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The burden of always feeling like a fraud

Imposter syndrome affects women more and can lead to mental health issues

Síndrome del impostor
Laura Wächter

I fear being judged by others. I sometimes think my achievements are just dumb luck. I worry that important people will discover I’m not as capable as they think. I’m sure you’re already finding this silly — everyone feels that way at times. But imposter syndrome is expressed in many of our commonly used phrases. Even Meryl Streep has said she feels like a fraud sometimes. This phenomenon was first described in 1978 by American clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. They defined it as a strong feeling like a fraud in terms of perceived competence, particularly among highly educated individuals. Statistics indicate that nearly 50% of the people who have received some form of public recognition experience this feeling. In 2000, Joan Harvey and her colleagues also associated it with certain personality traits, such as high self-demand, self-criticism, perfectionism and low self-compassion.

People who feel like frauds often blame themselves for mistakes and struggle to accept praise. They believe their accomplishments are due to luck, and that people or overlooking their flaws. They feel like imposters because they’re playing a role that doesn’t align with who they truly are. They fear failure and downplay their abilities, sometimes without even realizing it. To compensate, they either over-prepare or procrastinate. This syndrome is more common in competitive environments and has been studied in the healthcare field by two Spanish doctors, Montserrat González Estecha and Ángeles Martínez Hernanz.

It’s important to distinguish between occasionally feeling like a fraud, and a prolonged situation that becomes potentially disabling. One clear sign is when no achievement feels satisfactory, leading to chronic dissatisfaction. Another indicator is when high demands extend beyond the professional realm and start affecting social and family life. Excessive stress can also pose risks to physical health.

Some studies indicate that women are more affected by imposter syndrome. Gender roles can intensify this issue when women assume leadership positions traditionally associated with men. The historical roots of imposter syndrome and its significant impact on women can be explored in Mary Beard’s Women & Power: a Manifesto (Liveright, 2017). Her book highlights how women have been historically marginalized, a challenge that persists today. Imposter syndrome typically emerges during adolescence and intensifies during certain stages of adult life, such as motherhood, where women must exert double the effort to prove their professional worth.

Books like Imposter syndrome: Why do women still not believe in themselves? by Elisabeth Cadoche and Anne de Montarlot, and I Won’t Do It Right by Emma Vallespinós, offer some recommendations to combat this syndrome. To overcome imposter syndrome, start by identifying and understanding its triggers. Then, be kinder to yourself and recognize the errors in your self-evaluations by comparing them with the opinions of others. As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggests, we must challenge the language we use, as it reflects our own biases. Additionally, focus on self-discovery and recognizing your own strengths. Let go of false guilt and cultivate compassion for your mistakes. Avoid overworking, accept compliments, and find joy in what you do. Lastly, raise awareness of gender biases at both an individual and collective level.

In the business and organizational field, one way to combat this syndrome is through participatory leadership. This involves having open, creative and transformational attitudes. By committing to healthy leadership styles, trust and cooperation can be fostered, while discouraging competitive judgments and prejudices. This encourages even the most reticent and sensitive individuals to assume more responsibility. Another option is to promote mentoring. As Tomás Chamorro suggests in Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?, the people who evaluate individual performance often favor qualities like confidence, charisma and self-assurance, rather than competence and humility. Shifting focus to these latter characteristics would help reduce coercive environments. Professor Helena Legido recommends implementing gender equality policies, promoting diversity in decision-making, supporting work-life balance, and ensuring equal compensation.

For future leadership development, it’s good to identify role models and mentors who help women support one another and take risks, if that’s what they want. However, it’s equally important to acknowledge and respect the choice of blending in with the crowd without feeling like an imposter.

Patricia Fernández Martín is a clinical psychologist at the Ramón y Cajal Hospital in Madrid.

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