Imposter Syndrome: Professionals who feel like fakes

Have you ever felt like your success was down to luck or random circumstances rather than ability? Do you ever feel like a fake in your job? The chances are you've experienced a condition called Imposter Syndrome – and it's more common than you may think, particularly among women!

I recently read a great article by Ruth Ibegbuna, an award-winning charity chief executive, on the topic. She spoke candidly about the difficulty she has internalising her achievements and believing that she deserves her success. It's a feeling I'm very familiar with, and I know many other high-achieving women who have these doubts, regardless of their skills and hard work.

Origins of Imposter Syndrome

Clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes first coined the term Imposter Phenomenon (IP) over 35 years ago. At first, they thought it was primarily only a problem for women, although subsequent research has indicated both genders often exhibit symptoms of self-doubt, despite excellent academic and professional records.

"I fall silent and listen when I should speak and be heard."

Nevertheless, IP does seem to be more common in women. I've gleaned this through research and my own experiences in the workplace, including discussions with female colleagues and friends. The problem is often compounded for women from minority groups.

"I question whether my own self-doubt is because I'm the token inclusion – a black, northern woman with a regional accent – never that I am just good, or even the best," Ibegbuna said.

"Even when I'm the expert in the room and I know more than others on a given subject, I find myself being over-deferential. I fall silent and listen when I should speak and be heard."

Fear of exposure

Sufferers not only think they are imposters, but also fervently believe they are constantly on the brink of being exposed. Many celebrity A-listers have admitted these feelings, including Academy Award-winning actress Kate Winslet and eight-time Emmy Award winner Tina Fey. 

If even those who have reached the very peak of their profession feel like imposters, you may be forgiven for wondering what hope there is for the rest of us! Well, after a bit of research, I've found there are plenty of techniques that can help you overcome IP.

Here are some of my favourites methods:

Talk to a mentor

Showing vulnerability is always difficult, especially for high-achievers. But I firmly believe vulnerability shouldn't be seen as a weakness. If you have a mentor with whom to discuss your doubts, you should consider it. You may be surprised to hear they've suffered similar feelings in the past.

Imposter syndrome affects many women. Discussing feelings of self-doubt with mentors or colleagues can help.

Understand no one's perfect

Striving for perfection is a common trait among people who experience IP. Have you ever spent hours and hours tweaking a presentation or report in an attempt to get it just right? Often, this is detrimental to other projects – and your sanity! Once you understand that no one is perfect, you can begin to relax more and learn not to obsess.  

Don't dwell on your mistakes

When something goes wrong, it's easy to believe your self-doubts are justified. However, even when an error results in a business relationship going sour or a deal falling through, you should realise that everyone makes mistakes. Look at where you went wrong, make adjustments and brush it off so that you can come back bigger and better next time.

Embrace the feeling

This may sound counterintuitive, but Imposter Syndrome can be considered a good thing. After all, it shows you're achieving your life and career goals to such an extent that you're not even sure you deserve the success! People who suffer these symptoms are also less likely to rest on their laurels when they reach the top of their profession – a little insecurity can go a long way.

Ultimately, I think there should be more transparent discussions among high-profile women about these types of issues. Hopefully, this will encourage more people to open up about their struggles.