What is Imposter Syndrome?

Monday, 27th July 2020

Guest blog by Clare Mulligan-Foster, CMC Business Psychology

“I must not fail.”

“I feel like a fake.”

“Success is no big deal.”

These are some of the statements people with imposter syndrome are likely to say to themselves.

Labelled as the fear of being fake, being exposed as a fraud or doubting your accomplishments, imposter syndrome is often evident when someone doubts the success they have earned.

Although this internal monologue might sound like the voice of someone with low self-esteem, research has shown that imposter syndrome can often be associated with high achieving, highly successful people. So what is this contradictory syndrome? How does it impact people? And what can be done to counteract its effects?

Imposter Syndrome Defined

Clinical Psychologists term imposter syndrome as: “A pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

It’s a very common problem with 85% of UK adults admitting to feeling inadequate or incompetent at work, and almost 70% stating that they don’t feel they deserve their current success. Of these, 1 in 4 said that they experience these feelings often or all the time.

People suffering with imposter syndrome feel like their work, ideas or skills are not worthy of the attention that others give them. This “unwarranted sense of insecurity” was investigated by a psychologist at a prestigious university. The results showed that students felt unworthy of their place at the university despite receiving high grades.

Who Does Imposter Syndrome Impact?

Imposter syndrome has been found among many people of different genders, ages, races and occupations. Studies confirm that it’s not limited to a specific group of people, although it may be more prevalent amongst underrepresented or disadvantaged groups.

In many cases, individuals attribute their personal and professional successes to “being lucky” and undermine the time, effort and work put into their achievements. Some researchers have linked the syndrome with perfectionism, especially in women and among academics, contradicting the suggested link with low self-worth.

Research has also found that no threshold of accomplishment can diminish these feelings of fraudulence. Even the likes of Albert Einstein and Maya Angelou suffered from imposter syndrome.

How Does Imposter Syndrome Impact People?

Someone suffering from imposter syndrome may procrastinate, for example by putting off an assignment out of fear that they won’t be able to complete it to the necessary high standards. Or an imposter may over-prepare, spending unnecessary amounts of time on a task.

If procrastination produces a successful outcome, an imposter usually devotes it to luck or the right timing. Success from over-preparation reinforces the idea that the ‘imposter’ needs to work extra hard to achieve their goals and that they would not have succeeded without this level of preparation. This can result in sufferers placing themselves under unnecessary levels of stress in order to replicate previous success.

Perhaps the most limiting part of dealing with imposter syndrome is that it can limit the individual’s courage to go after new opportunities, explore potential areas of interest and put themselves out there in a meaningful way. This can include people failing to apply for jobs due to fears that they are incapable, despite having the skills and experiences needed.

Imposter syndrome can affect some people very badly. Depending on your personal situation, it can be useful to seek help from a mental health professional, especially when symptoms are persistent or severely impacting your mental health and quality of life.

However, if you feel able to deal with imposter syndrome yourself, there are several proven tactics you can use to overcome the problem.

Top Tips To Overcome Imposter Syndrome

We’ve worked with a range of clients who have struggled with imposter syndrome. These are our top methods to counteract the effects of this damaging issue:

  • Talk about it – sufferers are often scared that their fears will be confirmed when asking for performance feedback so tread carefully in reviews. Talking openly about feelings of fraudulence or inadequacy can be helpful as it could lead to confessions from other people who feel the same. Hearing that a colleague or someone in a more senior role has experienced the same fears can ease feelings of imposterism. Even knowing that there’s a term for the feelings and that the syndrome is common can be a relief.
  • Focus on the positives – keep a diary or regularly write down positive feedback received in the past and aim to achieve the same in the future. Give your achievements and successes the recognition they deserve as they come along. Pay attention to your thinking process and be aware of times and situations when impostor syndrome begins to take hold – recognise and prevent it before it manifests.
  • Consider the context – sometimes self-doubt may be a normal reaction in certain circumstances. Instead of capitulating to the negative self-talk entirely, reframe your feelings by making statements like: “The fact that I feel useless right now does not mean that I really am.”
  • Find your cheerleaders – this might mean developing a strong support system or finding a mentor or safe peer group where you can share your fears. Getting ongoing feedback that validates your efforts is a powerful way to improve your confidence levels.

At best imposter syndrome is an annoying internal voice that needs to be overcome. At worst it can be significant issue that impacts mental health and prevents you from achieving what you want. The good news is that imposter syndrome can be overcome with the right help and support freeing you to move forward and live a fulfilling life.

Think you are experiencing imposter syndrome and want to overcome it? Contact Clare to find out which of our coaching sessions will work best for you at clare@cmcbp.co.uk or on 0044 (0) 7594 946166.