Who do you think you are? How impostor syndrome could hurt your career

Do you feel like a fraud? You could be suffering impostor syndrome

David Rigby
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Are you doing a job which you think you have no right to be doing? Are you earning a salary which you don’t think you are entitled to? Do you think that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, you will be found out and lose everything?

Most people, including former US presidents (though not sure about the incoming one), have looked around their new office and felt really scared. Other people believe in you. You have passed all the tests, sailed through the interview, being doing this kind of thing for years. And yet you ask self-doubting questions.


Do I deserve this? Has it all been a matter of being in the right place at the right time? Am I riding on the backs of my colleagues who know full well that without them I couldn’t do this? Who will they tell?

Impostor syndrome is a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud. Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

Some studies suggest that impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women, others suggest men are equally affected. It is considered as a response to certain situations rather than a personality trait or a mental disorder. Research done in the early 1980s estimated that two out of five successful people consider themselves frauds and other studies have found that 70 percent of all people feel like impostors at one time or another

There are several ways to ease impostor syndrome. One is to discuss the topic with other individuals. Most people who experience impostor syndrome are unaware that others feel inadequate as well. Once the situation is addressed, victims no longer feel alone in their negative experience. Reflecting upon impostor feelings is key to overcoming this burden.

Another way is to organize your thoughts in writing. The written record of your objective accomplishments, positive feedback and success stories can enable you to associate those accomplishments with reality, rather than simply dismissing the accomplishments internally. The written record can also remind you of those accomplishments later. By these methods, writing therapy attempts to alleviate the you of the sense of inadequacy.

So now that we know its name and that other people deal with it too, the next step is to understand why we feel this way. Part of the impostor syndrome comes from a natural sense of humility about our work. That’s healthy, but it can easily cross the line into paralyzing fear. When we have a skill or talent that has come naturally, we tend to discount its value. Why is that? Well, we often hesitate to believe that what’s natural, maybe even easy for us, can offer any value to the world. In fact, the very act of being really good at something can lead us to discount its value.

But after spending a lot of time fine-tuning our ability, isn’t it the point for our skill to look and feel natural? Certainly, presenters, whether it is on TV or in front of a live audience, can make it all look easy, but it’s the skill of making it look easy which gets them the job. Similarly, with running meetings and anything which requires performance, the same skills are required.

It’s not necessary to know everything and it’s a sign of confidence that you recognize that. Impostor syndrome victims tend to over compensate, spending more time researching so they know more than anyone else, just in case they get found out.

Everyone gets setbacks but those who suffer from impostor syndrome tend to reflect and dwell upon extreme failure, mistakes and negative feedback from others. If not addressed, impostor syndrome can limit exploration and the courage to delve into new experiences.

If you recognise you have impostor syndrome then write down your accomplishments and talk to your coach, business mentor or friend. It may not go away but it can help you cope.

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