We might currently be in a health crisis but there’s also psychological warfare going on behind the scenes too. Imposter syndrome is a real pressure faced as an employee but could its torment be costing us more than just our mental health?
In a world where the capitalist narrative takes precedence, the majority of us are expected to know how to adult upon graduation.
Characterised by bills to pay, dependents under us, and pressure to excel, being a young adult in the working world can be brutal in your first few years; most notably, the unspoken (or outright) stress placed on us to perform well in our job scope for the sake of career progression and success can be detrimental.
Let’s take a moment to reflect: How many of us have felt second-tier or lacking behind our peers in any aspect involving studies, work, and general competition with others? All throughout our schooling years, we’re constantly pitted against one another in academia, extracurricular activities, talents, achievements, and more.
And while Singapore rewards merit in terms of capabilities and effort, it has resulted in ramifications of imposter syndrome.
Sometimes it’s a product of our environment, other times it’s self-inflicted. Factors like stress-induced deadlines, passive-aggressive remarks from colleagues, incessant comparison, and lack of acknowledgement contribute to this syndrome’s worsening in and out of the workplace.
Needless to say, these feelings take a toll on our mental health. Anxiety and self-doubt are key hallmarks, and if left unmanaged, it leads to burnout and depression. And as if things couldn’t get any worse, what if we told you that it’s actually costing you money too?
Imposter syndrome really just looks like a losing battle on both psychological and financial fronts. So how on earth can we manage it?
- What is imposter syndrome
- The costs of imposter syndrome
- How to deal with imposter syndrome
- Overcoming imposter syndrome
Understanding imposter syndrome
As a disclaimer, imposter syndrome is not an illness or disorder. There is no formal diagnosis or cure. Rather, it’s a social science concept that gained mainstream traction in 1978 by proxy of psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes’ study1.
It was coined the “imposter phenomenon” (IP).
Not-so-fun-fact: Women are more at risk to overwhelming impostor syndrome due to norms and thought patterns stemming from “discriminations against gender”.Talk Your Heart Out counsellor Jeanette Houmayune
Notwithstanding that, in today’s context, imposter syndrome can be loosely defined as doubting one’s abilities and feeling like a fraud at work. We believe ourselves to be less competent than others perceive us to be, significantly downplaying our capabilities, achievements, and praise received to the point of self-criticism. And even if we do excel, it’s all “by luck”.
Given that there’s a generalised correlation between overachievers and high-earners where those with successful careers and/or possess several academic degrees are disproportionately affected, suggests Psychology Today.
The same research shows that about 25% to 30% of high achievers experience some form of imposter syndrome. Furthermore, about 70% of adults will experience it at least once in their life.
According to Asana’s global survey in 2020, 74% of Singapore office workers were revealed to be more vulnerable to imposter syndrome than those from other countries. Singapore also has some of the longest work weeks — surpassing 42 hours — with 80% of workers experiencing burnout.
These numbers are alarming but indicative of the state of Singapore’s work-life balance; this isn’t an issue of mere commonplace insecurity, anxiety, and pessimism.
Under this syndrome, compliments, achievements, and favour earned are irrelevant because success will always be attributed to getting lucky, fortunate timing, or overpreparation. The underlying fear of failure or criticism is what cuts deeper.
1 Pooled from a sample of 150 highly-accomplished women, these subjects were found to frequently undermine their intelligence and worthiness of success — contrary to their legitimate achievements. Setting aside commonplace insecurity and pessimism, IP goes deeper than that to be “a fear” of being exposed as “intellectual imposters”… which is why people are self-convinced to be actual imposters when they’re not.
The costs of imposter syndrome
At this juncture, you must be wondering, “Yeah, this isn’t exactly groundbreaking news. I understand the general gist of imposter syndrome and its link to careers. But what’s that got to do with money exactly?”
Upon examining deeper, such feelings of inadequacy, dissatisfaction, and fraudulence further translate to avoiding salary negotiations, promotion opportunities and more.
#1 Inhibiting productivity and performance
Whether or not you feed into corporate culture, everyone enjoys the feeling of being productive to an extent. It could be as simple as finishing your daily household chores or closing in that really important client deal for your department.
Whatever the case, dampened productivity dampens our mood and vice versa. What initially appears to be healthy nervousness can quickly be overshadowed by anxiety and self-doubt. Will I fit in? Will I perform up to standard? What if I fail? Cue in the spiral descent into impostorism.
How it could cost you
As a result, the once-acceptable stress levels get exacerbated to debilitating levels, causing the opposite effect of underperforming, or worse, crashing and burning. This could undermine your performance grade because supervisors aren’t there to see the process. They’re usually more concerned with the end product.
Overall, it could reflect poorly on performance reviews and affect chances for bonuses and promotions.
