As part of our summer careers offer, Your future, your way, LSE Careers hosted a discussion panel all about imposter syndrome in the workplace. Chaired by Professor Dilly Fung, LSE Pro-Director for Education, four alumni guests shared their own moving experiences of imposter syndrome from across their career, including while studying at LSE and in their working life.
So, what is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome means different things to different people, but it usually involves having doubts or worries about your abilities. You might question whether you are able to undertake certain tasks, or whether you’re good enough to belong in your role or team. People experiencing imposter syndrome might feel like they will be ‘found out’. It’s something many of us might experience in our working lives but we don’t always realise exactly what imposter syndrome is in the first place to be able to identify it!
What might imposter syndrome feel like at university?
Imposter syndrome is actually more widespread than you might think, and many people suffer from it in silence. Even among our four panellists, we heard a wide range of examples.
When speaking about imposter syndrome at university, some of our speakers described feeling a need to attend all lectures and events during their studies, or a need to be perfect and get a first-class degree. Others spoke about being the first member in their family to go to university, and that overwhelming feeling of attending a 200-person lecture and not feeling prepared enough to know the answers to questions. Overall, though, we heard how these situations can be overwhelming and sometimes lead to a feeling of ‘not belonging’ at LSE.
What might imposter syndrome feel like in the workplace?
Moving on to imposter syndrome in the workplace, one of our panellists said they’d felt like a ‘fake’ expert in their field. Others spoke of struggles around being the youngest in a team and needing to advise more senior colleagues, or of being a young person working with experienced clients. Another panellist spoke about how imposter syndrome can even make you think you’re underqualified and that the recruiters got something wrong and you’ll be found out sooner or later. These situations can create a constant fear of making mistakes, of not being legitimate.
Intersectionality – is imposter syndrome compounded by gender, economic status or other factors?
Across our panel, the common feeling was that imposter syndrome affects all genders – it’s just that men talk much less about it. This is currently changing though, alongside a brighter light being shone on men’s mental health, especially at work.
The panel also agreed that there is an intersectionality to imposter syndrome, with economic status playing a huge part. Students who need to work while studying to support themselves might feel the economic divide strongly, and therefore experience imposter syndrome acutely. However, we must note that nobody is immune to imposter syndrome. Being from a wealthy background doesn’t prevent you from experiencing imposter syndrome; it’s when you go out into the real world and start working that the questions arise about who you are and how you can contribute to the world.
How can you overcome imposter syndrome?
There are a range of actions you can take to help you cope with feeling like an imposter in any part of your life.
- Find what you’re good at: Take some time to recognise both your strengths and your weaknesses. Focus on the strengths and consider how you can build on these to boost your confidence.
- Skill up: Imposter syndrome is common in situations that are new to you – for example, if you’re asked to complete a new task. Consider how you can ‘skill up’ in these situations. This could be asking your manager or mentor for more information about the task, seeking guidance (and knowing it is ok to do this), or considering specific training so your expertise feels more secure.
- Take opportunities if they knock: Don’t let fear of the unknown get the better of you! You will grow in the process.
- Accept that mistakes are part of life: It’s ok to make errors and by reminding ourselves of this, we can move away from the need to be constantly perfect.
- Surround yourself with great mentors: Having people around who you really trust will give you sounding boards for ideas and concerns, as well as a strong and supportive network.
- Use criticism constructively: Criticism is difficult to take, especially when you experience imposter syndrome. But take the criticism from those you can rely on (rather than those who are constantly negative), and this can be really helpful in overcoming imposter syndrome.
- Learn more about imposter syndrome: You can read more about five different categories of imposter syndrome, all of which are likely to resonate with LSE students, in Valerie Young’s book: The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women.
Remember: your differences help you stand out…
If you’re in a role, your employer likes what they saw in you – they saw your CV and have faith in you, it’s not an accident that you were employed! Just as it is not an accident that you got your place at LSE. Whoever you are, whatever your background, your unique, authentic self is what the world needs!
This blog is based on a panel event that took place on 29 June 2021. Check out all LSE Careers events on CareerHub.