I’M A FRAUD! – UNDERSTANDING AND OVERCOMING THE IMPOSTER SYNDROME

“Wow, I got the promotion. I’m happy, but I don’t have the first clue what I’m doing. It’ll only be a matter of time before they figure it out”  

“I have to make sure this is perfect; otherwise, any mistakes will prove what I knew all along, that I’m so unqualified”  

“Wow, I won. That’s crazy. I thought [insert name] would have won. She was far better” 

Have you ever said this? Have you ever felt guilty or undeserving of a promotion or an award? Have you ever attributed your success to luck while not acknowledging your own hard work? If so, rest assured that you are not alone.  

As it turns out, many successful people, regardless of their evidential giftedness and hard work, felt that they were largely lucky and undeserving of their achievements. As many of them stated, in the midst of their success, they were waiting to be exposed by the world as frauds who were just lucky. What these persons were suffering from was the Imposter Syndrome. Just like them, you’ve likely felt like an imposter at some point. 

WHAT IS THE IMPOSTER SYNDROME? 

Imposter Syndrome is generally recognized as feelings of persistent self-doubt about one’s abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud; despite evidence of one’s continuing success. Persons who experience this have the ongoing fear that they will be eventually exposed and found out as fakes. Claudia Winkleman, a well-known high-earning British television personality, captured these feelings perfectly when she stated in a recent interview, “I’m just waiting to be fired” when discussing her own feelings of Imposter Syndrome. Due to the emotional stress, anxiety and depression caused, it has even been suggested in recent times that the Imposter Syndrome be classified as a psychological condition affecting one’s mental health. 

WE’RE ALL AFFECTED BY THE IMPOSTOR SYNDROME 

A 2018 study of U.K. workers by Access Commercial Finance indicated that 66% of the female participants experienced imposter-like feelings compared to 56% of the male participants. It is generally believed, however, that at least 70% of people, regardless of race, gender, age, nationality etc. suffer from the Imposter Syndrome.  

The Imposter Syndrome (or “Imposter Phenomenon”) found its genesis in the late 1970’s by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes who were studying successful women in positions historically occupied by men. They found that the participants, despite having worked hard and being very accomplished, largely attributed their success to good luck and not their own hard work, resilience or abilities. Up to the present, women, more so than men, have openly admitted to experiencing these feelings. 

Women of colour particularly struggle with these feelings. Maya Angelou, despite her obvious success and brilliance, openly admitted to feeling like a fraud who would be exposed eventually. As a subset, women of colour, battle with Imposter Syndrome as they are doubly impacted and disadvantaged by both racial and gender inequality. They, as well as minority groups generally, tend to struggle with Imposter Syndrome. Many have stated that as they are often made to feel as imposters, Imposter Syndrome easily presents itself, particularly when members of minority groups seek to ascend in business, politics or academics ladder in contrast to the already established and accepted construct. 

Make no mistake however, many men, regardless of race and nationality, also experience Imposter Syndrome.  Leading actor Tom Hanks and businessman Howard Schultz have openly admitted to feeling like imposters. In contrast to many studies that suggest women experience these feelings more, researchers and psychologist generally believe that men experience these feelings equally but do not reveal their feelings out of fear of judgment, shame, competitiveness and/or ego.  

WHY DO WE FEEL LIKE IMPOSTERS? 

Here are just a few of the things than can cause the Imposter Syndrome to manifest itself: 

Self-doubt – We have self-doubt often as a result of our own thoughts and insecurities; 

Criticism – We can feel like imposters when we receive criticism; especially criticism that either suggest incompetence or criticism that appears to confirm our own negative self-assessment; 

Comparison – We constantly compare ourselves to other high achieving siblings or colleagues; 

Poor assessment of achievement – We look at our value and achievements only through the lens of our feelings and insecurities; and not based on facts 

THE RESULT OF IMPOSTER SYNDROME  

Below are just some of the ways results of the Imposter Syndrome can show itself: 

Overworking – Persons will consistently work longer hours to compensate for their feelings of incompetence; not because the extra work is necessary. This also often leads to burnout; 

Perfectionism – Person will always seek to have everything perfect for fear of seeming incompetent; even at the risk of missing deadlines or not completing at all. In some instances, person will also never start a project or initiative; 

Not seeking help – Persons will often seek to complete tasks without assistance in order to prove themselves; 

Overly competitive behaviour – Persons will often seek to be seen to be better than their colleague by always being first, or constantly highlighting their colleagues’ mistakes or shortcomings; 

Poor job performance – Persons can become poor performers due to constant self-deprecation and self-fulfilling prophesies; 

Depression and anxiety – Persons become anxious and fearful of being fired or exposed as a fraud; 

Low job satisfaction – Feelings of self-doubt can distract from any enjoyment and positive feelings associated with the job; 

Not taking advantage of opportunities – People have, in many instances rejected opportunities due their feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness of the opportunity. 

HOW TO OVERCOME IMPOSTER SYNDROME 

Focus on facts, not feelings – Instead of leading with your feelings, form a data-based opinion. Questions as to whether you’re meeting your deadlines or targets aren’t a matter of feelings or opinions; they are a matter of fact. You are either performing or not. Are you consistently prompt and timely? This is a matter of fact, not feelings. Be more data-based and not feelings-based. If the data says that you deserve success, believe it. If the data suggests otherwise, then do better! 

Tell your own story – Once the data has proven that you are indeed not a fraud, tell your own story. Many times, our feelings of self-doubt arise from us allowing other people to control our narrative. We accept their conclusions while not considering whether their stories have been coloured by jealously or an adverse perspective. Tell your story and demonstrate how and why you deserve your accomplishments. 

Look for objective feedback – Search out persons who you trust to be honest and objective in their feedback. Truly successful people know they’re not perfect and seek out honest feedback. They also know how distinguish constructive criticism from destructive comments. Acknowledge your accomplishments, but never neglect an opportunity to improve. 

Less perfectionism, more realism – There is nothing wrong with being ambitious, but be sure to set attainable goals. This involves understanding the work required to accomplish a particular task and knowing the resources available to you. In this case, you can avoid feelings of fraud as your preparation will help you to avoid feeling intimidated by the task ahead. 

Find a Mentor – Finding a trusted mentor who has already at some point navigated the same experiences and feelings of Imposter Syndrome will be highly beneficial to you navigating through your own feelings and experiences. 

Give yourself a break – Understand that you are not perfect and you will get it wrong at times. Forgive yourself. Yes, hold yourself accountable for your performance; but even in so doing, practice grace and love toward yourself as well. 

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