During the last year I have had the pleasure of speaking to over 20 people about their experiences of the imposter phenomenon and over the next 12 months I will be completing an in-depth analysis of the interviews to write up for my PhD research.  In the meantime, there are some emerging themes which I thought you might find interesting.  Do let me know if they resonate with you.  I’m also seeing many more social media posts about the imposter syndrome, confusing it with a lack of self confidence or normal self-doubt.

So a quick review of what it really is – a phenomenon!  An occurence at certain points in time which for some people may appear as if it is self-doubt, but it occurs despite the external evidence of success.  Self doubt is healthy and normal when you have little or no evidence of success.  Imposter-style self-doubt is despite the evidence of success.

A syndrome has a connotation with a pathological condition, or a mental health issue – the imposter phenomenon may trigger extreme anxiety for some people, but in and of itself it is not a mental health condition, nor is it a syndrome. It is not all pervasive, it is triggered by certain situations or certain people and certain points in time. That’s why phenomenon is a much more accurate description, even if it is harder to say and more difficult to spell!


Triggers for Imposter chatter:

This is cropping up big time… some people prefer the move to online meetings and it is helping lessen their imposter feelings as they can seek support and encouragement from others surreptitiously while in the meeting. Others are missing the face to face interaction and the body language clues.

But one thing seems certain, no-one likes being put on the spot in a meeting.

So what can be done if you are organising the meeting? 
Provide an agenda in advance to give people notice of the topics.
Invite people to contribute early, the longer they wait for their voice to be heard, the harder it can be for them to speak up
Give people time to reply, and permission to come back to you at a later date if they need to check the facts.

So what can be done if you are attending the meeting? 
Prepare in advance – but don’t over do it. Many of my interviewees report spending hours preparing for all eventualities.
It really is ok to say “I don’t know” or “I need to check this out”.
Review your knowledge, skills and abilities before you join the meeting to remind yourself why you are there, that you can do your job and that you deserve to have your opinions heard.



Or more specifically, a lack of qualifications.  In my communication last January, I mentioned Charlie Mackesy’s book The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse in which the Boy asks, “What do you think is the biggest waste of time?”.  “Comparing yourself to others” replies the Mole. Many interviewees are it seems comparing their lack of qualifications to new joiners coming in with degrees.  Now I am one to recognise this, as although I do now have my MSc, I have often wondered if I ought to go back and get that first degree in psychology as it’s a gap in my education!  But is it really?  My interviewees are all experienced in their roles, some have 30+ years experience, yet still feel inferior to someone who has, say 3 years experience, because of the level of qualifications.

So what can be done?

Stop the comparison!  Easier said than done I know… but try to focus on what you have learnt, what skills have you developed, what do you know now that you didn’t 12 months ago, how experienced are you in your role? And be truthful to yourself, stop the modesty – it is ok to say “I am good at…” and be proud of what you do.


Courage ?

It seems that the concept of courage isn’t one which crops up in people’s minds. But when they do think about it, it is positive.  Generally speaking, my interviewees have not labelled themselves as courageous, and tend to think as courage requiring some form of physical or extreme risk.  Yet when prompted to think about actions they have taken and the inner strength required to do so, many agree that labelling it courage can be helpful.

Might this be helpful to you too?

In my last newsletter I mentioned the different types of courage, which I’ll reiterate here:

Physical courage may seem obvious, as in the “man saves woman from drowning” type of headline.   (As actually happened in China in 2019 when a UK diplomat did just that – see here for the BBC news report)

Moral courage is often cited as that exhibited by Rosa Parks in defiance of the Jim Crow race laws in the USA.  I think there must also have been an element of physical courage in her choice to sit in a ‘white only’ seat on that bus. Similar displays of moral courage have been exhibited during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

Psychological courage is often exemplified as the courage needed to give up an addiction or get out of an unhealthy relationship.  In these cases, the individual is escaping from a very negative situation.

I’m exploring psychological courage and how it is relevant in positive situations and may be a coping strategy for dealing with imposter feelings.

One other thing I am noticing is that there are strategies for dealing with imposter feelings in the moment (short-term) and some other strategies that assist in overcoming the imposter feelings (long-term).  More on this next time!

Wishing you a happy Christmas and all the very best for 2022

With thanks




Rate, C. R. (2010). Defining the features of courage: A search for meaning. In C. L. S. Pury & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), The psychology of courage: Modern research on an ancient virtue (pp. 47-66). American Psychological Association

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