Do you feel like you’re constantly waiting to be found out? That you’re a fraud and shouldn’t be in the position you’re in? You’re not alone. Here we take a closer look at imposter syndrome
As I read and re-read the message I’d been sent, I couldn’t help but feel a wave of imposter syndrome crash over me. Someone from the BBC wanted to interview me live, via video call, during a prime-time news slot. Despite the fact I had written a comprehensive article about the topic they wanted to discuss, all I could think was: “They’ve got the wrong person.”
It took some serious encouragement from a close friend, and a lot of deep breaths, to say yes, but I did. And lo and behold, I did know what I was talking about, and the sky did not come tumbling down on top of me the moment I opened my mouth.
This is just one example of the way imposter syndrome can show up. For some, it’s even more insidious, sneaking its way into their daily lives, as they live in fear that any day now they’ll be caught out.
“Imposter syndrome is believing you are not as competent as others perceive you to be,” career coach and author Tessa Armstrong explains. “You develop a fear of being found out, and may believe you have only got to where you are by luck. This commonly leads to feelings of self-doubt and anxiety.”
If this is resonating with you, you’re in good company. According to a review article published in the International Journal of Behavioural Science, around 70% of us will experience imposter feelings, with famous faces such as Tina Fey and Tom Hanks admitting to feeling like a fraud at times.
So what is it that leads so many of us to feel this way? Our high standards may be one piece of the puzzle, according to Tessa.
“We live in a world of high expectations. This is largely experienced through education, and in the workplace,” Tessa says. “This can lead to individuals developing high expectations of themselves, and then setting unrealistic goals. It also can lead to people not speaking out when they’re struggling, as they don’t want to be found out.”
This can be compounded by growing up with parents or teachers who put a great deal of pressure on us. We can quickly internalise these expectations, pushing ourselves, and believing that nothing we do is good enough. When we do find ourselves succeeding, we become quick to dismiss it as ‘luck’, and imposter syndrome can start to fester.
Sometimes new situations trigger imposter feelings too, such as when I was asked to do a live interview on TV. Other situations, such as starting a new job or going to university, can have the same effect.
Certain characteristics also come into play. Tessa notes a common trait shared by her clients who struggle with imposter syndrome is perfectionism. “This is a link that I frequently see displayed by my clients, particularly lawyers, and those in similar professions.
“My clients who show signs of imposter syndrome often spend far too much time over-preparing for tasks, and after the event they over-analyse how they did, often thinking their performance was worse than it really was.
Ultimately, you want to be able to challenge these thoughts, to believe you are good enough, and that you can do it
“Unfortunately, this forms a vicious cycle, as thoughts such as ‘I don’t want to fail’ or ‘I’m not good enough’ trigger self-doubt, and anxiety. They don’t tell anyone because of the fear of being found out, and therefore don’t seek help.”
With this vicious cycle in full swing, how exactly can we move past imposter syndrome?
Overcoming imposter syndrome
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, imposter syndrome stems from beliefs we hold about ourselves. As we’ve mentioned, there are lots of different things that can affect these beliefs, but wherever they’ve come from, it’s important to root them out and examine them.
You may want to journal about what core beliefs you hold about yourself, or speak to a professional coach who can guide you through the process. As with many mindset issues, shining a light of self-awareness is key.
Tessa recommends bringing this light of awareness to your imposter syndrome thoughts as they show up.
“Be aware of when your imposter syndrome or perfectionist thoughts occur, and how they make you feel. The more you are aware of these thoughts and feelings, the easier it will be to do something about them.
“Ultimately, you want to be able to challenge these thoughts, to believe you are good enough, and that you can do it.”
Being able to challenge your imposter thoughts may sound easier said than done, but often it’s simply a case of searching for the evidence. The next time that wave of imposter syndrome crashes over you, and you feel like you’re drowning in self-doubt, ask yourself: “Where’s the evidence?”
Where’s the proof you don’t know what you’re doing? Where’s the evidence you do? Become a detective of your own thoughts, and recognise that thoughts aren’t facts.
Tessa also highlights how speaking to someone can be a real source of support if you’re finding this step challenging.
“Remember, it’s normal not to know everything. If you are unsure about something, talk to someone who can help you. It may also help to ask for feedback from colleagues – it’s often more positive than you might expect.”
As difficult and scary as it may feel to let someone else ‘in’ on how you’re feeling, we hope this article has shown that you’re not alone. A quick chat with a colleague or friend may put your mind at rest, or you may benefit from talking to a coach. If your imposter syndrome is causing anxiety, and you feel the roots are deep, exploring this with a counsellor may also help.
Either way, don’t be afraid to reach out and tell people what’s going on for you – reassurance, support, or even guidance, can be a real life raft when you’re all at sea.
1. Talk about your feelings. Opening up to others can help reframe your thoughts and gain some self-awareness – but you could also try journaling.
2. Separate thoughts and feelings from fact. Try to be objective, and consider your actual achievements and skills – there’s probably a lot to support the fact that you are incredibly capable!
3. Keep track of feedback. Our minds naturally focus on criticism and negativity, so we should make a conscious effort to remember and reflect on the positive comments and praise next time imposter syndrome creeps in.