What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is an ongoing sense of self-doubt, anxiety, and fear of failure and can affect your day-to-day productivity and progression. It’s thought that 70% of people suffer, or have suffered from, this way of thinking. It’s not a ‘condition’, as such, but can lead to the negative thoughts and feelings that often come with anxiety or depression. 

You spend time feeling like you’re out of your depth and someone will discover that you don’t know what you’re doing at any moment. It feels like you found your way to where you are by sheer luck or by being in the right place at the right time – some people even believe that they’re in the positions they’re in right now because of some clerical error. 

And, even though 70% of people are believed to have imposter syndrome, this way of thinking goes together with something known as ‘pluralistic ignorance’, which I feel smart just typing out. Pluralistic ignorance is the idea that we doubt ourselves privately and believe that we’re the only people with those feelings, so we don’t talk about them in fear of being found out. 

Even highly-successful people like Neil Gaiman, famous author, have openly spoken about imposter syndrome. He said that he “was convinced that there would be a knock on the door and that a man with a clipboard would be there to say it was all over. That it was time to leave and get a real job.” 

Whether you’ve always felt this way and didn’t have a name for it, or have never experienced it for yourself, imposter syndrome is real. 

How does it affect you? 

On a personal level, someone experiencing imposter syndrome may feel: 

  • Anxiety 
  • Self-doubt 
  • Fear of failure 
  • Perfectionism 
  • Isolation 

Even though people with these feelings are often highly motivated and driven to succeed, you don’t believe the credit or compliments that come your way for your achievements. You feel like you’ve crept into your position and are waiting to be ‘found out’. 

How does it affect your work? 

This anxiety has to be suppressed somehow, and there are a few ways this can affect your daily work-life (and the company you work for): 

  • You’ll try to fly under the radar, avoiding speaking up or asking for help 
  • You may procrastinate and avoid a piece of work that you don’t feel confident doing 
  • Or, on the flip side, you may throw yourself into a piece of work and let it consume you until you feel like it’s perfect – and even if it is, you’ll believe it’s only good because of the amount of work put into it, not your own ability. 

If 70% of people in a workplace feel like this and are acting to avoid negative feelings by not sharing potentially great ideas, not asking for help when they need it, or avoiding work they think will make them feel inadequate, imagine how much less efficient and powerful your team might be. 

How to deal with it? 

Most people with imposter syndrome believe that one day, when they’re ‘successful’, they won’t feel like imposters anymore. Actually, it seems that successful people are more prone to these feelings and that the more successful you are, the more you might feel like a fraud. 

That sounds like bad news, but if you have these feelings then you can also think about it like this: 

Successful people are more likely to have these feelings, so I must already be more successful than I feel in my current role, industry, or career path. That’s good news. 

Imposter syndrome can’t be ‘cured’, exactly, but it can be kept in check. There are a few ways that these feelings can be dealt with: 

1. Talk about how you’re feeling 

Sharing how you’re feeling can have two benefits; you can confide in friends and colleagues who will want to counter your negative thoughts with positivity about your work, and you may also find others who feel the same way, removing the isolation that is so common with imposter syndrome. 

2. Be aware of negative thoughts when they creep in 

When you’re next given a piece of work, or complimented on something you’ve already done, listen out for those thoughts that say, “You don’t know what you’re doing” or “I just got lucky this time”. Being aware of these thoughts is the first step in changing them. 

3. Reframe how you think 

Once you’ve recognised these thoughts, try to change them into something more constructive or positive. For example, don’t think that you were ‘lucky’ when someone compliments you on something you’ve done, try to recognise that you worked hard to reach that end goal. Everything didn’t just fall into place, you put it there. 

Or, if you’re working on something that has you feeling unprepared, use it as a chance to learn or improve. It’s completely okay to not know everything – nobody does. Use your feelings of anxiety and self-doubt and turn them into a force for good. 

You may never completely get rid of the voice that tells you you’re not as good as you should be, but you can turn down the volume of its negativity by realising that it’s wrong about you. 

What you might need to hear right now: 

You have talent, you are capable, and you belong. It’s okay to make mistakes, everyone does. You may not know everything, but you’ll learn anything you need to. 

You’re not an imposter, you deserve to be where you are. You worked hard to get there and no-one else could do it quite like you. You’re awesome. 

Find out more about Imposter Syndrome from other professionals with the same feelings: 

  1. What is Imposter Syndrome and how can you combat it? – Elizabeth Cox 
  2. Thinking your way out of Imposter Syndrome – Valerie Young 
  3. Imposter Syndrome – Mike Cannon-Brookes 

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