Fraud squad: how to spot the signs of imposter syndrome
Are you always dismissing your achievements? Or worried it's just a matter of time before you're 'found out'? Julia Molony explores the latest epidemic crippling successful women with self-doubt
There's an epidemic of self-doubt lurking behind the confident facades of the world's most visible and successful people. It's called imposter syndrome and it's most prevalent amongst women.
Kate Winslet has it. Emma Watson has it. Even the supremely self-possessed Meryl Streep has it. A reported 70pc of people have experienced 'imposter feelings' at some time. These feelings are defined as a particularly pernicious kind of self-criticism, which causes sufferers to doubt and dismiss their achievements, qualifications and competency in various aspects of their lives, most notably in the professional world.
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Irish novelist Andrea Mara was sitting in an airport on the way home from giving an important presentation when she first stumbled across a label for the uncomfortable and seemingly unshakeable self-doubt she was feeling. She was working in financial services at the time and her presentation had been a success. And yet she couldn't feel good about it.
"I'd been really nervous about the presentation, and then delighted when it went okay, and then immediately decided that the people who said they were pleased with the presentation were just being nice because, you know, why wouldn't they be nice?" she remembers.
In the airport, she picked up a magazine and came across an article about imposter syndrome, which described exactly how she was feeling at that moment. Her immediate reaction was to think, "Oh my God, there is a name for this feeling that I have that someone is going to tap me on the shoulder and say, 'Look sorry, I know we got you to do that presentation, but actually, it was a mistake', or 'I know we put you into that role, but actually, we think we made a mistake and you are not up to it'. I was delighted that it had a name and I could recognise then it was a fear of being found out.
"But by the time I had finished the article and ordered another cup of coffee, I had decided that my situation wasn't in fact imposter syndrome, but I really was a fraud. Reading about it, I still convinced myself that I was the exception. Mine wasn't an unfounded fear of being found out, but actually a well-founded fear of being found out. So it's kind of the circular thing."
It's a perfect description of the faulty beliefs and dysfunctional thinking loops that are characteristic of imposter syndrome.
In Andrea's case, imposter syndrome began when she transitioned from school to university and found herself studying a subject she wasn't all that suited to. She had chosen accountancy and economics for purely pragmatic reasons, but quickly realised they "weren't as much fun" as she hoped they would be.
"I felt a bit out of my depth," she says. "I had got the points to get into the course, but I'm not sure it was really the right course for me."
The feelings of doubt persisted when she moved on to a career in financial services. "I really liked what I was doing there," she says. "I steered towards the people management side of things, which I absolutely love. But even at that, the imposter syndrome would creep up every now and then."
So prevalent is the problem that popular British psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibberd recently decided to tackle the issue in a new book, The Imposter Cure. Imposter syndrome, she says, doesn't discriminate, affecting all types of people in all aspects of their lives - from CEOs to students. It does, however, have a gender bias. "A recent study showed that two thirds of women had experienced it in the last year compared with 50pc of men, so there is a significant difference," she says.
Imposter syndrome, Dr Hibberd explains, begins with a faulty belief, often instilled in childhood, which becomes more and more entrenched.
"We're prone to wanting to prove our beliefs right," she explains. "So the problem is that once you've got that belief, you pay attention to all the information that says that you are an imposter. So if anything good happens, then you say it's down to external circumstances. And that means that you don't take it on board. And if anything goes wrong, then you've got a different rule for it - you see it as a personal failing. And so then, as you go through your life, you are building this argument and making the belief stronger and stronger. We really are biased in terms of how we attend to information," she says.
When things go well for someone with imposter syndrome, they have a tendency to dismiss it, as happened to Andrea Mara after her presentation. "A sufferer might be inclined to think, 'Oh well, I got away with it this time. Or that was a bit of luck, or it's just because I worked really hard'. So they put it down to all these factors that aren't about them making it happen," she explains.
The first step in tackling the problem, Hibberd says, is externalising that voice as the imposter voice. "The one that says you're not up to it, or you are going to be found out. We often aren't aware of the things we say to ourselves, so once you have seen it rather than just gone along with it, then that gives you a chance to answer it back."
Perfectionism and imposter feelings are closely intertwined, so it's also useful to build resilience to setbacks and failures by practising self-compassion.
"Whenever we are doing something new that's challenging or different, it's natural to get some fear and discomfort," she explains. "And I think that the imposters misinterpret that as meaning that they are not ready and that other people would feel differently, and that competent people would feel differently, and that if they could do this, they wouldn't feel like that.
"Insecurity and self-doubt doesn't mean you are an imposter. Nobody knows it all. It's just a part of being human," she adds.
It's also important to give yourself permission to fail, she says. "There's no right way to do things. Mistakes and failure are a normal part of life, but more than that, are actually things you can use to your advantage. See it as an opportunity to learn or a chance for you to cope, even when things don't work out. And that builds resilience. So it puts you in a better position."
Imposter syndrome has followed Andrea Mara as she's moved into a new career as a novelist, despite the success of her award-nominated novels. But she's learned how to keep it at bay.
"I think naming it and labelling it is really good for distancing yourself a little bit," she says. "And when you hear the voice, you go, 'Ah, that's imposter syndrome again'. If you can identify what it is and then push it back, or question it, enough to keep it at bay so you can carry on doing what you are doing, then that works."