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  • Writer's pictureMatt Peake

Are you an imposter?

So, you’ve worked hard and been successful, but still you can’t shake the feeling that you’ve bluffed your way through and will be exposed at any moment. After all, you only got to where you are because of a few lucky breaks and everybody else is better than you. If this sounds familiar, then the chances are that you are experiencing Imposter Syndrome.


And you wouldn’t be alone – it is estimated that 7 out of 10 people will experience imposter syndrome at some time in their life. It is often noted in academics, authors, actors and scientists as well as being widespread in the corporate world, especially amongst successful women and ethnic minority groups.



What is Imposter Syndrome?


Imposter syndrome was first identified by Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes in 1978, and is a mindset characterized by feelings of inadequacy that persist despite contrary evidence of accomplishment, typically accompanied by a fear of being exposed as a fraud, and a tendency to attribute success to external factors such as luck or circumstance.


It is most commonly experienced when you start a new job, get promoted or receive a reward or recognition for an accomplishment. The problem with impostor syndrome is that these positive experiences do nothing to change your beliefs. The more you accomplish, the more you just feel like a fraud. It's as though you cannot internalize your experiences of success and are unable to genuinely hold the belief that you are competent and capable.


“The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler” - Albert Einstein, Physicist

What are the common signs?


Despite imposter syndrome not being classified as a diagnosable condition, there are some common indicators that you may be experiencing this:


Fear of being exposed

Persistent fear that you are being judged and that you will be exposed as a fraud in spite of clear evidence of actual accomplishment. This may result in heightened and sustained levels of anxiety or paranoia.


Feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt

Past, current and future experiences are characterized by constant feelings of inadequacy and pervasive self-doubt (“I don’t deserve this”, “I can’t do this” and “Anyone else would be better at this than me”). These feelings can be fuelled by unfair, unobjective and unjustified comparisons to other people (“I could never be like them”, “My project will never be as good as theirs”).


Negating achievement

A reluctance to accept compliments or acknowledge your accomplishments. Compliments are deflected (“Oh, it was nothing!”) and success is attributed to external factors such as luck, circumstance or assistance, rather than to your own skill and effort.


Up-shifting and perfectionism

Setting yourself excessively high standards, exhibiting perfectionist traits and over-working to compensate for self-perceived inadequacies and to prevent you from being revealed as a phony. Ironically, this often results in further achievement and success, creating a vicious cycle of imposterism if you are unable to internalize and own the positive outcomes.


Down-shifting and avoiding responsibility

Conversely, poor self-perception of competence and capability may lead to ‘down-shifting’ where you actively avoid taking responsibility and you scale back your goals and ambitions, preventing you from fulfilling your true potential.


Seeking external validation

You constantly seek validation from peers or authority figures, thereby handing power over to them to determine whether or not you are successful. This may be accompanied by self-deprecating narrative (“It might just be me, but…”, “Sorry, but can I just say…”).



Types of imposter


According to Dr. Valerie Young, there are five types of imposter syndrome:


1. The Superhero

The fear of being exposed as a fraud compels the Superheroes to work harder to avoid being found out. They will work unnecessarily long hours, take on additional tasks, and perceive any time not spent working to be reckless and wasteful. These types also seek constant validation from others, typically in relation to the act of working rather than the outcomes.


2. The Perfectionist

Perfectionists set excessively high goals for themselves and tend to experience severe self-doubt when they fail to meet these goals. In the pursuit of perfection they are uncomfortable with letting go of control and delegating. They constantly believe that they could have done better and therefore are rarely satisfied with their results, are hyper-critical of themselves and their work and find it difficult to accept genuine praise.


3. The Natural Genius

Like the Perfectionist, this type sets excessively high targets for themselves. However, they judge themselves not against work rate, but against the speed and ease of accomplishment. The Natural Genius will expect to succeed at the first attempt and with minimal effort and will feel like an imposter if they cannot reach a high level of competency quickly. Because of this, they tend to avoid new and unfamiliar challenges and are very quick to give up trying to learn something new.