#2 Undervaluing your worth and what you deserve
During job interviews, we’re often asked what we can bring to the table. Recruiters and employers tend to look for applicants with that extra edge or flair to fulfil gaps and value-add to their company.
Asking for job promotions is already challenging enough, throw imposter syndrome into the mix and it feels like a recipe for disaster. Palms begin to get sweaty, knees feel weak, and arms become heavy. A lump forms in your throat and tension is palpable in conversations whenever money is involved.
How it could cost you
As a result, many employees don’t have the courage to step forward to request (see: insist) an income raise as rightfully deserved. This manifests into a problem of underpaid staff coupled with unreasonable expectations from higher-ups.
Other than salary raises, if your corporation practises Annual Wage Supplement (AWS), capitalise on that! That’s an extra 13th-month bonus for you to bag in!
Essentially if you allow impostorism to silence you, you’re shortchanging yourself.
#3 Mistaking perfectionism for impostorism
If we consistently view our successes as flukes or invalid, and not because of hard work, this translates into the toxic cycle of “never doing enough”. No matter the effort expended, it will always be insufficient, whether self-proclaimed or by others.
Each success story is assumed as pure happenstance or ‘lucky timing’ rather than tangibly acknowledging effort where credit is due. And this is exactly how a lot of perfectionistic individuals fall into the quicksand of impostorism.
How it could cost you
This feeds into an
obsession unhealthy cycle with working tirelessly in the pursuit of an unattainable standard. In the end, you’re just overworking yourself with no corresponding monetary compensation.
Read also: How Do You Know It’s Time to Quit Your Job?
#4 Rejecting opportunities for the wrong reasons
This ties in closely with the first point, but it’s slightly different. We’ve established that imposter syndrome is deeply rooted in the fear of performance failure.
In this regard, feelings of inadequacy and phoniness are amplified depending on the type of task being taken on. This sort of imposter syndrome messes with an individual’s self-perception of their actual calibre, and here’s why.
How it could cost you
Instead of rejecting projects based on a mismatch of skills, many individuals with imposter syndrome tend to reject projects based on size and scale. What we mean is that they decline work because its scale seems too daunting or overwhelming when in actuality, these people are perfectly capable of fulfilling it.
The bigger and scarier the work feels, the more inclined you are to talk yourself out of it, and reject it despite probably accepting a similar but smaller-scaled task several months down the road.
Thus, what could’ve otherwise been earned as a substantial payout amount gets reduced to peanut amounts in comparison. It goes without saying how this case of imposter syndrome would cost you money.
#5 Costs of ‘kiasu’-ism
Beyond the workplace, imposter syndrome may also manifest itself in ‘kiasu’-ism. In order to not be left out or feel behind, many Singaporeans seek to prove themselves in friendships and social settings too.
In fact, a survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies revealed that Singaporeans perceived ‘kiasu’ as the most distinct trait definitive of our society.
How it could cost you
This normally results in the unnecessary overcompensation of money in an attempt to replicate a good time; when ostensibly, insecurity and inadequacy lay beneath the happy guise.
They’re afraid of being exposed to living a “boring” or “uneventful” life. Therefore, they’re willing to go the extra dollar mile to prove to others and themselves that they’re not a fraud.
While there’s nothing wrong with a night out or two, don’t let the fear of missing out (FOMO) overcome you. The #1 tip that many accomplished millionaires and successful individuals often give is to be prudent with money. Future you will be grateful for all the savings and investments done in your yesteryears when time was still on your side.
So don’t fall into the money trap of spending mindlessly in your youth. Reel back on temptations and store your cash in a high-yield savings account.
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Ways to manage imposter syndrome
Again, as a disclaimer, there’s no fix-all cure to impostorism. Every individual experiences it differently and hence, react to different management tips and treatment strategies differently. What might work for you, might not work for some.
Please seek professional help where necessary and take our tips with a pinch of salt. Even if they’re not mind-blowing realisations for you, they’re still worthwhile reminders.
#1 Take breaks when needed
One of the most crucial pieces of advice we can give is to take breaks when necessary. We are humans, not machines. We are not built to continually work for days on end in spite of what capitalism might suggest.
Because news flash: there’s more to life than just working. But you already knew that. 🙊
Don’t let your critical self-judgment at work bleed over to your personal life. So what if you didn’t perform as well as you’d expect? That’s no reason to “punish” yourself by forcing yourself to run even harder on the hamster wheel next time.
Or let’s say, hooray! You did perform well on your latest project and your colleagues praise you for a job well done. Then all the better! Treat yourself to a well-deserved staycation or vacation with friends and loved ones to celebrate both yourself and your achievement!
