Recent studies have highlighted the negative impact of impostor syndrome on young graduates transitioning to the workplace

An expert says it is important to identify and understand the signs of impostor syndrome early in one’s career, to avoid losing confidence and to become an empowered, valued and productive team member.

What is impostor syndrome? Impostor syndrome (also known as ‘impostor phenomenon’, ‘fraud syndrome’ or the ‘impostor experience’) is a psychological pattern in which people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalised fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’. – Wikipedia.

“According to a study conducted by UK career development agency Amazing If last year, as much as a third of millennials – young people between the ages of 18 and 34 – suffer from imposter syndrome at work,” says Dr Gillian Mooney, Dean: Academic Development and Support at The Independent Institute of Education, SA’s largest private higher education institution.

She says the local situation is likely to be much the same, with a large number of young graduates able to identify with a persistent fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as a “fraud” in the workplace.

“Impostor syndrome is commonly reported by recent graduates who are starting to formally work for the first time,” she says.

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“While impostor syndrome is not a formal psychological diagnosis, the concept has been used since 1978 to describe people who have an ongoing fear of being uncovered as being a fraud, or persistently feeling that they are ‘phony’. So there is good news for those who have been experiencing these confidence-sapping feelings in the workplace: firstly, there are many millions of people around the world who feel the same way, so you are not alone; and secondly, there are some solid ways in which you can rectify the situation.”

Struggle with internalising their achievements

Dr Mooney says that a further characteristic of those ‘suffering’ from impostor syndrome is that they tend to struggle with internalising their achievements.

“Many high achievers make external attributions about their success, for instance that they have been ‘lucky’ and that their success has little to do with who they are and what they know, or hard work and intelligence. This means that these people believe that they are not intelligent or capable enough, in spite of the objective evidence to the contrary.”

Dr Mooney adds that there is no clear pattern or type of person who may suffer from imposter syndrome.

There is no clear pattern or type of person who may suffer from imposter syndrome.

“People from diverse backgrounds, with different levels of intelligence and personality types can experience the feeling that they are not capable or qualified enough for their position. But it is important that these feelings are addressed, because it is clear that they can detract from your performance and can keep you from reaching your full potential.”

So how does one tackle impostor syndrome? By taking the following action:

1. Recognise and acknowledge what you are dealing with

When these destructive thoughts and feelings emerge, recognise them as such. It will be easier to manage these feelings and thoughts once you know what they are. Note any negative self-talk, such as ‘I can’t do this work’ or ‘I don’t know how to do this presentation’, and determine whether your insights are based on fact, or fear.

2. Change your mental programming

Think about whether or not there is any real evidence for your feelings of inadequacy. Are all these feelings and thoughts just in your head? Actively rephrase your thoughts; substitute ‘I don’t know anything’ with ‘I don’t know everything, but that is to be expected because I am still learning’. Nobody is ever expected to know it all – only to do their best and work on areas that need attention.

Are all these feelings and thoughts just in your head?

3. Pay attention to your achievements

Make a list of both your strengths and your weaknesses. Focus on the areas that you need to develop. Focus on how you can capitalise on your strengths. Keep a running list of tasks completed well, no matter how big or small.

4. Realise that you are not alone

Approach the career centre or career counsellors at the private higher education institution or public university where you studied. A good institution will be well equipped to put your feelings into perspective, and to assist and guide you to set out on your path with renewed self-assurance.

5. Build confidence

Action is the antidote to despair. Don’t wallow in feelings of inadequacy or concern about your ability to handle your workload. Commit to being productive and completing one task after the other, putting one foot in front of the other. As your list of small victories grows, so will your confidence and feelings of being empowered.

6. Commit to lifelong learning

In our rapidly changing world of work, it is those who stay at the forefront of developments in their industry, and those who constantly update their skills and fields of competence who remain relevant and in high demand in the workplace. Constantly growing and expanding your field of competence – for instance by enrolling for a distance learning, post-graduate or part-time qualification – will ensure that your faith in your ability to make a real contribution in the workplace continues to grow, which will soon banish any feelings of inadequacy for good.