If you’ve ever felt like a fraud at work, you’re not alone. Much research, including a recent British study, has shown the debilitating pattern of thoughts causing sufferers to constantly question their accomplishments and believe they will soon be ousted for being underqualified is widespread.
Women at the top of their game, including Maya Angelou, Emma Watson, Serena Williams and presenter-turned-fashion-designer Alexa Chung, have all confessed to doubting their abilities or feeling out of their depth.
“It’s not exclusive to fashion, I’ve felt it with everything I’ve done,” Chung told the BBC on the eve of her first London Fashion Week collection last month. “Writing for Vogue, that’s a huge Impostor Syndrome. Television, every day before we went live, I’d be like, ‘Am I equipped to do this? I don’t know’.” Angelou won the Pulitzer Prize, but that wasn’t enough to stop her feeling like a literary fraud.
“I have written 11 books but each time I would think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now’,” she once said.
“‘I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out’.” For Watson, her growing success on screen brought increased feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, while Williams says she attempted to emulate her sister, Venus, early on in her career to cope with constant confidence niggles.
Impostor Syndrome was first coined by psychologists Pauline Clancy and Suzanne Imes in the 1970s, but in a hyper-connected world where job instability and economic uncertainty is rife, this crippling form of anxiety appears to be more prevalent than ever before. Dr Caroline Broderick, a psychologist at Equilibrium Psychology in Sydney, says there is still uncertainty around specific risk factors that increase a person’s chance of feeling this way.
“Research suggest that family dynamics, personality traits or being a minority in a workplace can contribute,” she says. “Some models pose that there are different ‘types’ of Impostor Syndrome, but it can be more be simply seen as an overarching problem with low confidence which then motivates the individual to work harder, restrict help-seeking behaviour for fear of judgement, over-check their work and refrain from speaking up in meetings.”
Impostorism expert Dr Valerie Young says a promotion, starting a business, or landing a new role can all trigger low self-esteem. Her research also suggests women are more likely to experience feelings of job ineptitude than men because they internalise setbacks as a failure in their ability, rather than considering external factors.
In their book We: The Uplifting Manual For Women Seeking Happiness, actress Gillian Anderson and journalist Jennifer Nadel liken this critical inner voice to an “internal propaganda machine generating feelings of fear and inadequacy so that even when things are going well, the machine is at work warning us that it will never last. It’s what we believe about a situation, rather than the truth, that influences our responses”.
Challenging and reframing that chatter, experts agree, is an essential part of taking back control. Dr Young, who herself suffers from Impostor Syndrome, says that “begins by recognising that people who really don’t feel like impostors are not more intelligent or capable than you and I. The only difference between them and us is they think different thoughts. That’s it.
For example, there is one big difference between people who feel like impostors and those who don’t. No-one likes to fail, no-one likes to not know the answer, or have an off day, but when these things happen to impostors, we experience shame… All we have to do is learn to think like a non-impostor.”
Try developing a new script. Tell yourself it’s okay to not know all of the answers all of the time. Or visualise success by picturing a particularly difficult meeting or presentation going well prior to the event, Dr Young says. Anderson and Nadel recommend picking one of the negative thoughts, writing it down and reframing it by writing this affirmation underneath: “My name is ____. I am a good and kind person. I do not need to please everyone. I do enough. I am enough.” Cross out the initial thought and repeat the new one out loud when the negativity strikes.
Challenging that inner monologue also becomes easier when we realise we’re not alone in the way we think. Impostor Syndrome is, by its very nature, isolating but far from unusual. Studies suggest up to 70 per cent of successful people suffer from it.
“Shame keeps a lot of people from ‘fessing up about their fraudulent feelings,” Dr Young says. “Knowing there’s a name for these feelings and that you are not alone can be tremendously freeing.” Dr Broderick says getting help is also key. “Impostor Syndrome is a common presenting issue that can be easily treated. Your psychologist can help build confidence, identify and challenge your internal criticism and reverse the unhelpful behaviours that keep the anxiety going,” she says.
Chung took a unique approach. She says she learned to embrace the critical voice in her head and its nuances rather than attempting to silence it. “I think it’s a good thing to be aware of or to feel about yourself, because it means you’re still open to learning. It means you’re more curious about other people and how their journeys have happened,” she said. “Also, if you’re egotistical and think you definitely deserve to be doing this then maybe you won’t be progressing or evolving.” Maybe having the courage to be imperfect, and recognising we’re all works-in-progress, is the best advice of all.