Feel like a fraud? It could be imposter syndrome.

Mental healthArticleAugust 31, 2022

You’ve earned your seat at the table, and rightfully so. Yet you sometimes feel inadequate, as though you don’t belong, don’t measure up or deserve the praise, recognition and success you’ve earned?

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If this sounds like you, there’s a name for this psychological phenomenon that affects even the most prominent and successful leaders, entrepreneurs and celebrated personalities worldwide – imposter syndrome.

Mental health support platform, Psycom describes the “occurrence” as “the chronic feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, and fraudulence despite objective success”.

An article in the Journal of General Internal Medicine (JGIM) further describes it as affecting “high-achieving individuals who, despite their objective successes … have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or impostor”. 

“Up to 82% of people face feelings of impostor phenomenon, struggling with the sense they haven’t earned what they’ve achieved and are a fraud,” notes the American Psychological Association in reference to a study on the Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome published in the JGIM.

In addition to this, a KPMG study revealed that “75% of female executives across industries have personally experienced imposter syndrome at certain points in their careers”, and 56% feared they “won’t live up to expectations or that people around them will not believe they are as capable as expected”, notes the KMPG article.

American actor Tom Hanks expressed his self-doubt in an article for Entrepreneur, detailing how he’d often question his abilities and whether others would eventually “discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me”.

In the same article, multiple successful leaders also express their experiences. 

Lean In author and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg writes about feeling like an imposter and a fraud at times, and sometimes doubting her position in society.

Former US first lady Michelle Obama says that she still has “a little impostor syndrome [that] doesn’t go away”.

In the same list, the likes of World Health Organization director-general Dr Margaret Chan, renowned poet Maya Angelou, grand slam champion Serena Williams, and great physicist Albert Einstein are also noted to have experienced this phenomenon.

The concept “came to widespread public attention after [psychologist Pauline] Clance’s 1985 book”, says the JGIM. Clance originally identified the syndrome “among high-achieving professional women, but more recent research has documented these feelings of inadequacy among men and women, in many professional settings, and among multiple ethnic and racial groups”.

“A huge relief” to know you’re not alone

Writing for Psychology Today, Katherine Hawley PhD, a professor of philosophy at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, says, “for many people who grapple with fraudulent feelings, it’s a huge relief to know that there’s a name for this disquiet… that they’re not alone in feeling this way”. One of the most distressing aspects of imposter syndrome “is the illusion that everyone around you is achieving effortless superiority, whilst you are the only one who is struggling”, she says.

But Hawley warns that all the available “lifehacks, top tips, and self-help manuals can give us the impression that Imposter Syndrome is a problem for the sufferer to solve”, she says. There’s the danger that “we risk forgetting to ask a crucial question – what is it about our workplaces, our social networks, our culture, which makes it so easy for so many people to feel insecure about their own proven abilities?”

Recognise yourself in this list?

Valerie Young is credited by Human Results, an HR resource, with this list of five different ways imposter syndrome can come across:

  1. the expert (who would not even apply for a job if they did not excel in every area mentioned);
  2. the natural genius (who worries that having to work too hard is a sign they are not good enough);
  3. the rugged individualist (who can’t ask for help because they would be exposed as a fraud),
  4. the perfectionist (who sets near-impossible goals);
  5. the super(wo)man (who works harder than anyone else to hide the fact that they are a fraud).

See any boxes you could tick? 

Overcoming imposter syndrome

Psycom offers these strategies:

  • Question yourself: Are your thoughts accurate, valid or are you responding to outside variables.
  • Reframe your  thinking: Put your thoughts into perspective, examine these and whether your beliefs are valid and warranted.
  • Embrace success: Allow yourself to resonate emotionally with all your wins and affirm your self-worth.
  • Talk it out: Outside perspective can shake irrational beliefs and ground your reality.
  • Show self-compassion.”

If imposter syndrome is causing you too much stress, consider consulting a medically qualified mental health professional.