You’ve prepped for days for that meeting, shown up with your game face on, done your damnedest to contribute something useful, and still walked out with a nagging sense that everyone thinks you’re rubbish. Welcome to Impostor Syndrome – therapist Sally Brown has help
You may be conscientious, work hard, and have moments when you know you’re good, but there’s always that shadow, that feeling that it’s only a matter of time before you’re ‘found out,’ and people realise you’ve been faking competence.
Is it normal to feel like a fraud at work?
Is it normal? Well, the fact there’s a widely used term for this insidious, undermining phenomenon tells you just how common it is. And in recent years, more and more high-profile women – and some men – have come out about their impostor syndrome, like Sheryl Sandberg and Lena Dunham. Seventy per cent of us have experienced this feeling at some point in our lives, according to one study. It’s been clinically defined as ‘the inability to internalise one’s successes.’
But it’s not as simple as lacking confidence. Impostor syndrome can affect you even if you’re gutsy and not afraid to push yourself out of your comfort zone. It’s a distinct feeling of disconnect and incongruence that can almost create dissociation – like there’s an outward persona you’ve created that isn’t really you.
What’s particularly toxic about impostor syndrome is that it can attack just when, on paper, everything seems to be going better than ever. I have lost count of the clients who have expressed frustration and bewilderment at being overwhelmed by impostor syndrome after getting a much-wanted and deserved promotion or new job.
Why does Imposter Syndrome happen?
So what’s behind it, and is it normal? In evolutionary terms, it does serve a purpose. There’s an advantage in mentally prioritising negative thoughts and emotions – what’s gone wrong, or didn’t go so well, what we experience as criticism, and our perceived faults and weaknesses – as in survival terms, negative events are more likely to be of threat than positive ones.
But if you never give any mental airtime to your strengths and achievements, or you discount positive feedback, the brain’s negative filter can get out of balance. And if your inner narrative is a constant run-though of why you’re not good enough, accompanied by edited highlights of bad decisions or times you’ve messed up, is it any wonder you feel like failure who has somehow stumbled on success?
Who’s at risk?
Perfectionists tend to be more prone to impostor syndrome, especially those suffering from ‘socially-prescribed perfection’ or the need to be seen as ‘good’ by others. It’s increased by 33 per cent in young people over the past three decades, according to a 2018 study of 40,000 American, Canadian and British university students.
Socially prescribed perfectionism is the most problematic form of perfectionism, as it is rooted in the need for others’ validation and approval, according to study co-author Dr Thomas Curran. He describes it as an exhausting existence on a day-to-day basis, an internal dialogue around ‘I must impress people’ or ‘I must be seen as efficient’ – thought processes that create internal conflicts and anxieties.
It makes sense that perfectionism and impostor syndrome go hand-in-hand – if you set unattainable standards for yourself, you will always feel like a failure.
One theory behind the rise is the change in education, with more emphasis on testing and competition, combined with increased competition for jobs. And more of us feel under increased pressure to make an impact really quickly at work, according to organisational consultant Simon Sinek, and feel like we’re a failure when we don’t.
In some, impostor syndrome takes root in childhood. When you grow up with parents who have high expectations, you can subconsciously internalise a belief that your worth relies on what you do and achieve, and how those achievements are perceived by others.
Having well-meaning parents who lavished praise when you did well can result in your self-belief being built around what you do, rather than who you are. Then, when you’re in a place when you’re uncertain that you’re doing ‘well’, your whole identity is threatened. It’s not surprising that impostor syndrome is often linked with not getting consistent and constructive feedback at work.
Sometimes, its source is bullying, either past or present – you feel like an impostor because a colleague or boss is subtly but consistently undermining you. Or you have been a victim of bullying in the past, and the old feelings of worthlessness are triggered as soon as you find yourself in uncertain territory, unsure of whether you are doing OK.
It can create a toxic circle – you feel a sense of shame at feeling like an impostor, which further feeds the impostor feelings. If this is the case, it’s worth considering seek professional help (see www.counselling-directory.org.uk to find a qualified therapist).
How changing your mindset can help
Unless you’re a sociopath, you’ll never feel 100 per cent self-confident. Even the most outwardly confident and successful people have anxieties and self-doubt. And accepting that we don’t know everything and have much to learn is good for us, according to Stanford psychologist Dr Carol Dweck.
She identifies two main mindsets: ‘fixed’ versus ‘growth’. When we operate with a fixed mindset, we believe skills are innate characteristics, and success depends on convincing everyone else we’re smart. With a fixed mindset, you subconsciously close off from anything you don’t fully understand or feel you’re not good at.
People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, take the approach of ‘there is always more to learn’, and soak up knowledge from everyone they come into contact with. With a growth mindset, feeling out of your depth is less threatening because you can embrace it as an opportunity to grow and learn.
How to deal with Imposter Syndrome
Trying to get rid of impostor syndrome will make you feel even more like a failure as you will inevitably fail to do it. A better approach is to accept it is probably something that you will always live with and aiming to manage it instead.
Think of self-doubting thoughts as noisy and disruptive passengers on a bus that you are driving. You can waste time arguing with them, or trying to wrestle them off your bus, but you’re more likely to get to your destination by accepting they are there, while keeping your focus on the road ahead and not letting them distract you.
Some people visualise their impostor syndrome as a person, such as a wizened old troll who lives in a box in their mind. You can then put that troll back in its box when it pops up. You might want to swear at it and tell it where to go, but I suggest treating it with compassion. Ultimately, it’s trying to protect you and it’s triggered by fear. So soothe it – talk to your inner troll: ‘It’s OK, I know you’re scared, but everything is going to be OK.’
Listen to your inner narrative. If it’s consistently critical, it’s like living with a bully installed in your head. Make a conscious effort to treat yourself with kindness, and talk to yourself in the same way you would a good friend.
If things don’t go well at work, don’t get sucked into the ‘I’m rubbish,’ thinking spiral. Instead, assess the situation without judgement. Swap ‘why’ questions for ‘what’. So rather than, ‘Why am I such an idiot?’ think, ‘What went well? What needs improvement? What could I do differently next time?’
Another crucial question to ask is, ‘What support do I need and how can I get it?’ People with impostor syndrome often having an inflated sense of personal responsibility. You may have a deep-seated belief that if you have to ask for help or support, you’ve failed, or that no-one else can really help you.
Ironically, you’re probably great at supporting others. Asking for help is crucial in shifting impostor syndrome. It might seem counter-intuitive – when we feel vulnerable, our instinct is often to cover it up and act like we’re ‘just fine’. But impostor syndrome is isolating – opening up, asking for help and connecting with others diminishes its power.