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#2 Remember: Imposter syndrome is just a “feeling”
“The only way to stop feeling like an imposter, is to stop thinking like an imposter.”Dr. Valerie Young
Likewise, when asking for pay raises, we should be confident in our worth and insist on the value we provide to the company.
Oftentimes, these questions might feel like a trainwreck waiting to happen, but pay attention to the language here. It “feels” like it’ll be a nasty situation unfolding but it doesn’t have to be.
Part of overcoming imposter syndrome is, of course, recognising your worth and demanding fair/equal compensation for your work. It doesn’t come easy, but nothing worthwhile ever does.
Acknowledging that the majority of impostorism lies in your head is simultaneously a huge relief and barrier to overcome. Once you surpass that obstacle, you’ll no longer feel restricted or paralysed by that “feeling” of imposter syndrome.
#3 “Fake it” till you make it
“Ironically, imposter syndrome requires competency to exist. They are people who don’t fully believe in their own competence.”Dr Julie Gurner
We’re not saying that there’s an overnight cure to impostorism. No, in fact, the healing process takes months and years of deconstructing one’s self-destructive thoughts pertaining to incompetence and insecurities.
Old habits die hard. Yet, experts posit that a new habit takes 30 days to develop. Whether or not you believe that humans are inclined to negativity, the truth of the matter is that negative self-talk is a product of habit.
It is through the constant repetition of such thoughts in our head that facilitates them into a pattern and eventually become habitual (or second nature). As a result, unravelling patterns of impostorism would likewise demand time to rewire the brain and realign one’s cognitive patterns properly.
It’s not easy, but you’ll have to trust the process. Whenever you catch yourself lingering on self-doubt and self-criticism, seize that opportunity to reframe that thought into something positive like “I’m not sure how I’ll perform, but I know as long as I work hard, I’ll manage just fine”.
You might believe these statements as you self-recite at first, but if successfully habituated, you’ll be one step closer to freeing yourself from a toxic mentality.
#4 You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take
As corny as this is, you really miss 100% of the chances you don’t take. The crux of the conversation boils down to two options:
- Do nothing and get a 100% chance of not achieving anything
- Do something and get a possibility of success
Probability aside, option (1) is a truth statement because inaction here cannot produce action. (Unless we’re talking about generating passive income through investing, but we digress.) Therefore, remaining in a state of stasis will produce neither success nor failure. You’re only left with the what-ifs and if-I-had-onlys.
On the other hand, option (2) clearly presents more risk, but it’s the only pathway to potential success.
It is ironic and cliche but abandoning the all-or-nothing mentality helps. Learning to nurture self-worth doesn’t stem from abiding in extremities. Rather, it begins from the little victories. So why not strive for the potential chance of succeeding? It might not be an off-chance but a high probability instead.
Don’t like risk all that much? Don’t worry, investing doesn’t have to be an all-out, no-holds-barred endeavour. There are secure investing options with minimal risks like ETFs, blue chip stocks, bonds (e.g. SSB), unit trusts that provide stable payouts over a prolonged term.
Aim for a portfolio with at least 4% returns or dividend yield p.a. to be on par with inflation.
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#5 Encouraging authenticity in the workplace
Covering is said to be a response to imposter syndrome. It is described as “hiding parts of yourself for acceptance” in order to “assimilate to established norms in a company work culture”, surmised Susanne Tedrick, Microsoft Azure infrastructure specialist.
In other words, you’re masking your true identity with a persona in its place.
According to Deloitte’s Survey, 61% of respondents admitted they were covering themselves at work, distracting them from engaging their full potential.
It becomes a severe opportunity cost for both companies and employees in the long run because more time and effort is expended to compensate for gaps in knowledge, efficiency, and innovation.
So the more that authenticity can be encouraged and cultivated within the workplace, the less time and money are wasted on performing patchwork repair on leaks within the organisation.
Overcoming imposter syndrome one step at a time
To simplify (but not dismiss), imposter syndrome is essentially, still, a feeling. Your tangible achievements speak greater volumes for the extent of your capabilities than your self-doubt might tell you.
If there’s one redeeming quality about impostorism, it’s that it’s the opposite of complacency.
With everything, rewriting such a self-deprecating narrative takes time. It’s two steps forwards, and one step back. Even if the progress is minimal, the attempt and effort are enough. Outwardly validation might be soothing and reassuring, but it’s fleeting sweet talk.
Don’t get us wrong, who doesn’t love receiving external praise and acknowledgement? But truthfully, genuine tenacity and self-respect will come from within. So hone in on taking care of yourself first, and the rest will follow suit.
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By Emma Lam
With a minor problem of ‘itchy fingers’ for flash deals and sales, Emma is on a lifelong journey to understand what being financially independent in adulthood means. That said, her inner child is still very much alive… with animals and gaming being her weaknesses.