Imposter syndrome – do your thoughts about yourself match your success?

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Ever felt like you were blagging it? That any minute someone would rumble your dirty little secret – that you’re a fraud, an imposter in your own life?

“Many successful people are wearing a mask – to the outside world they appear to be confident, self-assured and very good at what they do. But for some, their internal reality tells a different story. Their thoughts and feelings don’t match up with the successful external self they portray,” says Kate Atkin, a professional speaker, coach, self-confessed imposter feelings sufferer and PhD researcher in imposter phenomenon coping strategies.

“Instead, they wonder whether, or indeed when (for surely it is only a matter of time), they will be ‘found out’. Each time a success is surpassed by another success, they feel more fraudulent – they put their achievements down to luck, being in the right place at the right time, simply hard work or the belief that ‘if I can, then anyone can’.”

People experiencing the imposter phenomenon are genuinely successful, they just don’t believe it on the inside. “They are really good actors, really good at pretending, but on the inside they’re often feeling anxious, they’re panicky, they’re not comfortable,” says another to have experienced imposter phenomenon, Caroline Holt, founder of Attitude Coach.

It’s mainly just women, right?

In the 1970s the answer would probably have been yes. Seminal research by Pauline Clance & Suzanne Imes in 1978, in which the pair coined the term imposter phenomenon, focused on high-achieving women.

More recently, however, a study at the University of Texas suggests that imposter phenomenon in some cases can degrade the mental health of minority students who already perceive prejudices against them.

Taking this further still and other research points to it affecting 70% of all people.

“Why aren’t there a lot more women at the top? Well this is a big part of it. Women hold back from going after promotions, from doing things that will allow them to grow because they have this fear,” says Holt.

“I think there’s more pressure on men not to be perceived as showing weakness, but interestingly what I’m finding is there as many men as women coming to the talks I do.”

You succeed almost because of it, as you put massive pressure on yourself because you don’t want the world to know that you’re an imposter

Are there imposter types?

Imposter feelings are not a personality issue, and while there are correlations with the big 5 personality types, these feelings aren’t fixed, hence it’s better described as a phenomenon than a syndrome.

However, there are behaviours relatable to the imposter phenomenon, which can, according to Holt, be broadly categorised:

  • Working hard to prove you’re not a fraud

“I talked at a big bank in Scotland and the office leader said this had been going on for him for years, but he’d never heard of it. You succeed almost because of it, as you put massive pressure on yourself because you don’t want the world to know that you’re an imposter. You work too hard to prove you’re not a fraud, you’re over-achieving, you do way more than is often required, you don’t know when to stop, how to switch off, you don’t know how to say no.”

The consequence of which can be burn out, as Holt experienced. “I was successful, I co-founded a global innovation agency, but I felt I was not deserving of my title. I was comparing myself to colleagues, who were very confident and capable men, and finding myself lacking. Weekends became recovery time and catching up on workload. I felt my life wasn’t worth living in the way I was living it. So I stepped away from the business and took a year out to reinvent myself and learn how to manage the imposter gremlin in my head.”

  • Fear of exposure

“A client at a Big 4 firm in London was under pressure from bosses to step up and become a director, but she wouldn’t do it, she didn’t know why, but everything in her said no. Like a horse stopping in front of a fence. She wanted to leave, but she couldn’t afford to as she was the main bread winner. She thought if she went up to the next level, they’d find out she’s not as good as they think she is.”

Atkin’s five coping strategies

  • Talk about it

“By acknowledging the feelings to yourself, and to someone else whom you trust, you will find you are not alone. So when your thoughts start to run on the lines of ‘Who me? Why me? Can I? How have I been able to dupe everyone for so long?’, catch them and share them aloud. While the thoughts are still real, notice how they appear when voiced aloud, often they will seem ridiculous.”

  • Accept that no-one is perfect

“No matter how hard you try, perfection is unattainable. Putting in extra effort for no extra reward is often a hallmark of the imposter phenomenon.”

  • Acknowledge the role you have played in your success

“Don’t dismiss the success as unimportant. Don’t put it down to luck, timing or hard work. While these will no doubt have played a role, without your knowledge, skills and abilities no amount of luck, timing or hard work would have enabled you to achieve what you have achieved.”

  • Accept positive feedback

“Learn to accept success and positive feedback without qualifying it with an internal conversation of “they’re just being kind” or “if I can, anyone can” or “I was just doing my job”. People are giving you the feedback for a reason, listen to it and if the feedback doesn’t have a reason or isn’t specific enough then ask for more information.”

  • Stop being humble

“Who are you to say you‘re not worth it if others tell you that you are? As Viola Davis said in 2017 when she won an Oscar for best supporting actress: ‘Self-depreciation isn’t the answer to humility. Sometimes you can say, I deserve it’.”

If you recognise any of these behaviours in yourself and you’re wandering impact they might be having on your career, Holt has developed an imposter syndrome online test here.

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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