Battling Imposter Syndrome: Behind the Scenes of Self-Doubt

From infancy to the teenage years the sense of belonging is an illusive one. Humans are naturally social creatures, but with so many different cultures, beliefs and interests, finding that aha moment of “This is where/who I’m supposed to be” can take years.

When people don’t feel they’re in the right place, feeling like a fraud isn’t unusual. So what happens when the head of an organization feels like an imposter?

“Most of the time, when people are experiencing imposter syndrome, it’s because they’ve hit a level of success that, whatever narrative they have in their mind about themselves, exceeds what they actually think they are capable of,” said Matt Yount, a licensed clinical social worker and owner of Affinity Counseling in Piggott.

Yount said that the feeling of being an imposter can come during shifts from low-level positions but may not show until reaching a top-level leadership position.

“They see themselves as being incapable or [worry] that other people are going to see them as incapable of being able to fulfill that role adequately,” he said.

Sharon Tallach Vogelpohl, president and CEO of MHP/Team SI, has experienced feeling like an imposter “big time.” At 19, she started a summer internship, moving to a full-time position the next day when the director she was shadowing quit.

“I was blessed to be given lots of opportunities very quickly and was pushed by my now partners and retired partners to see how much I could handle. At every stage, there was a little anxiety about if — and how — I could get the job done,” she said.

Imposter syndrome is far more prevalent than it may seem. According to the American Psychological Association, around “82% of people face feelings of impostor phenomenon, struggling with the sense they haven’t earned what they’ve achieved and are a fraud.”

Once an individual begins to feel like a fraud, the fear of being “found out” can lead to higher levels of burnout, depression and anxiety and cause them to take less risks in their career.

“For about the first 20 years of my career, I was a certified workaholic and never really turned off. If I was working, I was proving my commitment to my teammates, our clients and my profession,” Vogelpohl said.

Noticing signs of developing this phenomenon isn’t difficult according to Yount.

“Immediately… you start to feel like you may not have the capability to handle this position. You start to notice that you’re projecting your own fears of being inadequate onto other people,” he said. “You start second guessing your decisions and you start assuming that other people see flaws in your decision making. It hits pretty hard.”

For Vogelpohl, perfectionism in her early and mid-career duties was an Achilles heel.

“Not being comfortable delegating — I still have that tendency, especially when preparing for large-scale, important presentations or events,” she said. “But, in the day-to-day, I’ve been blessed to have been able to surround myself with professionals that truly are smarter than me — no, this is not an imposter syndrome statement — so it is easy to delegate with confidence.”

While some people, like Vogelpohl, manage to self-correct, treatment often requires the individual to dig a little deeper into their mind and find “what’s driving the imposter syndrome to begin with,” said Yount.

But this sensation can potentially lessen with open communication, especially for those just entering leadership positions.

“It’s best for you, with your team members, just to own it. Say ‘I don’t know enough about this position, but I am willing to learn and I will need your help and understanding to be a good leader for this position,’” Yount said.

For the long-term executives who may be starting to feel like an imposter, Yount suggests deeper, more professional help.


This article originally appeared in the 2023 edition of Executive Mental Health, a supplement publication of Arkansas Business.


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