It may not be diagnosable, but imposter syndrome is very real. Valerie Young, PhD, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, describes it as "a secret belief that deep down we’re not as bright, capable, competent or talented as other people seem to think we are, and therefore have this fear of being found out."
Dr. Young says it's true that imposter syndrome is more common in women, because there are so many misconceptions out there about women not being as competent as men. But that sense of uncertainty goes beyond gender.
"Whenever you belong to any group for whom there are stereotypes about competence, you’re going to be more susceptible [to imposter syndrome]," Dr. Young says. "So that goes beyond gender to include race and even age."
For example, if you're an ethnic minority and rarely see people who look like you in your profession, that definitely contributes to feeling like you don't belong or shouldn't be in your position. Dr. Young says that often when she gives talks about imposter syndrome at universities, she sees a lot of international students. She believes this is because international students often have to do everything other students do, but in a culture different from their own, thus amplifying that feeling of being an outsider (or imposter, if you will) who doesn't belong.
Whenever you belong to any group for whom there are stereotypes about competence, you’re going to be more susceptible [to imposter syndrome].
Valerie Young, PhD
"When you walk into a work location, the more people who look or sound like you, the more confident you feel, whether that’s based in gender or race," she says.
But even if you work in an office where you're a minority, it's not impossible to tackle imposter syndrome. In order to not feel like an imposter, Dr. Young says that you essentially have to retrain your thinking — and to recognise that in some circumstances, it's totally normal to feel that way.
"If you start a new job, for example, recognise that you’re going to feel off-base for a few months," she says. "The goal for me is to have insight and information and tools so that when a normal imposter moment strikes, you can talk yourself down quicker. And the way to do that is to recognise that people who don’t feel imposter syndrome are no more confident or capable than the rest of us."
The key, then, is to learn to think like them. Dr. Young says that to really tackle imposter syndrome, you just have to bite the bullet and do whatever it is you have to, even if you feel inadequate or inept.
"You have to keep going regardless of how you feel," she says. "People often say, 'I'll do this when I feel more confident,' but you don't get there if you don't actually do it. You have to do the thing that scares you, tell yourself you’re excited instead of scared."
That might mean being nervous and anxious through your first big work presentation, or being flummoxed during a job interview, but the more you try, and the more experiences you have, the more you can feel confident in your abilities.
As Dr. Young puts it, "change your thoughts and behaviours, and over time the feelings will change."