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Self-insight for success > When the going gets tough > Feeling Like a Fraud: The Impostor Syndrome

Feeling Like a Fraud: The Impostor Syndrome

By Galia Barhava-Monteith

The following question is illustrative of similar questions we have often been asked over the years which we think will resonate with many Professionelle readers:

I’m about to start a new job. It’s a huge career step for me and a lot more money. It’s a fantastic role in a predominantly male- dominated company.

The thing is, I’m really nervous about it. I can’t tell anyone because everyone thinks I’m so ‘together’. But I feel like a fraud, that I’m about to be found out and I’ll end up failing miserably. I’ve tried to rationalise it, but I’m getting really anxious.

I don’t really have anyone to talk to about it and I was hoping you could give me some useful advice.

We know this feeling very well. In fact, we’re always fighting back that little voice (and sometimes it can get really loud) that says:

Who are you kidding? You’re about to be found out and it’s all going to come tumbling down.

So the good news is that you are not alone. The feelings you are describing are known as the Impostor Syndrome.

Impostor Syndrome

Impostor Syndrome is not an officially recognised psychological disorder, but it has been the subject of study and books by psychologists and educationalists.

It was thought that women most commonly experience it when they attribute their success to external forces such as luck and being in the right place at the right time. Those of us who suffer from Impostor Syndrome seem to be unable to attribute our success to our own efforts and abilities and that’s why we’re constantly worried we’ll be found out.

The Syndrome was studied first in the 1970s with high achieving women, women who seemed to have high levels of self-doubt and felt unable to internalise their success. Research undertaken since then suggests that it is equally prevalent in men and is also common in gifted people. Interestingly, people who aren’t that smart or capable don’t seem to suffer from this syndrome.

So, I guess the good news is that if you feel like a fraud, the chances are that you are not. But still, there is the niggling voice at the back of your head that you need to deal with. And too often that voice can grow ever louder until it actually debilitates and paralyses.

How can you silence the destructive voice or at least quieten it down to mere background noise?

Managing Your Environment

All too often we don’t notice how our environment influences us, be it the physical space we work in, our social life or the culture in our workplace. When you are deeply involved, you stop noticing the effects these things have on you. For example, it wasn’t until I got a private office that I realised how noisy and counter-productive the open plan environment I had been working in really was.

Changing your environment, be it your physical, psychological or cultural environment, is a lot easier than changing yourself. It is something you can almost immediately take control of which, in turn, will serve to counter those niggling self-doubts.

Choose the right working environment

We insecure over-achievers tend to be attracted to very competitive, high pressure environments. Yes, this is a generalised statement, but I think that most of you will agree. According to workopolis, (a Canadian job site) some workplaces are so “aggressively competitive” that they make even the most talented individuals feel inadequate.

In my experience and observation, some workplaces deliberately foster competitiveness and leave you to ‘sink or swim’. If managed well, with structures such as peer support or mentoring schemes in place, these environments can get the best out of people but when these support systems are not in place or are poorly implemented many highly capable people end up feeling isolated and full of self-doubt.

So, you should think carefully about the nature of the organisations you consider working for. If you know yourself to be susceptible to feelings of inadequacy, then you would be wise to avoid workplaces that like to ‘treat you mean’ and keep you hungry for praise.

If, however, you really want to work for such a company, then set about developing a good support system for yourself. If there is a good mentoring or peer support system in place, make sure you hook into it. Otherwise, actively build one for yourself outside work using old colleagues, friends and family members you trust.

There is an old Hebrew saying:

The shy will never learn.

Overcome those feelings and make sure that in the first hundred days in a new job you ask as many questions as you need to so you feel on top of the local culture and the requirements of your job. People expect you to and often respect and appreciate it. Even in the most competitive environments, you’ll find some people who will be happy to help and support you as a newcomer.

Beware of friends who might be adding to your feelings of self-doubt

We are often drawn to people who may not be good for us. Yes, it sounds like pop psychology and you’ve all heard the stories about smart women who choose men who treat them badly.

But consider this: do you have friends who, in the name of cautiousness, always point out the potential for you to fail? Do you have friends who somehow, despite appearing very sincere, manage to rain on your parade?

If you do, consider reducing contact with them when you are in a period of change or when the niggling voices are stronger than usual. Instead, spend time with those friends who are always supportive, who you know will back you up no matter what.

Managing Your Thoughts

Once you have got your environment sorted out, controlling your thoughts should become more manageable. Thoughts are obviously the source of the problem and should be dealt with!

Easier said than done though; those insidious voices inside our heads just pop up. Worse, when we’re stressed we may be completely unaware of them, yet profoundly influenced by them.

We have two practical suggestions for managing your thoughts.

Be deliberate about documenting your achievements

Depending on how loud that insidious little voice is, I sometime take it on and have a full-blown argument with it. It goes something like this:

Well, if I am such a failure, can you please explain how I managed to come top of the class in my first year of University even though English was my second language?

Sometime, the voice persists, and then I have to launch into full achievement listing mode. I sit down, write out all my achievements (or look at my CV) and try and systematically discount all possible external explanations –

No, I didn’t come top because everyone else was stupid…

I don’t think we are deliberate enough about our achievements. I believe (and research shows) that we focus far too much on our failures and our shortcomings. One negative comment has as much weight in our minds as five positive ones.

You could also do this simple exercise. Sit down with your CV and add to it all the other achievements that you are proud of. You can then discuss them with your partner or a trusted and supportive friend and systematically discount any possible external explanations there might be.

It is always good to get someone else’s perspective about your achievements. You may have forgotten or discounted some and your partner or friend will be sure to remind you!

Learn new thought strategies

I deliberately left this one to the end because I believe that once you sort out your environment and develop some good, practical strategies, it will become a lot easier to teach yourself new thought strategies. If you are in a great deal of turmoil, than consider getting some professional help. Cognitive behavioural therapy is probably the most suitable and helpful form of therapy in dealing with self-doubt and negative thoughts.

If, however, you are not quite at that point, I suggest you read good self help books regularly. The key is that you need to recognise the onslaught of the little voice and take action as soon as it starts.

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