Imposter syndrome is a false belief that you are underqualified or not competent in your professional or personal life, despite evidence to the contrary. Our Features Editor Victoria Earle asks Personal Development and Wellbeing Coach Leanne Cooper how we can start truly believing in ourselves.
Do you feel like a fake in your working life, despite having all the education and experience you need? Do you tend to think others are more qualified than you, that your accomplishments are flukes or down to luck? Do you fear you’ll be ‘found out’ as a fraud? Do praise and success make you feel pressured, rather than happy? Then you may have imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome, also called perceived fraudulence, involves feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence that persist despite your education, experience, and accomplishments. Harvard Business Review
A 2021 study revealed that an astonishing 65% of professionals suffer from imposter syndrome. The study, carried out by California-based market research technology firm InnovateMR, also found that 75% of female executives surveyed reported experiencing imposter syndrome, so it seems to affect women more.
According to personal development and wellbeing coach Leanne Cooper, imposter syndrome is essentially the mismatch between how you see yourself and who you think you need to be in order to be successful.
“An individual with imposter syndrome would find it difficult to attribute their achievements and success to their skills, abilities, and capabilities and instead pass off their accomplishments as ‘luck’ whilst living in fear that they are about to be found out as a fraud,” she explains.
Imposter syndrome differs from lack of confidence or self-esteem in that the feelings of inadequacy persist despite evident success. Whilst anyone can develop imposter syndrome, people with a strong desire to achieve can be most at risk.
The term imposter syndrome was first used by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s in an article they wrote called “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”. They believed it was only experienced by women but more recently there has been push-back against that and it is now accepted that anyone can suffer from it.
Research suggests that early childhood experiences involving family could contribute to impostor syndrome. According to Choosing Therapy, children who had to assume parental roles and responsibilities at a young age are more susceptible to impostor syndrome, as have children who did not have a strong, secure bond with their parents.
A lack of positive reinforcement and praise in childhood can also increase the likelihood of developing impostor syndrome, leading children to develop unhealthy beliefs about achievement. It’s also thought parents who send mixed messages – alternating between over-praise and criticism – can increase the risk of future fraudulent feelings.
The feeling of being an imposter seems to develop as young adults. You may have been confident at junior and senior school but start to doubt yourself at University or in your first job, when you enter a new, larger environment and have to prove yourself again.
It’s hardly surprising imposter syndrome is becoming more and more discussed, given the pace of modern life and growing pressure to succeed.
“Imposter syndrome is becoming more and more talked about now,” Leanne says. “Sometimes clients will come to sessions saying that they are aware that they are struggling with it and ask for support specifically on that. Other times clients can come for support with another issue, and it will become apparent that they are showing signs of imposter syndrome.”
So how do we recognise if we have imposter syndrome or simply a lack of confidence? with imposter syndrome, the feelings of inadequacy persist despite evident success. Leanne says common indicators include (but are not limited to):
- always being in overwork mode (often to the extent of burnout)
- the constant pursuit of perfection due to never feeling good enough
- fear of failure and avoidance and/or procrastination of tasks that could lead to that failure
- overachieving and the desire to always be more and more qualified
- negative self-talk particularly around skills, abilities and competence
- inability to take compliments; fear of not living up to expectations
- making excuses for accomplishments
- inability to relax/switch off
- controlling or micro-managing tendencies
- feelings of being stuck and resentful
- self-sabotaging behaviours; berating own performance.
It will also show up in our self-talk. “As a coach I am always deeply listening to comments or statements to indicate imposter syndrome such as ‘I don’t know how I did it’ or ‘I got a lot of help to get where I am’ or ‘I’m lucky to be where I am’ or ‘People are just being nice saying I’ve done a good job’,” Leanne says.
Leanne, who works with women, finds clients with imposter syndrome are of all ages and backgrounds and it doesn’t just apply to professional lives. Whilst it tends to show up in the workplace a lot, it can happen at home too, particularly around the ability to parent. It can even show up in relationships where people fear that their partner will one day discover they are not good enough.
“Imposter syndrome can have a massive impact on people’s lives and inhibit their success and affect their enjoyment of life,” Leanne says. “Without support, many people with imposter syndrome don’t achieve their full potential, whether that’s not taking a course they want to study, not starting the new business they dream about or not going for that longed-for promotion.”
Leanne finds that imposter syndrome often rears its head when a client is going through a life transition.
“A common time is when you are doing a new thing or taking yourself out of your comfort zone. I remember when I left my employed job to become self-employed I had thoughts of ‘I’m going to fail’, ‘I don’t have what it takes to run my own business’, ‘who do I think I am?’ and so on.”
So what steps can we take to soothe all this self-doubt? The good news is we can overcome these feelings once we become aware of how we are holding ourselves back. “As a coach, I can recognise when I am having thoughts that don’t support me and reframe them into ones that do,” says Leanne.
“Our thoughts create our feelings, our feelings create our actions and our actions create our results, so it’s important to make sure we can recognise and address thoughts and beliefs that are not supporting us achieve the outcome we want.”
Here are Leanne’s coaching tools for tackling imposter syndrome:
- Become aware of your thoughts. Take some time to identify what thoughts you are having. Take notice of what you say to yourself and the language you are using when you say those things. Do any themes crop up? Notice what triggers you, who you are with when you have these thoughts, in what circumstances do you have these thoughts, what tasks drive those thoughts. It may be helpful to track and keep a note of these thoughts over a few days or a week.
- Acknowledge that thoughts are not facts. Just because you think you are useless at your job does not mean it’s true. Introduce yourself to the possibility that there is a flaw in the beliefs you are experiencing and ask yourself ‘Is what I am telling myself true?’ ‘How do I know?’ ‘What evidence do I have to show me that I am right about these beliefs?’
- Ask yourself what these beliefs are costing you. Be honest with yourself about how you are being held back due to these beliefs. What could you do if you didn’t believe these things about yourself? What could you gain from letting go of these beliefs? What will happen if you continue to believe these things about yourself?
- Retrain your brain! Replace the old thought with an empowering and positive belief. This won’t happen instantly and will take time, patience and repetition but it is possible. Start with choosing the one belief that is having the most impact on your life and holding you back the most and write it down. At the side of it replace it with a belief that supports you in achieving what you want to achieve instead and draw a line through the old belief. Look to replace ‘I’m not…’, ‘I can’t …and ‘I don’t have…’ with ‘I am…’, ‘I can…’ and ‘I do have…’.
Images of Leanne: Jess Alred Photography