Exploring Imposter Syndrome and How to Stop Feeling Like a Fraud

Did you know that 70% of people will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives? I explore imposter syndrome, and how we can protect ourselves from feeling like a fraud.

Exploring Imposter Syndrome and How to Stop Feeling Like a Fraud

Did you know that 70% of people will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives?

The pandemic has turned our working lives upside down and the Royal College of Psychiatrists are warning that "a tsunami of mental illness" is on its way. Many people are likely to experience imposter syndrome during this period, wondering if they're doing enough.

I take a deep dive into imposter syndrome and explore how the self-doubt creeps in and manifests over time. I also share some tips on how to protect ourselves from imposter syndrome (no one is immune), and what sufferers can to maintain good mental health and wellbeing.

I'd like to encourage everyone to open up and talk to others about your feelings and emotions - you're not alone.

My inbox is open!

Imposter Syndrome Affects Us All

Imposter syndrome is a feeling felt by individuals, who believe they are a fraud, not deserving of their achievements. Sufferers are convinced that their success is a result of chance, and not because of their ability or hard work. They don't believe that they are deserving of or qualified for the success being attributed to them. And they live in constant fear of being "found out" or exposed to others as imposters, once the smoke blows out.

Paradoxically, imposter syndrome tends to be something that affects people the more successful they become. These very qualified and high achieving individuals are the very people who should have the confidence to know that they are not imposters.

American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term imposter syndrome in 1978, after their study into high achievers who were unable to accept their success. In their paper, they described imposter syndrome as a feeling of "phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement." While these people "are highly motivated to achieve," they also "live in fear of being 'found out' or exposed as frauds."

People suffering from imposter syndrome often have difficulty asking for help and support from people they trust; family, friends, colleagues or mentors. Due to the fear of being found out, people suffer in silence. They don't speak up as it would be "fessing up" to their lack of competence. Not speaking up makes the situation worse and the chances of effective treatment close to nil.

Imposter Syndrome Is Something That Affects People at All Stages of Their Careers

Men and women across all occupations, industries, stage in life and levels of success. 70% of people will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives [1].

"You know how it goes: You get the promotion at work, and your inner narrative is that they must have been short on candidates. Your business has a great win, and you tell yourself that it was sheer chance that the client found you (and they mustn't have looked too far and wide). You are getting ready to give a presentation, and you secretly think that you're about to be found out for how hopeless you really are. Or you're sitting in a big meeting and you just know that the boss will walk in any minute, tap you on the shoulder, and tell you they have finally realized that you really aren't qualified for the job (even though you're the most experienced person in the room). It can be completely derailing."- Psychology Today

Experts are measured by how much they know about the area of their expertise. This puts "experts" at a greater danger of suffering from imposter syndrome. Irrespective of how much they know, it will never be enough. Gaps in their knowledge make them fearful of being exposed as an imposter. So they tend to continue seeking out additional training and certifications, to help them feel like they "know enough" to feel genuinely qualified. Knowing every single thing about a topic or domain is impossible. Having smaller knowledge gaps is expected and doesn't define your credibility as an expert!

Perfectionists are also at a higher risk of suffering from imposter syndrome. They set such insanely high standards for themselves that if there were to make one tiny mistake, they would feel like a failure. I've written before on why chasing perfection is a bad idea. Instead, we should be chasing excellence (see article).

Objectively Successful People Also Suffer From Imposter Syndrome

Despite winning several prestigious awards, Maya Angelou also suffered from imposter syndrome. In an article written for the New York Times, she was quoted as saying "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."

Nobel prize winner and theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein described himself as an "involuntary swindler" and didn't believe his work deserved much attention.

More recently, Scotland's first minister and the leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon has also opened up about her struggles with imposter syndrome. "Even though I have been in politics for a long time, I have been First Minister for four years, there will be days when I think 'should I even be here? Is somebody about to find me out?"

