Feeling like an imposter?

“…uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.“ – Maya Angelou (world reknowned author)

Ever sat in a meeting at work and felt like a fraud? Ever attributed your success to luck more than your ability? Ever feared that one day everyone will find you out?

If you’re nodding to any of this, then it’s more than likely that you’ve suffered from imposter syndrome. And don’t worry you are not alone (you have the wonderful Maya Angelou (as quoted above), Albert Einstein, and Meryl Streep for company). In fact research estimates that 70% of us have experienced feeling like a fraud. So it’s actually far more common than we realise.

Imposter syndrome was first identified in 1978 by two clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. At first this condition was solely attributed to women, but it soon became evident that both men and women can equally suffer from feeling like a fraud.

Common signs of imposter syndrome include perfectionism, people pleasing, overworking, discounting praise and fearing failure. Also feeling like a minority can make this condition more probable (i.e. you’re not part of the ‘in’ crowd or majority). Solely based on my own experience of working in the corporate environment, I would suggest that the majority of people I have worked with (including myself) could tick quite a few of these symptoms. When it comes to feeling like a fraud, we are certainly not alone.

Looking at this as a therapist, I am left wondering how does feeling like an imposter serves us? It must have some purpose, hence its prevalence in so many of us. It’s not a positive service, but a service nonetheless. It seems to me that we struggle to own or internalise our own success, preferring to allocate it outwards to excuses of luck or chance. We seem to convince ourselves that we don’t deserve our success or even really believe it to be valid.

Am afraid our “friend” social media isn’t necessarily helping the situation, especially for the digital natives among us. By continually posting potentially inauthentic images of ourselves, we can feel more like a fraud. We are encouraged to act incongruently, and as the gap between reality and fantasy opens up, our imposter has room to roam. Social media also encourages the unhelpful activity of comparing ourselves with others and believing them to have their lives sorted out whilst we strive and struggle alone. As author Iyanla Vanzant says “comparison is an act of violence against the self.”  In a sense making comparisons with others is a twisted form of self-harm.

I’ve certainly seen many examples of the imposter syndrome in the therapy room. One client I recall had an almost violent reluctance to recognising herself as an expert in her field of work despite international awards and recognition. The more the external evidence piled up supporting her abilities, the more her childhood script of being unworthy and stupid came out in battle. This script had unfortunately been used to dictate her life so far. It had caused my client to shy away from opportunities and to devalue herself. Through unpicking the origins of her script, she was able to understand that these unkind words handed down to her in childhood were a reflection of her insecure parent and not of herself. She was also able to acknowledge that as an adult she now had a choice as to whether she wanted to continue to let her negative thoughts determine her life going forwards. The script was so entrenched within her, it took a long time to separate herself from it and to start to own her successes. This is never easy work and we can often revert back to our old familiar scripts when feeling insecure, something I discovered myself only recently.

Stepping outside your comfort zone can make you more susceptible to imposter syndrome. I certainly felt that way when I began to set up my private practice last year. Doubts and fears rose to the surface, often keeping me up at night. Would I be capable of working for myself? Was I good enough? Despite over five years of training and hundreds of client hours under my belt, I doubted my own competence and in turn my confidence was shaken. I thankfully had the support of close friends and a long term therapist to act as my much needed cheerleaders helping me to take that leap of faith into the scary unknown.

I attended a weekend workshop about embracing the here and now and opening myself up to change to help combat my inner imposter. From that workshop, I left with a small round pebble and on it I wrote the words FAITH. I have this pebble on my desk and often hold it as a comfort and a reminder to have faith in myself especially when I sense my inner imposter is lurking nearby.

Other tips I have found personally useful to combat my imposter syndrome include:

  • Get a mentor and talk it out (am betting they felt like a fraud at various points in their life too).
  • Celebrate and own your successes (no matter how small). Including showing gratitude towards a compliment rather than trying to deflect or lessen it
  • Develop self-compassion for your imperfections (we are all a work in progress). It is only through failing that we learn.
  • Acknowledge how common these feelings are and that to experience them is understandable and in a way a symptom of your success (so they can be reframed as positive rather than negative).
  • Realise that given the imposter syndrome is so common, the majority of people you might be comparing yourself to, say on social media,  probably also suffer from it. We are not so very different and can find connection with others through our vulnerabilities.

So let’s not all be so hard on ourselves and instead unite in our common fear of being an imposter. And remember these wise words of philosopher Bertrand Russell who said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” 

Words indeed to the wise!



Lead photo by Andrew Worley on Unsplash

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