Fight ‘impostor syndrome’ — learn how to own your successes

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
We are fortunate in New Zealand to have been spared the massive human cost that Covid-19 has wreaked on much of the world, but the economic cost is, and will continue to be, significant.

The support provided by the Government to businesses has softened the impact somewhat, but many are still facing hard times and an uncertain future. Hard times mean hard decisions for leaders.

Whether it’s mothballing, downsizing, diversifying, reducing spending or other measures, business leaders are taking risks and in many cases, stepping into uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory.

When feeling under pressure or in an unfamiliar situation, a lot of people experience ‘‘impostor syndrome’’. Many of you reading this may recognise what I am about to describe as it is more common than you think.

What is impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome is when you doubt your achievements are valid, secretly feel like you don’t really know what you’re doing and have a fear of being exposed as incompetent.

People experiencing impostor syndrome think their colleagues and supervisors overestimate them, so they decline opportunities outside of their role and don’t celebrate their successes.

In fact, success leads to anxiety because they fear they can’t replicate it, so don’t want to draw attention to it and raise people’s expectations of them. Another symptom of impostor syndrome is an intense fear of failure and the often accompanying perfectionism.

Sufferers end up handicapping themselves by creating long odds, such as leaving something to the last minute. This means that if they fail, they can blame the situation, not their own lack of ability, while reinforcing their belief that they weren’t good enough to do it well anyway.

Where does it come from?

Almost everyone experiences impostor syndrome at some point in their lives, because its roots lie in childhood.

When we are a child, all the competent, knowledgeable and effective people (to our young eyes) are adults, and we are not an adult. Therefore, we develop the belief that competent, knowledgeable, effective people are different from us; we are not one of those people. Even when we discover that our parents are not, in fact, perfect and don’t know everything, this belief is deeply ingrained in our psyche and needs to be unlearned. Accomplishment alone is not the antidote to impostor syndrome. If it was, the famous genius Albert Einstein would not have spoken of himself as “an involuntary swindler” whose work didn’t deserve the recognition it received.

In a 2013 interview, New Zealander of the Year Richie McCaw discussed how, in the early days of his All Black captaincy, he was uncomfortable leading men who were more experienced players and leaders than he was. “I always wondered how they saw [my decisions]. They always backed you, I suppose, but I guess it was my own insecurities ... You’re never quite sure.” How many of us know smart, successful people who doubt their own abilities and achievements?

One of the sneaky things about impostor syndrome is it convinces us that we’re the only one feeling this way, and everyone else knows what they’re doing. Because we can only know another person by what they do, or what they tell us; we can never see their insecurities and doubts. We can’t truly know how hard they had to work to complete that report, how nervous they were when suggesting that great idea in the meeting, or how difficult they find the new IT system.

How to get over impostor syndrome

There are three proven ways to overcome impostor syndrome.

Understand that most people experience it and that you are not abnormal.

Knowing that impostor syndrome is normal and that many of the people around you whom you see succeeding suffer from it, means that if they can experience impostor syndrome and be successful, so can you. It should not hold you back any more than the common cold — they are both inconvenient and capable of making you miserable, but not a reason to stop you reaching your potential.

Talk about your doubts and insecurities to people you trust.

This will not only help you work through those uncomfortable feelings and gain a different perspective on the situation, but it will confirm that others feel the same way, because those you confide in will probably share their own experiences of impostor syndrome. Especially at times like these, talking to other businesspeople helps to keep perspective and can provide important support and connection.

Make sure you pay attention to, and mentally bank, feedback on your skills and capabilities.

This involves noticing, acknowledging and committing the feedback to memory. When someone praises a job you’ve done, don’t reject or deflect the praise — bank it.

When you have success with a project, give credit to other people who were involved, but also take some of the credit yourself. Don’t downplay your input. Reflect on and own the skills and decisions that you made that brought the success.

We are often told to own our mistakes, but we should own our successes too.

 - Sarah Cross is director of Kakapo Consulting. She and Kate Hesson (Hesson Consultancy) will share this column with the purpose of promoting connectedness in business.



Doubt is healthy. Ambiguity is fine, even if a quality that men avoid. Outcome and productivity are the benchmarks. Imposter syndrome is a kind of delusion, tempered by humility. But IT DOESN'T GET THE DOCKETING DONE.

Just another label to put on sounds offensive to me but hey im a cis hetero normative white man so what would i know??

The problem is too many people don't do anything and want recognition for that. Look at typical government employees. Do nothing all day and then want recognition for it. Or they do the bare minimum and then over inflate their accomplishments. Another feel good story for generation do nothing!

Totally agree! Employers hire people and provide them with a job description detailing the expectations of the position. That is the standard. Most employees do the bare minimum to meet the standard. This is especially true in the public sector. If you want to be recognized for your accomplishment you might want to do something other than the bare minimum. And you are absolutely correct on "generation do nothing", they want the recognition but dont want to do anything but the bare minimum and then typically not that well. I am a commercial pilot, I am excellent at my job and I don't need anybody telling me how good I am at my job. I fly because I love it. I give everything 110% all the time. Mollycoddling these pampperd, lazzy kids has only made them worse. Learning to own failure is more important than PC BS the author is pushing!


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