If you’ve had some success in your career, perhaps moved up the ladder and achieved some impressive things by most people’s standards – but somehow you still feel like you’ve got there by luck, rather than hard work or talent, you’re not alone.
‘Imposter syndrome’ is the feeling of being a bit of a fraud – and the fear of other people realising it – even if, in reality, you absolutely deserve all the success you have.
It can affect even the most high-achieving of people. Novelist and poet Maya Angelou once famously said: “I have written 11 books but 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’.”
While Meryl Streep has said: “You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?’”
How do you know if you’ve got imposter syndrome or just self-doubt?
“Most people experience self-doubt when, say, starting a new job or opening a business or doing something new,” says Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts Of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From The Impostor Syndrome And How To Thrive In Spite of It. “Self-doubt is certainly a part of impostor syndrome, but people who feel like impostors have a difficult time internalising their accomplishments. Instead, they attribute them to things like luck, timing or personality (‘They only praised my painting because they like me’).”
As well as feeling unworthy of their achievements, people with a case of imposter syndrome often have unsustainably high self-expectations around competence as well.
Valerie says: “They experience shame when they fail, which, depending on how they define competence, can mean anything from not knowing the answer to a question, struggling to master a subject or skill, having to ask for help, to some minor glitch in an otherwise stellar performance.”
How can imposter syndrome hold you back?
If you place such high expectations on yourself, that you’re never really meeting them, it’s likely you don’t feel good enough to apply for a promotion or new jobs.
Billie Dee, a 27-year-old senior PR consultant, was plagued by feelings that she was a fraud after being denied a promotion at a previous job, when her boss stated that she wasn’t “management material”. As it happened, she was poached for an even better job at another company – but the damage had been done.
“Despite achieving my absolute dream job, I was plagued by dread every day – I felt that I was there by mistake. Every time I felt out of my depth, I’d remember what my old bosses had told me and I’d convince myself that maybe they were right.”
Billie thinks the fact she’s a woman and looks young for her age is also a factor. “People tend to assume I’m much more junior than I actually am.
“I lost all my confidence in myself and my work and felt every meeting, every email was a charade,” she recalls. “I was in a constant state of anxiety at work. I felt that I was acting at being confident, pretending that I was someone important, when I wasn’t. It was exhausting. Every day, I thought I was going to be fired. Even the good work I did, I had no pride in it and convinced myself my bosses were disappointed with it – even if they weren’t.”
It lasted around two years, during which time Billie even turned down the chance of another role. “I had developed such a lack of faith in myself that I thought I’d let them down and humiliate myself.”
The feelings of inadequacy transgressed into her personal life too, which she says was a factor in the breakdown of her eight-year relationship.
Now, Billie believes she’s overcome her imposter syndrome, and has even started her own business. “I still have days where I’m out of my depth and just thinking, ‘What am I doing here’, but after a few months of proving to myself that actually, I could do this all on my own, I managed to shake off the imposter syndrome. I don’t have to fit into anyone else’s ideals, which I think really helps.”
How does it develop?
Hilda Burke, psychotherapist, couples counsellor and life coach, says imposter syndrome traits can be ingrained from childhood: “Most of us inherit a script from our parents about what we’ll amount to – whether explicit or implicit. Some may have been endowed with the belief that they won’t be very successful, that they’re destined to just scrape by. If someone in whom those beliefs have been instilled does go on to earn millions, they might still feel that their success doesn’t quite fit.”
It can also develop later, after people have reached what they thought was the ceiling of their capabilities.
“The ego holds limiting beliefs about oneself; when those beliefs are shattered when we surpass what we thought was possible for us, that’s when the sense of being an imposter can creep in,” says Hilda. “It’s important to remember that what we tell ourselves about who we are, what we are capable of, is just created in our heads.”
Are some groups of people more likely to suffer from it than others?
“Many men feel like impostors – some painfully so. I’ve known of engineers, physicians and attorneys [who have imposter syndrome],” says Valarie. “However, women as a group are more prone to setting the internal bar excessively.
“[There’s] the well-researched tendency for girls and women to blame themselves when they fail or make a mistake, whereas boys and men, as a group, are more likely to blame factors outside of themselves.
“Criticism is more personalised for many women. Tell a woman her work is inadequate and what we hear is, ‘I’m inadequate’. [But] whenever you belong to a group for whom there are stereotypes about competence – whether based on gender, race, age, disability – you’re more susceptible to impostor feelings.”
What can you do to move past it?
Aliya Vigor-Robertson, co-founder at JourneyHR, suggests: “Something as simple as a ‘feel good’ folder, where employees can file all their positive feedback, can make all the difference.”
It’s also important to remember that what you thought was possible 10 years ago may have been true then – but things have changed since, and you’re probably capable of far more than you were in the past.
Hilda says: “It’s healthy to keep refreshing our self-beliefs. By staying frozen in an old ego state, we deny ourselves [the chance] to really experience what is happening to us in the now.”
Ultimately though, it’s about changing the way you think. “People who don’t feel like impostors are no more intelligent or capable than those who do,” Valarie says. “The only difference between them and us is they think different thoughts.”
This is good news though, because it means it’s possible to change. “Pay attention to the impostor conversation going on in your head and then reframe it the way a non-impostor would,” suggests Valarie.
“It’s the difference between thinking, ‘OMG I have no idea what I’m doing!’ And, ‘Wow, I’m really going to learn a lot’.”