4. The Expert

This type bases their self-worth on knowledge and capability. Expert types believe that they will never know enough, and so constantly feel that they are lacking in experience or subject matter knowledge, even when they have a proven track record. They will typically dislike being referred to as ‘an expert’, will constantly look for additional training or accreditations to demonstrate knowledge accumulation, and will often dismiss advancement opportunities because they feel they don’t meet one or more of the requirements.


5. The Soloist

These people tend to be very individualistic and choose to work alone. Their sense of self-worth often comes from their own productivity, so they often reject any form of help or assistance, because they see asking for help as a sign of weakness or incompetence.


“There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am” – Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO

Why does it happen?


Common triggers for imposter syndrome include moving up to senior school or university, taking on a new position or project at work, major life events (such as parenthood or divorce) and receiving praise or recognition for something. But when it comes to identifying a root cause for the phenomenon, there is no clear answer.


Imposter syndrome is likely the result of multiple factors, including inherent personality traits (such as perfectionism or social anxiety disorder), upbringing and workplace or societal culture. One theory is that imposter syndrome is rooted in families or environments that value achievement above all else, whilst other research claims that it begins when families are characterised by low support and high conflict.


What the current research does agree on is that the phenomenon is experienced equally by both genders (even though the early studies were focussed on high-performing women), although due to gender norms and fear of backlash, men are possibly less likely to externalise their feelings.


Also, it is worth noting that one group that does appear especially vulnerable to imposter syndrome is minorities. When combined with a lack of representation and discrimination, the effects of imposter syndrome can feel overwhelming when your own self-doubt is compounded by a society that is challenging your right to equality.



What is the impact?


Imposter syndrome can adversely impact your personal life and work life in the following ways:


Work performance

Imposter syndrome can affect your performance at work and your job satisfaction. It can stop you from seizing new opportunities (such as promotions), taking on new challenges and being fairly rewarded, and fear of failure can stop you taking risks and being innovative. If you are in a leadership or management position, imposter syndrome can make you feel vulnerable, affecting your ability to interact effectively with your staff and exercise sound judgment. Over time, you may scale back your career goals and ambitions and therefore fail to reach your full potential.


Traits and behaviours

If you are experiencing imposter syndrome, you may frequently reject or deflect praise, negate your achievements and even let others take credit for your success. Because you fear being exposed as a fraud, you may distance yourself from other people and certain situations at work and even socially. You may also find yourself procrastinating more than usual or exhibiting a high level of perfectionism, including excessive self-criticism and dwelling on past mistakes.


Mental wellbeing

Persistent episodes of self-doubt and low self-esteem can take their toll on your mental wellbeing, resulting in overwhelming stress, feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression and burnout. If you’re struggling to cope with your thoughts and feelings, it’s important to seek professional help by speaking to your GP or finding a counsellor.


“I have written eleven books, and each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” – Maya Angelou, Poet

How to tackle Imposter Syndrome


1. Talk about it

The irrational beliefs that underpin imposter syndrome tend to fester and self-perpetuate when they are hidden and not talked about. Reach out to people you trust, and you might be surprised by how many of your friends and colleagues can relate to how you feel. Listen to the people you respect in your life and let them show you how your fears are unfounded, this will give you a different perspective on your situation and a reality check about your abilities. If you continue to feel overwhelmed by feelings of self-doubt or anxiety, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.


2. Acknowledge your feelings

Awareness is a key requirement for change, so it is important to acknowledge and identify your unhelpful imposter thoughts and feelings as they emerge. By writing down these feelings, for example in a journal, you can begin to reflect on where these are coming from and whether they have any substance. For example, in your journal, you might write, "I gave a presentation to senior management and although they said I did very well and I could answer all their questions, I could tell that they weren't impressed”. If you reflect on what you've written, and on how your audience actually reacted, you'll likely see that the evidence indicates that their response was positive and sincere, and that your fears were groundless. Remember that while feelings are important, they are just feelings, and do not necessarily reflect reality. Feeling inadequate or undeserving doesn't mean you actually are.


3. Assess your strengths and weaknesses

Build up your confidence by becoming more objectively aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Think about what you have and have not accomplished, and make a realistic assessment of your skills, abilities and the areas that need further work. Make sure that you also get input from trusted friends and colleagues who know you well enough to give a useful perspective in order to moderate any bias in your self-perception. Actively seek feedback on a regular basis to validate this skills inventory and notice areas of improvement. Once you have a deeper understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, you won't have to spend so much time worrying that you're not qualified for certain tasks, projects or roles.


