Imposter Syndrome: Feel it, name it, propel forward anyway

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This is the fifth article in the Propel Her – Defence Women’s Leadership Series by Lyndsay Freeman and Shamsa Lea.

Think back to all your greatest achievements. Did you feel proud of what you had just accomplished, or like a fraud who just got lucky? 

Could it be imposter syndrome? Generally described as the feeling of insecurity or self-doubt, sufferers feel that they do not deserve the success, accolades or competent reputation, and that their ‘deception’ will be discovered at any moment. This all leads to an inability to enjoy successes and progress forward with confidence and self-assurance. Imposter syndrome tends to bring about feelings of anxiety and negative self-evaluations, oftentimes ignoring objective evidence of success or achievement, like good annual or course reports or positive feedback from peers. Imposter syndrome is more common than you think, and affects people at all ranks and in every role – in particular the high achievers! 

Although typically viewed as a female trait, new research claims that men suffer from imposter syndrome at higher rates than women when under pressure. A further difference between the genders occurs when women are asked to judge their own performance against their male counterparts, where women consistently underestimate their achievements or devalue themselves across all roles. This phenomenon may be a result of those women feeling like an outsider in a male-dominated workplace, or an unconscious reaction to participating in a system or structure they don’t feel like they inherently belong in. 

Feelings of self-doubt are normal, especially when venturing into unknown and challenging territory—something military members do regularly. Toxic workplace culture can also exacerbate feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem in employees. It is important to look beyond directing blame solely on the individual and using imposter syndrome as a scapegoat as opposed to addressing the sexism, racism, and culture of overwork that may be causing the imposter experience. Imposter syndrome is not necessarily a disease of the mind, but perhaps a disease of the system.

Let’s look at some ways you can manage imposter syndrome so it doesn’t stop you moving forward:

1. Name it and reframe how you look at it. 

When that feeling of self-doubt or fraudulence starts to emerge, name it and blame it! Awareness is the first step to changing your mindset on imposter syndrome, and becoming ‘comfortable with being uncomfortable’. Don’t be pressured to eliminate this feeling completely as many have tried and failed. But being able to rewrite your mental programming and reframe how you view it will allow you to blame the response and not your own abilities.

Reframe your thinking to associate the feeling of imposter syndrome as something that drives and motivates, to the point where your internal voice says – “Ahh there’s that old imposter syndrome feeling again. I must be outside my comfort zone so I need to maintain my focus and momentum.”

The ability to be our own cheer squad and call on our empowering inner voice has been replaced by self-deprecating humility by many of us. Be kind to yourself and actively stop yourself from minimising your accomplishments and future goals. Your peers and subordinates get the privilege of your sound and supportive advice, so why do you miss out on your own good advice!? Also ask yourself a simple question if you think you’re undeserving of an opportunity you’ve been afforded: “If not me, then who?

2. Normalise it with your network and friends.

This common and natural emotional reaction needs to be openly discussed to remove the stigma. We will start – “I, Lyndsay Freeman, the Chief of Army Scholar 2020, experiences imposter syndrome and I propel forward anyway.” “I, Shamsa Lea, an experienced logistician and military leader, experiences imposter syndrome and I propel forward anyway.” 

Experiencing imposter syndrome likely means that you are outside your comfort zone, which is a positive sign that you’re progressing forward in your endeavours. Chances are extremely high that others in your workplace, network or friendship groups experience imposter syndrome from time to time, so “don’t compare your insides with other people’s outsides” (Anne Lamott). Lead the way in openly discussing your imposter syndrome triggers and experiences with trusted peers and friends. Remind them that everyone has unique talents, a diverse knowledge base, and valuable experiences that should be leveraged and celebrated, not devalued by comparing yourself against others.

3. Push forward anyway.

This step is going to take the most courage and on-going focus as imposter syndrome often manifests in a fear of failure. Pushing past imposter syndrome goes beyond working longer hours or studying harder; define what success looks like for you and identify the hurdles, along with the actions you need to undertake to reach your point of success. Get your mentors or network to help you set goals and create a game plan. Have confidence in your path forward, and a belief that you are entitled to that achievement. You will find it easier to take the big steps necessary. 

Reframe your mindset towards your own success by recognising that it has been legitimately achieved through your hard work and good professional reputation. Let yourself be ambitious. Set goals and milestones to get you towards the career and life you want. Pushing past the feeling of imposter syndrome will require you to reframe failure as a learning opportunity, and success as a reflection of your self-worth and value that should be owned and celebrated.

Bertrand Russell, the famous philosopher, mathematician and activist (read up on him!) observed that: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” This is one of the enduring ironies with imposter syndrome; actual frauds or incompetent underachievers don’t experience it as much as high achievers. So feel it, name it and propel forward anyway, you high achiever!

If your experience of imposter syndrome is leading to heightened levels of anxiety over extended periods, or your mental health is being impacted, you may need to seek professional advice. Please do this with no shame as everyone needs help from time to time, and you’re not alone.

Handy resources:

About the authors

Lyndsay Freeman is a mother of two and a Transport Officer in the Australian Army. She is a Chief of Army Scholar for 2020 and is completing a Master of International Development Practice, specialising in Gender, Peace & Security, at Monash University. Lyndsay is passionate about the ADF’s pivotal role in advocating for women’s empowerment across the globe. Twitter: @LyndsayFreeman8.

Shamsa Lea is an Air Force Logistics Officer, leadership coach and sessional academic at University of Southern Queensland. She has been engaged in female recruitment, retention and progression activities in Defence for a number of years, with a specific interest in helping ADF women achieve their leadership potential. Twitter: @ShamsaLea.