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The Mental Health Impact of Imposter Syndrome

Part 2 of a 6-part series discussion of imposter syndrome:

The Mental Health Impact of Imposter Syndrome

The mental health discussion not only entered the Olympics arena this year but has simultaneously seemingly been magnified within the workplace.

The Olympic Games have always garnered public discourse and Tokyo 2020 fulfilled expectations. However, in addition to conversations about medal counts announced by sports and news analysts, what also crept in was widespread discussions on the topic of mental health. This year Olympians became outspoken mental health advocates. The dialogue was amplified with Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles in the spotlight of the exchange.

What’s interesting is that while the topic of mental health was being discussed within the Olympic arena, it has also been taking place heavily within the corporate workspace. It appears that collectively, society is waking up to the need to have the long-overdue discussion surrounding mental health in both environments. A popular reference point surrounding office place mental health is imposter syndrome. Imposter Syndrome (IS) is an internal belief that one is not as competent as others perceive them to be. Therefore, it is thought that at any moment one will be exposed as a fraud.

One feels like a fraud because they have convinced themselves that they do not belong and that the status they hold was achieved only by mere luck and not as a result of talent or skill. Psychologically this is an agonizing and grueling internal conflict. Needless to say, it can become an endless vicious cycle for many.

In The Office

According to the International Journal of Behavioral Science, more than 70% of people are affected by workplace imposter thoughts at some point in their career.  Another research article published in 2018 found, “Organizations have become increasingly concerned about mental health issues in the workplace as the economic and social costs of the problem continue to grow. Addressing employees’ mental health problems and the stigma that accompanies them often falls to supervisors, key people in influencing employment pathways, and the social climate of the workplace.” Yet, despite the rising data, imposter syndrome has not been given a diagnosis code for treatment by mental health professionals.

Mental Impact

While imposter syndrome is not recognized in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, the impact imposter syndrome has psychologically often led to either depression or anxiety. Both of these are indeed included and recognized as mental disorders.  It has been noted that imposter syndrome and social anxiety are likely to overlap. A person with a social anxiety disorder (SAD), often feels as though they too do not belong. But because imposter syndrome is protected by shame, those that experience it tends not to share their struggles with anyone. This has proven to be a challenge for self and mental care when it comes to recovering from imposter syndrome. This shame prevents one from seeking and receiving life-changing help towards personal, professional, emotional, and mental growth.

Types of IS

Imposter Syndrome akin to mental health matters is not a one-size-fits-all non-diagnosis. Therefore, there are several types of imposter syndrome. Here are the 3 most popular types.

  1. The Perfectionist. The perfectionist strives to achieve exactly that, perfection.  Rather than focus on their strengths, a perfectionist becomes fixated on their flaws. As a result of this single focus, perfectionists are never satisfied. This lack of satisfaction leads to disappointment that is accompanied by a great deal of self-pressure and a lot of anxiety. Sometimes, we are our worst enemies.
  2. The Expert. The expert is the one that determines they lack knowledge despite evidence such as academic degrees, industry certifications, and years of training with hands-on experience. Experts are constantly seeking to learn more, thinking another class, program, or certification will remove their internal struggle. As a result of constantly pursuing and despite achieving, these also are never satisfied. They will consistently downplay their expertise because, in all honesty, they cannot detect them.
  3. The Soloist. The soloist, of course, prefers to work alone. The soloist strives to achieve success individually because from their perspective, their solo achievement is indicative of their productivity and their self-worth. However, if it were that easy, then when a soloist did achieve success individually, they would find satisfaction. But, this is not the case, nor the focus. Just as the other two types, the soloist finds no satisfaction. A soloist’s focus is thinking that asking for help will be seen as a sign of weakness and not achieving goals is seen as mere incompetence. Thus, their internal cycle is unable to notice any favorable achievements made because their priority is elsewhere.

Again, imposter syndrome has yet to be distinguished as a mental health issue worthy of diagnosis within the DSM. That is, it has yet to be distinguished, as of now. With analysis, strong deliberation is being given so that the rising 70% of the population vulnerable enough to share their shame can receive guidance from healthcare professionals. Nonetheless, filling in the gap until then and most likely thereafter are experienced leaders, trainers, and coaches specializing in this phenomenon providing steps to battle and overcome the symptoms of imposter syndrome.

Determine and Defeat

Are you an imposter? Can you relate to the woes of the perfectionist, expert, or soloist? If so, please do not be ashamed for you are not alone, and more so, are in good company. Our imposter syndrome series kicked off with revealing known celebrities admitting they dealt with or are still dealing with imposter syndrome. Statistics show and lean towards the discussion of it being a popularized social science concept. Even so, in this instance, to defeat imposter syndrome, we must first determine if you are a said “imposter”.

  1. Do you credit your success to anyone or anything other than yourself such as circumstance, luck, or some form of favor?
  2. Do you feel you have something to prove to yourself or others as if what you are doing isn’t good enough and has to be twice as good?
  3. Are you a workaholic by choice because you are compelled to do more than required so no one will notice you may not be as good as perceived?
  4. Are you adversely impacted by criticism yet feel the need to be validated by others particularly your superiors?

These questions represent my four-point rule, for these four points each making a right turn will create a box. Experiences of imposter syndrome box you in. You become boxed into faulty thinking, a covering of shame, and the driver of a seemingly never-ending cycle. If you’ve been boxed in, we have determined you are indeed an “imposter”. That is, an unwilling participant of imposter syndrome.

As if finding out and determining you are an unwilling participant of imposter syndrome, thus an imposter, is not enough, now you have to carry the heavy burden of defeating it. In spite of the casualness and public conversation of this topic, it should not be taken lightly. The fact that it has yet to be recognized as a mental health disorder, doesn’t negate the damaging effects. Suffering from imposter syndrome can be devasting and adversely impacts one’s lifestyle and mental health.

Understanding the pressure I’ve just placed upon your back, I will give you the first and most important and perhaps the hardest assignment in defeating imposter syndrome. The assignment is this, break the silence. It may not seem like much, but breaking the silence entails trust, courage, and vulnerability. This may also require some time. Therefore, the assignment is simple and delivered with patience. The first step in defeating imposter syndrome is to break the silence. Boldly place the stake of shame down and break the silence.

Although we were able to push this discussion forward, there is still much more to be uncovered. Be that as it may, understanding the mental health impact of imposter syndrome is critical in garnering the seriousness of this experience while creating pathways for defeat. I would be remiss if I didn’t state that determining you are an imposter is a double conundrum. We will unpack this facet later. Our next discussion will continue to push us forward in this 6-part series of imposter syndrome.

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