4. Challenge your narrative

As you start to recognise your imposter feelings and assess your abilities, question whether your thoughts are rational. Does it make sense that you are a fraud, given everything that you know and everything that you have accomplished to date? Most people will have moments when they don’t feel 100% confident, and there may be times when you feel out of your depth, and so self-doubt can be a normal reaction. Instead of telling yourself they are going to find you out or that you don’t deserve success, remind yourself of your validated strengths and that it’s normal not to know everything and that you will find out more as you progress. Every time you have a negative thought about your abilities or wonder if you’re qualified for a job, pause and ask yourself “Is the thought actually (truly) accurate?”, “Is this emotional experience real or am I responding based on other outside factors?”, “Does this thought help or hinder me?” And remember that the occasional mistake or failure is inevitable, so build your resilience and reframe setbacks as learning opportunities by asking yourself “What will I do differently next time?”, “What have I learnt?” and “How has this made me better?”


5. Stop comparing

Those imposter feelings of inadequacy and under-performance love to feed on inappropriate and unjustified comparisons to other people. Every time you compare yourself to others you will find or invent some fault or deficiency with yourself that reinforces that feeling of not being good enough or not being deserving. Stay focused on what you have achieved along your unique journey.


And beware of social media! Comparing yourself to the online accomplishments of other people can fuel your feelings of inferiority and anxiety. The reality is that they've had different (not better, not worse) life and business experiences that brought them to where they are. Social media can make anyone look like a celebrity - when the reality might be very different. Also, if you try to portray an image on social media that doesn't match who you really are or that is impossible to achieve, it will only make your feelings of being a fraud worse.


6. Get comfortable with ‘good enough’

People with impostorism often put a lot of pressure on themselves to complete every task flawlessly. You may fear that any mistake will reveal to others that you are not good enough or smart enough for the job. This creates even more pressure because you believe that without the discipline you won't succeed and, instead of rewarding yourself, you only worry about the next task ahead. Try not to become obsessive about needing to do things perfectly, and instead remind yourself that no one is perfect and you can only do your best. Being ‘good enough’ is being efficient with your limited time and energy, so do things reasonably well and reward yourself for actually taking action and not being wasteful or procrastinating. Be mindful of perfectionist traits and practice self-care to maintain that balance between what is possible and what is needed.


7. Own your success

If you have imposter syndrome, it can be tempting to invalidate even the smallest win. Overcome that tendency by listing every success, allowing each one to resonate emotionally and acknowledge that it was your skill and talent that made it happen. Over time, this practice will give you a realistic picture of your accomplishments and help affirm your self-worth. Also, people with impostor syndrome often find it hard to accept praise. Give yourself permission to celebrate your wins, and when people say nice things to you or you get congratulated, learn to graciously thank them. Don’t negate the compliment or justify it by saying "Oh, that was easy" or "It was really down to my team".


8. Know what you want

As Stephen R. Covey says: “Begin with the end in mind”. Learn how to set yourself realistic, challenging and achievable goals. Visualise your objective, the steps you will need to take to get there, the many resources at your disposal and also the challenges you can expect to face along the way. Growth involves learning and taking risks, so remember that mistakes are a part of life, and if you don't hit a particular goal or complete a task flawlessly, it's not the end of the world, it’s just another valuable step on the journey. Gather yourself and press forward towards your goal with added experience and wisdom.


9. Be kind to yourself

An important part of your toolkit for overcoming imposter syndrome is being fair and kind to yourself. Mindfulness and self-care can help you to reflect on your feelings, navigate whatever maelstrom is raging in your mind and foster more compassionate, constructive and contextualised ways of relating to your self and your situation. But self-compassion is not limited to inward reflection. Everyone needs help: recognise that you can seek assistance and that you don’t have to do everything alone.



Don’t let imposter syndrome deny you the satisfaction and rewards that come from working hard and utilising your talents. Working on these nine steps, especially with the support of a good coach, can help you to overcome your imposter and fulfil your true potential.


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