You’ve been promoted, selected to join the team or aced an exam, but instead of basking in the glow of your success, you feel like a fraud. You’re convinced your success is all down to luck and at any moment, you’ll be found out.
This is what’s known as ‘imposter syndrome’. It’s a nagging feeling that you’ve only succeeded due to good fortune, not because of talent or intelligence, and you’ve fooled everyone into thinking you’re up to the task.
What is imposter syndrome?
The term was coined by American researchers Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in the 1970s. “Imposter syndrome is an inability to internalise success,” says Dr Alicia Fortinberry from business consultancy firm Fortinberry Murray. “It’s the inability to accept that you are a success, even when the outward indicators show that you are.”
Research estimates that a whopping 70% of us will experience at least one episode of imposter syndrome in our lifetime, and research shows that it can plague everyone from students to academics, marketing managers and even physicians.
Dr Fortinberry says stress is a common side-effect because people affected by imposter syndrome have unrealistic expectations of themselves. “They feel they ought to be achieving way more than they are, and that mismatch of what they can do and the pressure they put on themselves increases the stress,” she explains.
“The fear of being unmasked – of others finding out who they really believe they are – also leads to incredible stress, particularly since you can’t take in when people tell you you’re doing well because it doesn’t mesh with your own view of yourself. The stress on people with imposter syndrome is enormous and their anxiety is very high.”
While imposter syndrome isn’t recognised as an official mental health condition, there is evidence linking the phenomenon with anxiety and depression.
What causes imposter syndrome?
Dr Fortinberry adds that imposter syndrome is prevalent among people who achieve success easily, first-generation professionals and people with high-achieving parents. “First-generation professionals don’t have an image of themselves growing up as a professional and they may not have any role models,” she says.
“High-achieving parents may only give praise for what their children have achieved, not how they achieve it.” According to Suzanne Mercier, author of Liberate Leadership: How the imposter syndrome undermines leadership capability and what to do about it, imposter syndrome often lies dormant until it’s triggered by something like being passed over for a promotion, a judgemental friend or a big life change.
“The feeling of imposter syndrome only comes up when we experience a feeling of personal uncertainty,” she says. “Something happens externally, it triggers some area of sensitivity, and that’s when we have that feeling of not being good enough.”
Women are more likely than men to feel like an imposter. Indeed, the original 1970s research focused on high-achieving women. “You catch it from your mother — women still haven’t outgrown that generational hand-me-downs of ‘I’m never going to be good enough,’” says Dr Fortinberry.
“We’re just getting to the point where women are treated with equal respect in many workplaces.”
How to stop imposter syndrome
There’s a lot you can do to rid your mind of imposter syndrome. In the short term, Suzanne says reading positive things about yourself, like an employment reference or testimonials, making a list of your strengths and spending time with positive people can help reframe your thoughts and keep it at bay.
“Anything to switch your brain into a different gear will break the pattern and give you the chance to get back to some sort of equilibrium,” she says.
As a long-term strategy for dealing with it, Dr Fortinberry says it’s important to surround yourself with people who praise you. It might sound self-indulgent, but it’s one of the most effective ways to put unhelpful thoughts in perspective and make your successes real.
“Require others to catch you doing things right – require praise,” says Dr Fortinberry. “If you want to change how you feel about yourself, you can’t just say to yourself, ‘I’m so wonderful’ in front of the mirror because the brain doesn’t work that way.
“You’ve got to create an environment that through the way people interact with you changes the image of yourself and makes it more realistic. Create a support network of people around you who really support you by telling you how they feel you’re doing well.”
This story originally appeared in Fernwood magazine.