How young leaders can overcome imposter syndrome

Last updated on 21 July 2023

Confronting imposter syndrome and acknowledging its presence is the first step towards overcoming your self-doubt. [Source: Shutterstock]

If you ever feel out of place, like you don’t belong, you could be dealing with a phenomenon called imposter syndrome. It’s something young leaders, experienced professionals, sportspeople and celebrities alike have battled, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with feeling overwhelmed by it. 

And when you do feel burdened by self-doubt, the best thing you can do is look imposter syndrome in the eye, call it by its name and take the best steps to overcome it.

What is imposter syndrome?

First coined as the impostor phenomenon in 1978 by authors Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, imposter syndrome is an internal experience of intellectual phoniness. People experiencing it feel anxious despite achieving success, as though their ability to perform at a high standard is a facade. Therefore, rather than being able to enjoy their success and recognition, they feel like a fraud who’s going to be exposed at any moment.

Imposter syndrome doesn’t equate to humility; it’s not simply brushing off positive feedback or not enjoying praise. Young leaders with imposter syndrome can be incredibly critical of themselves, leading to:

  • Self-doubt and fear of poor performance
  • Unrealistic personal expectations 
  • Constant self-sabotaging
  • Regular disregard of personal achievements
  • High stress levels and burnout

How is it caused?

There’s no single cause of imposter syndrome; often a range of social factors lead to ongoing self-doubt and criticism. For that reason alone it can be quite difficult to overcome, especially without some help. Some of the more common causes include:

  • Increased pressure and higher expectations to perform well academically, physically and socially as a child
  • Criticism for poor performance despite being praised as a “gifted or talented” child
  • Performance-based rewards and recognition in the workplace
  • Mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression
  • Socio-economic background
  • A sense of belonging with social groups or the workplace

It’s important to acknowledge these causes are not mutually exclusive, nor are they the only factors influencing imposter syndrome. Yes, there are strong links between expectations of others and the way individuals view their own accomplishments, but it can also be purely based on self-assessment. Although normal, it’s the moments of ongoing self-doubt and self-sabotage that really need to be confronted by young leaders wanting to unleash their full potential.

How you can turn imposter syndrome into success

You should never find yourself staring in the mirror acting as your biggest critic. There’s a time and place for feedback and it should always be in a constructive and supportive manner.

There are some positive steps any young leader can take to address imposter syndrome. And even though the journey will be different for everyone, you will find something that works for you.

Acknowledge imposter syndrome by giving it a name, and talking about it. Too many young leaders and young professionals try to avoid it or think no one else has ever experienced it. But most people do have moments of self-doubt, and many have battled – or still battle – imposter syndrome. So by naming it and talking to others about your feelings, concerns and struggles, you can step towards a greater sense of belonging. 

Confront your negative thoughts. When your inner voice talks you down after receiving praise, why? What evidence is there to suggest you don’t deserve recognition? If you can challenge yourself and create a list of your strengths and competencies, you can bring down imposter syndrome.

Learn from your mistakes. Okay, so perhaps you didn’t achieve the success you wanted to. We all make mistakes and we all learn from them. So instead of blaming yourself and placing a critical approach on what happened, use the experience as a learning opportunity. Identify where you can get better, gain new skills, and show that you can overcome anything.

Praise yourself and celebrate achievements, big or small. It’s easy to get lost in the routine, so when you make it to the end of a big week, reward yourself. When you receive recognition at work, splurge on a coffee. Do whatever it takes to have a good moment of self-love. You should be your own biggest cheerleader!

Seek feedback and guidance from a trusted colleague or mentor. One of the biggest obstacles with imposter syndrome is seeking feedback from others. The need to self-criticise often means shutting down and ignoring positive or constructive feedback. A beneficial relationship with someone who can be honest and supportive provides you with an external voice to challenge your self-doubt. Vocalising your worries and fears could well be the key to beating your imposter syndrome, too.

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young leaders
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imposter syndrome
self doubt
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