Imposter Syndrome

Look up ‘imposter syndrome’ and you’ll learn that it’s “a persistent inability to believe one’s success is deserved.” Most of us know it better as the looming feeling that you’re about to be exposed as a fraud in some way. It’s the completely untrue notion that you’re unqualified, incompetent, or just more generally, don’t deserve what you’ve achieved.  

This nagging doubt is far from uncommon. But when it’s left unchecked, it can spiral out of control into significant self esteem issues. The perceived fear of being ‘caught out’ or seen as a fraud can affect professional and personal relationships alike. Sufferers feel like they’ve somehow managed to cheat their way into their current situation; whether that’s a job, relationship or qualification. The flip side of this belief also discounts the individuals’ hard work to get to the position they’re in. Minimising hours or years of very real dedication.

Insecurity, stress and a history of being over/under praised in early life are all thought to contribute. Living in an era when The Grind is everything and side hustles are common may also be a contributing factor. We’re all under pressure to perform. It’s hardly surprising that a lot of us are doubtful of how we got to where we are. 

Two hands reaching towards eachother in the sky
By Youssef Naddam via Unsplash

Who gets it?

Everybody. Everybody gets it. In fact, you’re in a very small group if you haven’t experienced it at one time or another. 

High achievers aren’t immune from this pressure either. You might think that people who’ve proven their abilities, whether academically or professionally, would see their accomplishments clearly. But being a CEO isn’t necessarily enough to stop the fear that you’ve chanced your way into the role. In fact with more success, there often comes more fuel for this syndrome to feed off. The higher the accolades, the further there is to fall.  

Imposter syndrome is often twinned with other issues such as anxiety and depression. Any mental struggles that impact the perception of our self worth have a direct knock-on effect. Feeling dissatisfied with ourselves and our abilities feeds into the notion that we don’t deserve, or haven’t earned, our current successes. Even when rationally, we know that’s untrue. This paranoia can then manifest as self sabotage; turning down opportunities for fear of failing or being ‘uncovered’ as a fake. It’s a vicious cycle. 

The gender divide

Depending on which study you look at, the numbers vary, but the overall trend is always the same. Women score more highly for imposter syndrome than men. This may be a result of differences in the understanding of the issue, or instances of people under/over reporting, but it’s hard to ignore. 

Marked differences in socialisation from a young age are likely to play some role in this. Traditional gender norms come with the expectation of boys to be ambitious, in control, and essentially the ‘leaders of tomorrow’. Girls, on the other hand, are typically expected to care more about the wellbeing of others [ie, not upsetting anyone] with importance placed on emotional intelligence and teamwork. All of these are important traits. But when it comes to having faith in your abilities and getting ahead, it’s unsurprising that one group is considerably more confident than the other. 

What’s the point of it?

Much like anxiety, there’s a chance that this feeling stems from something that was originally a lot more useful to us. Fear hasn’t always been a bad thing. As a species, we rely on gut feelings to help us make decisions and avoid danger. Thousands of years ago, when we were hunting and gathering in the wild, an ‘anxious feeling’ might be what stopped us going into a cave full of bears. It was a useful sense to have, even if it wasn’t right every time. Kind of a built in ‘Better to be safe than sorry’ mechanism.

A young man with freckles, rubbing his face, looking dejected
By Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash

But that same sense of foreboding can now wreak havoc on mental wellbeing in a modern world full of daily stressors. Life might be more comfortable than ever, generally speaking, but we’re still prone to panic. Whether it’s a deep fear of giving a presentation [despite being in a completely safe environment] or even just making an important phone call [what if it goes wrong?!] We’re living in an age where the stakes are made to seem astronomically higher than they really are. 

Perhaps the same can be said for imposter syndrome. It might have been useful, once upon a time, to be wary of our abilities. Maybe hedging your bets about whether or not you were fit enough to climb that mountain could have saved you serious injury. Nowadays though, that same wariness could be what’s needlessly holding so many of us back. 

Famous imposters

If you’re still not convinced that you aren’t alone in this, keep reading. Celebrities aren’t immune to the feeling they’ve somehow cheated their way into success either. In fact you might be shocked at just how big some of the following names are. Tom Hanks, Emma Waston and Lady Gaga have all referenced feeling like imposters in interviews over the years. It seems even Oscars don’t necessarily guarantee you’ll feel confident in your abilities. So keep that in mind next time you’re debating whether or not you’ve got the expertise to back up an ambitious idea at work and just go for it.

So what can you do about it?

Tackling imposter syndrome can look different for different people. Depending on what causes the issue to strike, some find it easier tackling it steadily over a long period; others prefer a ripping off the bandaid approach. We’ve rounded up 4 of the simplest strategies for addressing this irritating setback…

Lean in: You’re the best imposter in the world

Sign on a building that reads
By Eileen Pan via Unsplash

It might sound counterintuitive but some people have reported that going along with the illusion has helped. And why not? Why can’t you be the most successful imposter ever? If you’ve made it this far, what’s the harm in carrying on? Playing the paranoia at its own game and using it to push yourself towards goals and achievements you wouldn’t ordinarily feel capable enough for could be a game changer. This new take on the old ‘fake it til you make it’ attitude could well be a nudge in the right direction. Go forth and use that imposter syndrome to luck your way into real greatness.

Examine it: What sets it off?

Pinpointing specific causes of your insecurities is undoubtedly the best way to start tackling them. If you’re a confident person – until it comes to exams, for instance – explore that. What is it about this one thing that leaves you feeling like you’re about to be exposed? Whether it stems from a history of struggling back in school, or maybe guilt from knowing that you skip revising when you shouldn’t, isolating the cause will give you a starting place to work from.

Affirmations: Repair your self belief

Did you know that you’re actually pretty great at what you do? Seriously. Nobody else could do You as well as you do. ‘Daily affirmations’ might not be your cup of tea, but the principle of acknowledging your strengths is still a good one. Taking a moment now and then to tell yourself when you’ve done a great job is key to beating the nagging doubts you aren’t good enough.

Talk about it: Exposing the imposter

Saying it out loud is often the best way to hear how ridiculous your reservations are. It’ll also open up a whole new world when you speak to friends and find out they have the same hang ups that you do. In fact speaking to yourself as you would one of your friends will also help you hear how unnecessarily hard you’re being on yourself. Shining a light on your subconscious concerns is one of the most surefire ways to expose how unrealistic they are. 

Back to blog