Have you ever felt that you are actually a bit of a fraud? Do you think you got your current job through luck, or because you managed to bluff your way in? Do you believe other people see you as successful and competent simply because you manage to hide from them the fact that you are actually out of your depth? Do you feel that you spend your days waiting to be found out?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions then it is quite possible you are suffering from Impostor Syndrome.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor syndrome is the belief that a person has that he or she is in some way inadequate despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is often experienced by those who are very successful but thoughts and feelings of inadequacy stop them from enjoying their success. Success often comes because these people work exceptionally hard to avoid being “found out”.
Symptoms associated with impostor syndrome include generalised anxiety, lack of self-confidence and frustration brought on by the inability to meet a self-imposed standard of achievement.
Who does it affect?
Initial research (Clance & Imes, 1978) suggested that this syndrome was most prevalent in women but subsequent work has suggested that it is equally experienced by men (Harvey, 1985). One factor that made impostor syndrome more likely was being the first generation of their families in a profession or the first generation to go to college. Also, people in non-traditional careers (i.e. women in traditionally male careers and vice versa) were more apt to feel like impostors.
A more recent study suggests that the majority of adults experience the symptoms of Impostor syndrome at some stage in their working lives. According to Huffstutler and Varnell (2006) the impostor phenomenon “is not an ‘abnormal’ feeling, but instead a temporary, ‘normal’ feeling that occurs when an individual experiences a transition such as a new role or job with subsequent changes in identities, relationships, and/or abilities”. However, for some people it can be a pervasive and debilitating problem.
James, a client, is the Operations Director of a large electronics company and he gets paid exceptionally well. He is very well respected and considered to be an expert in his field. His colleagues describe him as confident and competent but in the first session James said that he feels like a fraud.
He is constantly in a state of anxiety and at the end of each day he goes home sick with relief that he didn’t make the one big mistake that would allow him to be “found out”. In our coaching sessions James focuses on what he hasn’t done rather than on his achievements. When he wins a lucrative contract he attributes his success to good luck. When his efforts do not result in success he perceives that it is due to his incompetence. When challenged about the fact that he is usually successful and that failure is rare he suggests that he has merely been fortunate.
What can you do about it?
As with most problems the first step lies in noticing that this is a problem. For some people this will be enough, they will be able to challenge their own negative thoughts once they become aware of them or the symptoms will all but disappear as they grow more confident in a new role.
For others, some form of psychological intervention will be needed. Langford and Clance (1993) found that “therapeutic approaches drawing on self psychology and cognitive therapy” were most helpful. Their research identified strong links between impostor syndrome and a “conflictual and non-supportive” family background and they found that therapy helped to address the underlying causes.
In James’s case we traced his problems back, not to his family, but to a negative experience of school where his lack of self worth was reinforced on a daily basis by his form teacher. We used a combination of NLP techniques to manage his anxiety, counselling to address the underlying concerns and coaching to help him develop a more satisfying approach to work. James still experiences a normal degree of impostor syndrome when he feels out of his depth but he is free of the pervasive anxiety which used to dog him and he can now talk with pride about his personal achievements.
If you recognise some of these symptoms in yourself contact us for further tips and techniques on beating impostor syndrome.
Clance, C. & Imes, S. (1978). The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women:
Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and PracticeVolume 15, #3
Harvey, J.C. & Katz, C. (1985). If I’m So Successful Why Do I Feel Like a Fake: The Impostor Phenomenon.