How Imposter Syndrome is holding millenials back

A third of young people are said to suffer from 'Imposter Syndrome', recent research reveals. Has the average working environment become more intimidating, or are millennials suffering from an unprecedented confidence crisis? Christina Zhao investigates

Christina Zhao
Wednesday 19 April 2017 17:52 BST
Pressures of perfection, social comparisons and fear of failure are all cited as contributing factors to imposter sydrome.
Pressures of perfection, social comparisons and fear of failure are all cited as contributing factors to imposter sydrome.

My boss asked me to give a marketing presentation at a financial institution on behalf of our law firm last year.

I arrived at the bank where I was scheduled to sell our commercial services to a room of financial managers and knocked on the glass door.

A man pulled open the door and hurriedly said to me: “You’re going to have to wait outside until the bank opens. Everyone is upstairs at a conference”. Then he closed the door in my face.

I called the manager, who organised my presentation. She apologetically rushed down to find me. The man who had denied me access to the building was embarrassed, and I thanked him for his (patronising) help.

I wondered if my pencil skirt made the man think I couldn’t possibly be the lawyer they were expecting. I should have worn that pant suit. I wondered if I looked too young. I wondered if it was my girlish tone. I even wondered if it was the colour of my skin.

Whatever the reason, his dismissal of my presence only encouraged my flailing self-perception. I was already anxious that I didn’t belong, that I was an imposter, not accomplished enough to give this presentation.

Unfortunately, these moments of uncertainty are not exclusive to me, or to many millennials. People assume UK’s brightest young adults are assured, capable, and burning with self-confidence, but research proves otherwise, with twelve million people aged 18-34 suffering from “confidence gremlins” that attempt to undermine them at work.

Imposter Syndrome is a term coined in 1978 by psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, that refers to the psychological phenomenon, common among high achievers, which is characterised by intense feelings of intellectual fraudulence.

Although not a new concept, recent studies commissioned by career development agency Amazing If, found a third of millennials suffer from “Imposter Syndrome” at work, emphasising a severe lack of confidence affecting young people in the UK.

Research shows that imposter syndrome is characterised by feelings of anxiety. It's the feeling that you’ve bluffed your way into your situation, that you are not as talented as everyone believes, that you don’t deserve the achievements you have accomplished, that your success was down to luck and that soon, your lack of ability is going to be exposed.

No one can be sure what the exact causes for this phenomenon are, but the pressures of perfection, ever-increasing social comparisons, the competitive nature of specialist professions and fear of failure are all cited as contributing factors.

Ben Upton, an MA student at City University, recalls feeling like an imposter when teaching English at a University in China last year. He was praised for doing a good job by his bosses but still felt like he wasn’t qualified for it.

“Suddenly I was launched into a position where I was teaching English to adults. Some were older than me. I felt like I slipped through the system, how did I get here,” he said.

The frustrating irony is that getting better at your job doesn’t seem to make the syndrome go away. The higher you climb up the corporate ladder, the more likely you are to find yourself in a state of on-going growth and discomfort.

Ben thinks imposter syndrome is a problem rendered more acute by social media, which forces us to present to the world a “carefully curated collage” of our lives, rather than the full messy picture.

“Everyone plays down their efforts but plays up their achievements. Our peers on social media present a brand, a perception that often isn’t in line with reality. But some people tend to forget that and compare themselves to these brands. It creates an unhealthy expectation for young people of themselves,” says Mr Upton.

“Since we all try to present ourselves as remarkable, the benchmark has risen to an unobtainable standard. It’s impossible to be truly remarkable in our generation.”

​Leonore Schick, an Oxford graduate, says imposter syndrome is linked to the gig economy that generates constant changing careers and uncertainty in many millennials.

“We have an abundance of career options, with no financial follow up. The generations before us experienced an improving financial outlook, whereas these days, intelligent accomplished young people work for free to boost their profile," she says.

"We exist in a highly competitive environment and people are constantly reminding us that we are the best. That has got to be damaging and confusing to our mental health and self-esteem."

Ms Schick is referring to millennials as members of the trophy generation, raised by parents who send mixed messages of praise and criticism. According to American Psychological Association, this largely increases the risk of imposter syndrome.

Sabrina Dougall, a freelance journalist, believes gender inequality still plays a large part in fuelling imposter syndrome among young women.

“I work in central London where the male working professionals largely outweigh the female. In the CBD, I sometimes feel apologetic as a woman for no reason. Sometimes I put my head down because I feel like I’m being judged,” she admits.

Studies show that Imposter syndrome affects more woman than men, with some 40 per cent of young female professionals saying they felt intimidated by senior people, compared with just 22 per cent of males.

Cary Curtis, managing director of graduate recruitment agency Give A Grad A Go, said: “The anxiety of being ‘exposed as a fraud’ is extremely common amongst graduates and lack of experience could be the main culprit, especially for those who are moving into roles within highly competitive industries.”

For me, even years in and out of the working world, you think I’d be used to it. In fact, the imposter syndrome has not gone away, but I’ve learnt to think of it as a strength. Feeling a little like an imposter makes me strive to do better, to always be pushing myself.

Sometimes it’s terrifying to feel a fraud in your job, but it’s even more terrifying to confront the truth that everyone is also just winging it.

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