Terrified of being found out? How to deal with Imposter Syndrome

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My career as a foreign correspondent has allowed me the privilege of interviewing high profile figures around the world; government ministers, a president, even the Dalai Lama.

But on several occasions I’ve wondered if I’ll be found out. Midway through the interview, will they realise that I’m bluffing about my knowledge? Will they accuse me of being an imposter? Can I really pull this off?

I’ve always put my doubts down to a healthy dose of nerves, that will keep me on my toes to help me avoid blowing an important interview. But for many people in high pressure jobs the fear of being exposed as a fraud, of doubting their abilities and professional accomplishments can become so debilitating that it can affect their health, work and private lives.

Having all the outward signs of success while being crippled on the inside by an unjustified anxiety about being undeserving of your achievements is a recognised psychological condition, and it has a name – Imposter Syndrome.

First identified in the 1970s by AmerIcan psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Clance, people who suffer from imposter syndrome have a specific form of self-doubt, stemming from a fear that their achievements are down to luck and they are duping others into believing they are capable.

The syndrome is often accompanied by feelings of isolation but, in fact, sufferers are in good company.

High profile high achievers, reportedly including actresses Kate Winslett and Meryl Streep, Canadian actor Mike Myers, and acclaimed writer Maya Angelou have all identified with the condition.

High profile high achievers, reportedly including actresses Kate Winslett and Meryl Streep, Canadian actor Mike Myers, and acclaimed writer Maya Angelou have all identified with the condition.

Caroline Holt had been a successful businesswoman for forty years before she realised she was displaying classic signs of imposter syndrome.

“I had a successful career and then became a managing partner of a consultancy practice. Even then, I believed that they’d only asked me because they didn’t have anybody else, that they must be desperate,” she said.

She moved on to found a company called Happen, advising companies on creativity and innovation, with three male colleagues. It was successful but her self-doubts, even as company director, persisted.

“I didn’t feel I deserved to be in the position I was in. I thought I had just got lucky… and because of that I was more and more unhappy in what I was doing,” Holt explained.

Judging herself so harshly led to anxiety and exhaustion. “Being in a perpetual state of fear that I was going to be found out and exposed had me putting huge pressure on myself to perform,” she said.

“Those beliefs drove my behaviour and had me putting in ridiculous hours, never switching off, over-delivering, having to be perfect.”

Holt eventually stepped away from her consultancy to learn how to deal with her negative mind-set and understand better how wrong beliefs were shaping her approach to work.

After learning how to deal with her own self-destructive fears, in 2012 she set up her own practice, Attitude Coach, to help other women do the same.

“I help women to own their success, because what we typically do is we diminish what we achieve. We can’t see what it’s taken for us to achieve something so we belittle it,” she said.

“It means knowing your worth and your value, and the way you do that is by looking at what it is that you have achieved and acknowledging yourself what it has taken to achieve those things,” she said.

While Holt does occasionally have male clients, her passion is to help women in particular to deal with imposter syndrome, “because I now know that it doesn’t need to be that way,” she said.

The roots of the syndrome in women is partly societal, believes Holt. “I think men are conditioned to succeed in ways that women aren’t. It’s not feminine for a woman to strive and be a high achiever,” she said.

But while there is one school of thought that the syndrome affects mainly women, other experts like Fiona Buckland, who coaches and gives frequent talks on the issue, believe there is “a fairly even spread” between the sexes and that it simply manifests itself in a different way.

“There are some studies that argue that 70% of successful people experience imposter syndrome,” she said.

“There are some studies that argue that 70% of successful people experience imposter syndrome.”

The roots of the condition are found partly in the way that human beings are wired, she argues.

“We’re all evolutionarily adapted to being worriers. We’re good at imagining the bad things that can happen and planning for that, which is brilliant – it means that we’re higher up the food chain than other creatures. But it does mean that we’ve got a natural propensity towards anxiety,” she said.

A second factor stemmed from childhood and our need to “shave off all the pieces of ourselves that might not be acceptable” as part of a survival mechanism.

“The problem is that those programmes are still running when we’re adults as well,” Buckland said.

Culture also played a role, she added. “Certainly in Britain there is a fear of being arrogant if you like… there’s a slight culture of disapproval of people who toot their own horn.”

