“Whenever I received praise or recognition for my work, I would attribute it to luck or convince myself that others were overestimating my abilities,” says Maria Nugroho, who grew up in Indonesia and graduated from the MBA in 2022.
“I constantly compared myself to others, feeling inadequate and fearing they’d eventually discover I wasn’t good enough or up to their bar. The fear of being exposed as someone who didn't belong haunted me and caused real anxiety.”
Before joining the MBA, Nugroho was suffering from imposter syndrome – a phenomenon that 70% of us will experience at least some point in our lives, according to research.
“I received an offer to join the Microsoft graduate programme with a 1% acceptance rate and received multiple achievements throughout my career,” she says. “Despite this, I couldn’t shake the feelings that I didn’t deserve it, I began to doubt my abilities and I felt like an imposter,” she says.
“This resulted in delaying my application to Cambridge for more than 2 years. I hesitated to take on new challenges or pursue a degree at Cambridge Judge Business School because I was afraid of getting a rejection, which would validate my fears and expose me as incapable.”
What is imposter syndrome?
First coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, ‘imposter syndrome’ refers to the feeling of being a fraud or a phony – despite objective high performance and clear signs to the contrary. Those suffering from imposter syndrome believe “they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise”, according to the psychologists, who examined the phenomenon in primarily, professional women along with the impact of their upbringing, their family dynamics, as well as social pressures. Research has since shown men are just as likely to suffer.
These feelings of inadequacy can cause real anxiety, hindering professional development – and it’s been shown to affect everyone, with high achievers far from immune, according to Ryan Sharman, Head of Career Development at Cambridge Judge. “Imposter syndrome is more common than you might think among high achievers,” he says. “It can be the ‘elephant in the room’ but recognising it for what it is and talking about it can normalise your experience.”
So, what should you do if you’re struggling with imposter syndrome yourself? We asked Sharman and Nugroho for their top tips on building self-confidence, quashing self-doubt and keeping the imposter at bay.
1. Recognise you are not alone
The first step to beating imposter syndrome is understanding there are many others feeling the exact same way, says Sharman.
“It’s important to recognise you aren’t alone,” he says. “Remember that it’s natural to feel apprehensive when making big life defining decisions, including applying for an MBA,” he says. “Other people who have trodden the path or are about to, are likely to have experienced similar emotions and challenges.”
Nugroho says joining the MBA helped her to realise others were in the same boat and find a sense of belonging. “I met several other people on the MBA programme who were experiencing the same situation,” she says. “Because we had the same struggles, we were able to reassure each other and gain perspective, which was really helpful in overcoming my self-doubt.”
2. Share your experience with others
It’s also crucial to share your feelings to help normalise your experience and gain support, says Sharman. “Speak to others you can trust,” he says. “They will encourage and affirm you when you’re trying to weigh things up, and help you summon confidence.”
Nugroho says sharing her experience helped to alleviate her doubt. “When I first joined the MBA programme, I constantly compared myself to my classmates,” she says. “As I got more settled on the programme, I started to be more open and more kind to myself, discussing my concerns with others,” she continues. “When I started doing this, the negative feelings started to subside. Mentors, professors and peers can all offer invaluable guidance and support.”
3. Celebrate your achievements
Sharman recommends thinking daily about your achievements to help you build confidence. “Trust your accomplishments – remind yourself of how far you’ve come and what you’ve already achieved,” he says. “Avoid the comparison trap and have faith in your unique experience.”
“I’ve learnt to embrace my unique perspective and experiences, understanding how they bring value to my academic and professional pursuits,” says Nugroho. “Focus on your strengths and achievements, both big and small. I have a handy list of my strengths on my phone that I can look at every time I begin to doubt myself.
“It’s also important to embrace failures as opportunities for growth, learning and resilience,” she says. “Practice self-compassion and treat yourself with kindness, realising that it’s impossible to be perfect.”
4. Adopt a positive mindset
Challenging negative thoughts is also key to overcome imposter feelings, says Sharman. “Think positively – you don’t have to believe everything you think,” he says. “Try to be objective when you don’t feel you are good enough. What evidence is there to the contrary? Focus on what you have to gain rather than the fear of missing the mark or not being good enough,” he says.
“While I was studying for the MBA, I realised that my feelings of being an imposter were not based on reality but were a result of my own internal dialogue,” adds Nugroho. “So, it’s important to challenge negative self-talk by replacing it with positive affirmations. By reframing my thoughts, I gradually gained confidence and recognised my true worth.”
5. Make the most of the support available
Cambridge Judge offers careers support, skills workshops and a tight-knit community to help you overcome feelings of imposter syndrome, so make the most of them, says Nugroho.
“Career advisors at Cambridge Judge provide personalised guidance to help you identify strengths and create strategies to combat self-doubt,” she says. “They also offer workshops on skills such as communication and leadership to help build confidence, which I found invaluable.
“Alongside that, the collaborative environment fosters peer learning and mentorship, so you don’t feel alone in facing imposter syndrome,” she says. “I highly recommend making the most of these resources – they helped me to grow in confidence, embrace my abilities and embark on a successful and fulfilling career journey, and I’m hugely grateful for that.”
Our MBAs start their year learning to overcome imposter syndrome
At the start of the programme, the CJBS Careers Team offers an ‘Overcoming the Imposter’ workshop designed to provide coping strategies for those struggling. “This is a small-group workshop encouraging discussion among students,” says Sharman. “Students can then follow up with a one-to-one if they wish to unpack the topic a little more.
“The aim is for students to leave the workshop with a greater level of clarity on the proactive steps they can take to lead themselves and others with confidence. We believe that with a healthy level of self-awareness, appraisal and personal coping strategies, we can keep the ‘imposter’ at bay.”
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