“I’m a fraud and everyone is about to find out.”
I feel that way every time I share something, whether that’s an opinion, presentation or even a simple question. I feel that way right now, writing this blog post. I’m thinking: “I’m not a trained psychologist, who am I to tell people about their feelings and how to overcome them?”
My feelings of imposter syndrome are so strong that I feel like I’m faking everything in life. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that nearly everyone will feel this way about something, at some point in their life.
So, what is imposter syndrome exactly?
It’s feeling that you’re an imposter when you’re not. This makes sense if you’re an actor, but why feel this way about your own opinions, even when they’re backed up by facts? They say: “Fake it until you make it”, but is that really the correct thing to be doing?
The first step to finding out more about imposter syndrome is to do my favourite thing; research.
Imposter Syndrome is a term coined in the 1970s by two clinical psychologists; Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. They observed that many women had the tendency to think that they were incompetent, despite their academic and professional accomplishments. They attributed their successes to luck and believed that they weren’t as successful as others thought they were.
This sentiment still exists today. In recent years, various celebrities have shared their feelings about imposter syndrome.
"Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, I can't do this. I'm a fraud" - Kate Winslet
Originally, the term imposter syndrome was coined after a study showed it affected high-profile women. All of the quotes above are from women, but it affects many people – regardless of gender.
A recent study has shown that, under pressure, imposter syndrome may hit men harder than women. This triggers anxiety and can negatively impact their performance. The research team speculated that this may be down to gender norms that place an expectation on men to be more competent. One thing’s for sure, we’re all in the same boat.
"The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now, they will discover you. It's imposter syndrome" - Neil Gaiman
To bring matters closer to home, a staggering 58% of tech professionals admitted to feeling like an imposter in the workplace. Expectations are set even higher at agencies, especially in the experience design field.
You’re viewed as “the expert” which can place a huge and unnecessary amount of pressure on an individual. Question is, how are we expected to cope without succumbing to feelings of self-doubt and incompetence?
If you allow imposter syndrome to control you, it can quickly become a crippling problem. Overcoming it, like most things, is easier said than done. You can learn to use imposter syndrome to your advantage. Here are a few tips that have helped me embrace my inner fraud in my work and life at large.
Start by saying: “This is Imposter Syndrome”
Recognise all those thoughts as imposter syndrome: “I’m a fraud; I’m not qualified enough; I’m not good enough”. The first step in changing ourselves is accepting that we need to change. Until you say ‘this is imposter syndrome’ out loud, it will continue to hamper your professional development.
Acknowledging the fear and understanding that you aren’t perfect can be comforting, especially if you remind yourself that nobody really knows what they’re doing when embarking on something new. We’d never begin if we always waited until we knew everything that we needed to know.
"Here is the secret. I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of, I have worked at non-profits, I have been at foundations, I have worked in corporations, served on corporate boards, I have been G20-summits, I have sat in at the UN; they are not that smart" - Michelle Obama
Recognise your successes
Own and celebrate anything you have accomplished already. Write down all of your wins – both the big and the small – and store them in a safe place. Jot down all the good things people have said about you such as feedback, praise, etc.
As often as you feel is necessary, read this list and remind yourself of how awesome you are and what you’re worth.
Life is better when you don’t have to go at it alone. Find other colleagues or friends who feel the same way. Talking through your feelings with someone else normalises these feelings and reinforces the feeling that you aren’t alone in this.
Finding a mentor will help you to improve and develop your skillset. This should keep you both focused and grounded. And for those mentors out there that feel the grasp of imposter syndrome setting in, sharing what you know can help to heal those fraudulent feelings.
Especially true in this day and age – social media is a killer when it comes to expectations versus reality. Stop looking at other people’s lives and thinking “their life is so much better than mine” or “they do that so much better than I can”.
The only person you should be comparing yourself to is… yourself. Look back at yourself six months ago and reflect on what you have accomplished. Note this down and celebrate the improvement you’ve made on social (at your own discretion).
Social media doesn’t work for everyone. That said, showcasing small wins can be an effective way of tracking your progress, receiving external feedback, and who knows – you may go on to inspire others.
Just do it
If you can recognise imposter syndrome and use it, there’s a powerful drive behind feeling like a fraud, and it can help you. Your lack of knowledge becomes a strength. You will become a perpetual student; learning faster, and double checking everything you do.
Your strength is in knowing that you don’t know everything. These qualities will help you produce your best work and encourage others to work with you. Why? In their eyes, you’re a rock star. You come across as passionate, hardworking and meticulous.
Besides, who wouldn’t want to work with somebody like that?
"I think the most creative people veer between ambition and anxiety, self-doubt and confidence. I definitely can relate to that. We all go through that: 'Am I doing the right thing?' 'Is this what I'm meant to be doing?'" - Daniel Radcliffe
Embrace the imposter within
Have an imposter moment, not an imposter life. Give yourself permission to be wrong, have a break and ask for help.
While you’re at it, take today as your opportunity to start accepting, embracing and celebrating your capabilities. Understand that, in time, you will find comfort in what you’re able and unable to do.
I’d love to instigate and encourage discourse around imposter syndrome, to help others share their own experiences. So, if you – or someone you know - is affected by imposter syndrome in the workplace, please get in touch.
- Dr Pauline Rose Clance has created a helpful imposter phenomenon test and also has several workshops and presentations on her website.
- Elizabeth Cox talks about “What is imposter syndrome and how can you combat it?” in an animated TedEd video.
- The University of Stirling has dozens of resources to help you to do your own research about Imposter Syndrome.
*If you’ve tried all of these things and done your own research and you still feel that the feeling of being an imposter is holding you back. It’s important to seek advice from a mental health professional.