The first step to dealing with imposter syndrome was to identify it, she said.

“Whenever I do a talk, people say later ‘I didn’t know it had a name. I thought it was just me’. So I think that the more people who are out there and talking about it, the more people can recognise it,” she said.

“The thing about imposter syndrome is that there is a big difference between how you feel and what the reality is.”

But once the causes and the symptoms have been pinpointed, what is the best way to deal with the problem?

“Apply a bit of self compassion,” said Buckland. “Don’t start to beat yourself up about having imposter syndrome. We can see it as a sign of weakness when actually it’s to do with our biology.”

Talking about it often helped, to realise that you were not suffering alone, she suggested.

Another thing Buckland asks her clients to do is to develop a “growth mind-set”, to move beyond the fear of risks.

“A growth mind-set is that I might not be able to do something at the moment but I can get better, I’m learning. So if I’ve got a challenge and it’s not quite going the way I want it to doesn’t mean I’m flawed, it means I’m still at the beginning of learning about this.”

Finally, the process of clarifying your own values was also a helpful route to fighting back.

“Who are you? What are your values? What do you stand for? When you know what you’ve got to offer authentically then you’ll feel much more confident in yourself and you’ll be able to present yourself in a way that you feel really comfortable and aligned with,” she said.

Increasing “mindfulness” or “the capacity to notice what’s happening in the moment non-judgementally” is one tactic recommended by Belinda Rydings, director of Clearspace Coaching, to help overcome crushing feelings of inadequacy.

“As I think about giving a presentation to the board I feel like a fraud, like they all know much more than me. So being able to be quite non-judgemental rather than shutting down when that fear and anxiety arrives,” she explained.

“That tends to encourage our capacity for self-compassion… With that combination we can just say ‘you know what, I am scared, these are really powerful people but for some reason they do want to hear my opinion and I’m just going to trust that I’ve got enough of what they need’.”

Taking deep breaths and trying to be calm with these thoughts of strategy could be incredibly helpful, she said.

Another coping mechanism was to keep a note of every success, to combat the tendency to believe that achievements were just down to luck, and to document evidence of a track record of capability and likeability.

“Short term I quite like the idea of ‘fake it to make it’, which is typical affirmations like ‘I’ve pulled it off before, I’ve blagged my way through it before, I can do it again’, so that they can get past the incapacitating stage of imposter syndrome,” she said.

Rydings pointed out that the syndrome could often be latent but triggered when somebody was promoted and became more isolated from their peers.

“Even Albert Einstein had a case of imposter syndrome.”

“How it will actually manifest with imposter syndrome is that that person becomes quite incapacitated with fear of what other people’s judgements are and they feel it’s quite difficult to solicit opinions from others,” she said.

“They often bring in consultants rather than trust their management team, so it can have a huge impact on organisations.”

Rather than picking out individuals, companies could help to overcome the problem through staff training, away days or by addressing the issue in newsletters articles on the intranet.

Experts agree that employees showing signs of imposter syndrome needed to be helped in an understanding atmosphere where they can discuss their vulnerability without fear of being penalised.

If managers are feeling insecure in the workplace, one ploy suggested by Penny Davenport, who founded her own career coaching business after a 20 year career in financial services, is to make more use of their teams.

“If someone is feeling I’m not sure I’m making the right decision, you don’t necessarily need to tell your team that and say tell me what to do, but you can sit down productively in a meeting and say I’m thinking about a number of different options here, let me hear some feedback.” She said.

“You can have a healthy debate… and I think you can do that in a way and still retain the executive control, still be the decision-maker but using other people as a sounding board. And of course that’s very much valued by your team as well.”

Dr Andy Yap, an assistant professor in organisational behaviour at the INSEAD business school in Singapore, argues that the stress and anxiety that arise from the syndrome can be “transformed into strengths” if acknowledged and used in a more motivational way.

Among several ways to overcome the problem, he suggests people should keep learning.

“Even Albert Einstein had a case of imposter syndrome. And he aptly quoted: “The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know”,” he said.

Experts often focussed too much on the things they did not know rather than on what they had to offer.

“My advice for experts and high-achieving individuals who experience imposter syndrome would be: remember that your audience generally know less than you. Be proud of who you are, embrace your power and expertise, but remember to keep learning.”

Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.

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