Women and Minority Groups Are Disproportionately Impacted by Imposter Syndrome

Women and minorities are disproportionately impacted by imposter syndrome. Research shows that women report experiencing imposter syndrome more frequently than men [2]. Ethnic women are the most vulnerable. As the researchers explained, this is because being a woman from an ethnic background means that you are often subjected to encountering "hideous forms of racism and sexism" [3].

The intersection between race and gender for ethnic women impacts their likelihood of experiencing imposter syndrome, which can affect their performance in higher education and their careers. Ethnic minorities are impacted more by imposter syndrome than anybody else [4].

Research by NatWest as part of their #OwnYourImposter campaign discovered that a lack of confidence stopped 60% of women who have considered starting a business following up with this dream. They did not feel as though they were the type of person who could start a business. They didn't feel like they deserved to succeed, despite their ability and achievements. The research also reported that 28% of working women felt like imposter syndrome has stopped them speaking in a meeting. And that 21% have been prevented from suggesting new ideas at work.

Nine Steps to Overcoming Feelings of Imposter Syndrome

  1. Seek help from others - everyone needs help and support at times in their lives, so accepting assistance from those you trust gets you started on your journey of overcoming feelings of imposter syndrome. It may also help you to realise that you're not alone. Others probably feel the same way you as you.
  2. Build your confidence - confidence can be gained by doing things you ordinarily would have avoided. Volunteer your skills, raise your hand, ask the question you feel you should know the answer to. Even if you're not naturally confident, decide to be confident and fake it till you make it.
  3. Set achievable standards - be mindful of the height of the bar you're setting yourself. Having high standards is a good thing; it pushes you outside of your comfort zone to achieve more. But if the bar is set too high and is unachievable, you will become demotivated and feel like a failure – further reinforcing your existing belief that you're a fraud. Instead, set yourself achievable stretch targets, take baby steps and watch your confidence grow as you achieve each goal.
  4. Reflect on your successes and achievements - most people are always forward-looking, trying to answer the "what next" question. Instead, taking some time out to pause and reflect can help you recognise that you are suitably qualified and deserving of your achievements. You're not a fraud.
  5. Be kind to yourself – talk to yourself the same way you would talk to a friend. Avoid being too self-critical and accept the fact that you will make mistakes and fail along the way. It's all part of the growth and learning process.
  6. Stop comparing yourself with others - we're all running our own race in life. By comparing yourself to others, you will inevitably find faults, which will further reinforce your existing beliefs that you're not good enough and that you're a fraud. Those you're comparing yourself to are also insecure about their success.
  7. Accept the compliments - when people compliment you or praise you for your work, feel confident accepting this praise and believe them. Don't doubt them, second guess them or think they have an ulterior motive.
  8. Stop thinking like an imposter - get rid of negative self-talk, stop ruminating on your mistakes/failures, and cut out the negative thought patterns before they manifest.
  9. Adopt a growth mindset - reframe failures as learning opportunities. It's more constructive, and you will grow more as a person by adopting this mindset. A growth mindset helps you to appreciate that your ability and intelligence can be improved.

Remember that imposter syndrome is not permanent. It's only temporary. It arises as a reaction to particular circumstances or unrealistic expectations you set yourself.

Imposter syndrome is something that 70% of people will experience at some point in their lives. So if you're suffering from imposter syndrome, talk to others and open up about your feelings and emotions - you're not alone. My inbox is open!


[1] https://so06.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/IJBS/article/view/521 Sakulku, J. (1) "The Impostor Phenomenon", The Journal of Behavioral Science, 6(1), pp. 75-97. DOI: 10.14456/ijbs.2011.6.

[2] Miller, D.G. and Kastberg, S.M., 1995. Of blue collars and ivory towers: Women from blue‐collar backgrounds in higher education. Roeper Review, 18(1), pp.27-33.

[3] Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(1), 82–96. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.92.1.82

[4] Cokley, K., McClain, S., Enciso, A., & Martinez, M. (2013). An examination of the impact of minority status stress and impostor feelings on the mental health of diverse ethnic minority college students. Journal of multicultural counseling and development, 41(2), 82-95.

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