by Carla Gower
“What if I get found out?” “That was a fluke” “They made a mistake” “They felt sorry for me”. If any (or all) of those thoughts have ever wormed their way into that brilliant brain of yours, then you’re not alone. As someone constantly plagued by such beliefs, I had a lightbulb moment during my psychology training when I read a paper by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes and realised that the feelings I’d experienced my whole life had a name: ‘Imposter syndrome’ (IS), or a “feeling of phoniness in people who believe they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of achievement”. IS has three defining features: believing that others have overestimated your abilities, worrying that your true abilities will eventually be ‘found out’, and attributing successes to external factors like luck, while attributing failures to internal factors like your own lack of knowledge or preparation. In other words, your A+ was down to an easy paper but your D- was because you didn’t study enough.
Clances and Imes spent years working with high-achieving women who, “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments… believe that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.” These women were highly educated, with stellar CVs and lots of work-related accomplishments between them. But they also shared a deep-rooted fear of working just at the edge of their own competence, and that one day, they’d be discovered. The more they achieved, the more out of their depth they felt. The further their careers progressed, the more they felt like frauds.
With IS, no matter what you achieve, it’ll never be enough to convince you you’re as good as everyone else. You may overestimate others while underestimating yourself, dread performance reviews, and struggle to internalise positive feedback while recalling every criticism you’ve ever received. Maybe you avoid applying for jobs even though you meet all the essential criteria, believing you have nothing to offer or fear being shown up at interview stage.
Or maybe you constantly seek out courses and further qualifications, thinking your own experience and the CV you already have aren’t enough. And it’s not just in work. How many times have you compared yourself to other mammies who seem to balance work and kids and life with effortless cool, who seem so ‘together’? The first time I went to a breastfeeding support group, I felt completely overwhelmed; I felt sure everyone else knew exactly what they were doing and that I was alone in my feelings of being out of my depth with this whole mothering thing. Yet even a year later, when I started running my own group for boobing mammies, I still felt like a fraud. What could I possibly offer? What did I know?
If you’re reading this and thinking that it sounds familiar, try taking the Imposter Phenomenon Scale. The higher the score, the more likely it is you’re experiencing IS. If you’ve scored highly, never fear. Firstly, you’re in good company. Take Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, previous VP at Google, with an estimated worth of $1.6 billion, who admitted, “there are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am”. Or Jodie Foster: “When I won the Oscar, I thought it was a fluke. I thought everybody would find out and they’d take it back. They’d come to my house, knocking on the door, ‘excuse me, that was going to Meryl Streep’”. But guess who is on record wondering, “I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?” Yep. Meryl herself!
Struggling with IS can lead to a hot mess of anxiety, shame or unworthiness. Plus it’s exhausting to worry about being ‘unmasked’ all the time. It can also lead to some not-so-healthy coping strategies. If you recognise yourself in any of these, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Clance and Imes worked with hundreds of women and found these commonalities across their experiences:
So how do you start addressing IS in a healthier, more self-compassionate way? First things first. Be aware of when it’s likely to appear so you’re not blind-sided when it happens. Our inner imposters are more likely to start chattering when you take a new job or your role changes, or when your ability is publicly acknowledged, such as winning an award, so prepare yourself in advance. You need to own your IS and recognise the fear of inadequacy that’s beneath it, then control it so it can’t control you. Call yourself out when the negative automatic thoughts kick in and begin to over-ride them through positive self-talk like “I am meant to be here”. Dr. Valerie Young, an expert on IS, says that we all have a little voice in us, however weak, that believes we’re capable. The problem is that our inner critic is usually louder and can drown out any attempts at self-assurance. So stand up to that voice and start telling yourself how awesome you are.
Try to remember some of the people you ‘fooled’ along the way – the head of an interview panel, the lecturer who gave you a first. Imagine yourself pointing out the mistakes they made and how you tricked them. How would they respond? I bet it’s less likely to be “you’re right, I’m an awful eejit” and more likely to be “your work was outstanding”, “I know talent when I see it”, or “you did a great interview”. They probably wouldn’t take too kindly to the suggestion that their judgment was wrong!
Keep a record of positive feedback you receive and your immediate response. Notice how you deny compliments or rush to point out the other person’s mistake, then consciously start to do the opposite. Really listen to it, take it in, and as Clance and Imes suggest, “get as much nourishment as possible out of it”. It can be helpful to share feelings of IS with a trusted mentor and ask them for honest feedback on what you do well. Voicing your fear can also lead to some surprising conversations where the other person feels able to share their own stories of IS!
Don’t engage in comparisons; they’re subjective at best and devastating at worst. It’s rarely helpful to get sucked into judging ourselves in relation to others, especially since comparisons aren’t often fair; we compare our weaknesses to other peoples’ strengths, or in the case of social media, our behind-the-scenes to everyone else’s highlight reel. Remind yourself that everyone has their own challenges; we are all bumbling along as best as we can. Be kind to yourself and try to frame mistakes as a part of life; opportunities for learning and development rather than proof of your perceived shortcomings.
To sum up, tackling IS means recognising the self-doubt and fear at its roots. It means rewriting the script you’ve carried around for years and showing yourself the same kindness and compassion you show others. It means recognising your talents and not being afraid to show them. It means befriending that little voice inside that knows how great you are and giving it permission to talk that bit louder. In the words of author Marianne Williamson, “we ask ourselves who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?” Who indeed!
Carla Gower is a clinical psychologist with a special interest in maternal and infant mental health. She is currently on maternity leave with baby #2 and enjoys reheated coffee, naps and Paw Patrol marathons.