Self / 06.11.2019

Understanding imposter syndrome

By Beth Gibbons
Feel like a fraud at work? You could be suffering from this confidence-sapping condition
what is imposter syndrome

We all feel out of our depth at work from time to time: anxious about a presentation or meeting, for example, or momentarily outshone by an ambitious colleague. And that’s normal. The odd bout of nerves can help us to up our game and perform at our best. For some people, however, these occasional confidence wobbles can tip into something altogether less healthy – a chronic condition experts call impostor syndrome, which is sometimes referred to as charlatan syndrome. We asked psychotherapist Rachel Buchan to tell us more, and to share her advice on how to cope when self-doubt creeps in.

What is impostor syndrome?

First discovered in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, impostor syndrome is a recognised phenomenon whereby sufferers lack confidence in their professional ability. And it’s more common than you think. One study found 40 per cent of high achievers suffered from imposter syndrome, though the problem can strike at any level – research in the International Journal Of Behavioural Science suggests as many as 70 per cent of us may experience episodes of imposter syndrome anxiety in our lifetime.

What are the signs of imposter syndrome?

‘Symptoms can vary greatly from person to person, but there are a few classic red flags,’ says Buchan. ‘A constant feeling of not being good enough at your job, that others are more qualified, that you’re a fraud and it’s only a matter of time before you’re found out, are all typical feelings associated with imposter syndrome.’

And while these negative thought patterns are corrosive enough to your self-esteem, the need to constantly prove yourself worthy in the workplace can also lead to unhealthy behaviours, warns Buchan. ‘Working long hours to overcompensate for not being good enough at your job, for example, or not recognising your achievements (sufferers typically believe that any success is down to luck, rather than ability or hard work) can both take a gradual toll on you. There’s also the constant stress and anxiety that comes with living a lie – or at least feeling like you are.’

But as well as making life pretty miserable, imposter syndrome can impact your CV, too. ‘People with impostor syndrome may be less likely to put themselves forward for new job opportunities for fear they’re not good enough,’ says Buchan. ‘Alternatively, they might find it hard to stay in the same job because the pressure they put on themselves means they’re more likely to suffer burnout.’

Dealing with imposter syndrome can also make you feel lonely when you most need support. ‘I’ve worked with lots of people exhibiting signs of impostor syndrome, and the one thing all of them have in common is a distressing sense of isolation,’ says Buchan. ‘Unfortunately, people who feel like they’re struggling at work are less inclined to ask for help for fear it will expose them as the incompetent employee they perceive themselves to be’. A devastating vicious circle if ever there was one.

Challenging your demons

So how do we break the cycle of not feeling good enough? ‘It’s important to open up to somebody you trust, whether that’s a close friend or a loved one,’ says Buchan. ‘So often, just voicing your fears takes away their power and allows for greater objectivity. Counselling can be extremely helpful, as it allows you to explore the underlying issues at play.’

Although there’s no one cause of impostor syndrome, some studies suggest the way you were parented plays a role, while personality traits such as perfectionism or introversion may also contribute. ‘Studies also indicate that being a minority in the workplace, whether that’s down to your skin colour or gender, can also make you more susceptible to low confidence,’ says Buchan. If this sounds like you, then finding yourself a mentor may be helpful.

In the short term, cognitive behavioural therapy can help you to challenge your own negative thinking, and counter imposter syndrome with more objective thoughts. ‘“I’m useless at my job”, for example, could be challenged by asking yourself where the objective evidence for this belief is, and countered with “I work hard at my job and deserve to be there,’” says Buchan. ‘Your GP should be able to refer you for counselling and will also spot the signs of depression or anxiety if these are present, in which case medication may be appropriate.’ And even though imposter syndrome can feel isolating, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. ‘Some of the greatest minds, from Maya Angelou to Sheryl Sandberg, have felt like frauds in their time,’ says Buchan. ‘If anything, it’s probably a sign that you’re more conscientious than most.’

Read more: 6 ways to be happier and healthier at work

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Understanding imposter syndrome
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Understanding imposter syndrome
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It's normal to feel out of your depth at work once in a while but if this feeling persists, it might be a case of imposter syndrome. Find out more here.
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Healthy magazine
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