Updated: Jul 6
In May 2014, I was professionally feeling out of place, low in confidence and like I didn’t belong. I was returning to work after my second maternity leave with a big new promotion, new team, new client – and feeling under pressure and out of my depth.
I never used to personally connect with the idea of imposter syndrome (the sense that I would be found out at any moment and discovered a fraud) but when I began researching the phenomenon and working with many clients who this was coming up for, I found the explanation that 100% described how I had been feeling for maybe 10 years of my professional life.
I didn’t belong.
I wasn’t as intelligent as everyone else. I went to a state school in Manchester. I have a Northern accent and therefore, not enough in some way.
This I understood.
And suddenly my behaviours and low confidence was explained. The years of overwork, the years of feeling inadequate, uncomfortable, of arriving in meeting rooms feeling exposed and different in some way, unable to contribute fully as I was too focused on how different I felt.
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is a recurring emotional experience – a psychological phenomenon where sufferers believe that you are a fraud and that your success is driven by luck or hard work – but not by your experience, attributes, or behaviours. It can feel like a sense of dread or unsettling sensation.
Imposter syndrome can be triggered in several ways.
Psychological studies have shown that there are four common ways we can be triggered:
Newness – new role, new colleagues, new job, new situation, new skill
Scrutiny – being under scrutiny in some way, preparing for a promotion, delivering a pitch or presentation
Difference – real or perceived, looking, feeling or sounding to others you are interacting with
Pressure – being under pressure in high stakes situations
It’s not just an internal problem that causes us to hold back. It creates anxiety and stress as we worry about judgment from others. It decreases our effectiveness at work – and leads to lower job satisfaction, less mental energy and high instances of unhealthy perfectionism.
It makes us feel isolated and lonely and unable to contribute or feel reluctant to try new things.
How can we overcome imposter syndrome?
The key to imposter syndrome is bringing it into the light.
When we are gripped by imposter syndrome, our minds take us through this vicious cycle:
When we are triggered, this ignites a performance anxiety – more than wanting to do a good job and perform well. More like a sense of dread that something bad will happen if you don’t do well. A fear of failure.
In the face of this, there’s usually lots of negative self-talk happening. Undermining yourself, discounting your previous experience, questioning your competence and feeling exposed.
This can breed overwork. Working longer and harder than others to quieten the internal voice and thinking that you might not be as good as everyone else, but you can work hard.
Or it can breed self-sabotage in the form of procrastination or avoidance. But ultimately the work needs doing and the deadline looms therefore, you need to default to an intense period of overwork.
This can result in overwhelm (and over time burnout).
But typically, those experiencing imposter syndrome are high achievers and therefore, they are ultimately successful in what they do.
And here’s the kicker, you then believe that your success is down to this torture cycle and you repeat the pattern.
But there’s another way…
You’re unlikely to be able to avoid the triggers or difficult emotions (such as performance anxiety or fear of failure) but instead we need to learn a new pattern of behaviour which over time will become habit.
It's at this point in the cycle that we want our self-awareness to kick in – our mind wants us to follow tried and tested paths of mental churn. But we need to disrupt this pattern of thinking.
When you notice these feelings it’s important to reflect on what you’re thinking, gently ask yourself:
Is this true?
Is this kind?
Is this the whole picture?
What am I feeling right now?
What stories am I telling myself?
What might have triggered this way of thinking?
You could also seek the advice of others – getting a trusted colleague’s perspective on your thoughts – sometimes just saying it aloud helps you dismiss it.
You then you want to replace the negative story with something more positive – challenging yourself to recognise your success and accomplishments.
One tip I often share with clients is to keep an email folder containing all your feedback, thank you emails, nice praise, testimonials that you can read through when you feel that sense of dread rising.
How can you tell if you're experiencing imposter syndrome?
Here’s a couple of questions to help you identify whether you are experiencing imposter syndrome:
Are you uncomfortable in accepting praise in your accomplishments?
Do you doubt your general intelligence?
Do you think others would be disappointed if they realised what you really know?
If you’d like more tips on overcoming imposter syndrome, follow me on Instagram.
I’ve also compiled a reading list on imposter syndrome if you’d like to find out more.