Have you ever experienced a creeping feeling of self-doubt, or felt that your professional accomplishments are undeserved? Well, if so, you may be experiencing imposter syndrome, a sense of doubt about your own abilities and achievements. Imposter syndrome can have a negative impact on your mental health, but also on your career — and it disproportionately affects women. Read on to learn what imposter syndrome is, how it manifests in your professional life, and what you can do to combat it.
Feeling like an imposter
I know from personal experience how difficult it is to admit that you may be grappling with impostor syndrome — and how exhausting the experience can be. At first, your feelings of self-doubt may feel small, like a leaky faucet — the drips are there, but they’re almost imperceptible. You ignore them, or repress them, and move on. But soon enough, the drizzle turns into a steady stream, to the point where you begin to repeatedly question your competence. Suddenly, you find yourself looking at projects and tasks and thinking: “Was that good enough?” or “Could I or should I have done more?” Or worse, you may even wonder: “What if everyone realizes that I don’t actually know what I’m doing here?”
Once you get caught in these cognitive loops, it’s not easy to break out again. You begin to constantly question your skills, experience, and achievements — and believe that you’re just not up to the task. The irony here is that, usually, the opposite is true.
Although studies show that impostor syndrome occurs in all demographics, it appears to primarily affect women. But what exactly is imposter syndrome, and do women really suffer from it more than men? Let’s dig in.
How imposter syndrome can hurt your career
That self-doubt damages your personal development seems logical. However, imposter syndrome can also have a direct impact on your own career — especially if you’re a woman. Due to the gender pay gap and other financial and social inequities, women are in a weaker financial position than their male counterparts. In 2022, women earned 18% less per hour in Germany. Due to the Gender Pension Gap, women in Germany even receive 59.6% less old-age income than men. And yet, as we’ve seen, it is exactly these inequities that cause women to doubt their own abilities.
Although imposter syndrome is not an acknowledged illness, this extreme form of self-doubt can have psychological side effects such as anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Anxiety often limits your ability to concentrate, while depression can impact your mood and motivation — all of which can impact your performance at work. This quickly creates a vicious circle of deep-seated self-doubt paired with performance-limiting mental illnesses. Imposter syndrome can also prevent you from pursuing promotions and pay raises, harming your bank account and your self-esteem. For women in particular, there’s evidence that they won’t pursue high-paying jobs unless they feel 100% qualified, while men go for those same jobs at much higher rates.
These days, imposter syndrome hasn’t stopped me from striving for higher positions or a higher salary. And yet, feelings of self-doubt continue to creep in. Which begs the question: Can you ever get rid of impostor syndrome?
To start, take inventory of your talents, professional experience, knowledge, and skills. This will help you see in black-and-white how qualified you are for your job. Mentors or work colleagues can also help by offering constructive, positive feedback and encouragement. Another tip is to educate yourself on negative thought patterns. For me, the book “How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back” by Marshall Goldsmith and Sally Helgesen was instrumental in changing my perception. In it, the authors explore 12 habits that women tend to develop in their careers, including “The Perfectionism Trap,” “Expecting the appreciation of others,” “Minimizing,” or “Reluctance to claim your accomplishments.” Not all habits will ring true for you, but others may have a huge impact on how you perceive yourself, fueling both self-doubt and imposter syndrome. Regardless of how you do it, identifying harmful thought patterns can help you change your perception of your career and achievements.
Finally, it’s important to fight the structural and social mechanisms that contribute to imposter syndrome — especially for women. Doing what you can to advocate for a more equal society won’t just benefit your mental health and career path, it will help future generations of women feel more confident in their abilities, skills, and talents. And that’s something that benefits all of us.