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So what is imposter syndrome anyway?

Voco Team

What do Michelle Obama, Tom Hanks, Nicola Sturgeon, Emma Watson, Sheryl Sandberg and Chris Martin have in common? Not much on the face of it, except that they are recognisable and successful individuals in their chosen fields. Famous; respected; in some cases, idolised.

But what unites them is their own perceptions of the very success that has made them world famous - it’s their admission of suffering from imposter syndrome. They have all said that at times they feel unworthy of their accomplishments, and that their achievements have been a result of luck or of others overstating their abilities.

‘There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am’ - Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook

It’s not just famous actors, musicians, politicians and business leaders that suffer the excruciating feeling that they are just not as good or clever or talented as someone thinks they are. Imposter syndrome affects countless people at every stage of their career, in every discipline and walk of life. 

Although originally identified as affecting high-performing women, imposter syndrome actually makes itself known across genders, and men are almost as likely to think ‘I’m out of my depth, I’m going to be found out’ as women. And with an estimated 70% of people experiencing the crippling feelings of self-doubt that are characteristic of imposter syndrome at least once in their lives, it’s clearly affecting swathes of the population, holding countless people back from believing in themselves.

What exactly is imposter syndrome?

The term ‘imposter syndrome’ was coined in 1978 by psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes, who studied the experiences of high-achieving women. They defined imposter syndrome as ‘an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness’ and found that the women they talked to consistently lacked internal acknowledgement of their own achievements, despite a backdrop of proven academic and professional excellence. 

Put simply, these women believed they were successful due to pure luck, rather than because they deserved their success. Or they felt other people were over-estimating their abilities and talents. 

While Clance and Imes’ 1978 study focused on women, subsequent studies have shown men also experience the same feeling of a crushing lack of self-belief and profound fear that they are about to be exposed for being less than they appear. 

Although its incidence tends to increase as people get more senior in their careers, imposter syndrome can actually strike at any point during someone’s career - from students feeling they’re not clever enough for the course they’ve been accepted on to, through first time managers, to CEOs running huge corporations with thousands of employees. 

Imposter syndrome can present itself in loads of different ways, including the feeling that success was achieved through luck rather than competence; a fear of being exposed as a fraud and overworking in order to compensate for that fear; the lack of ability to internalise achievements; the discounting of positive feedback or avoidance of feedback completely; an acute fear of failure; and an inability to accept praise or compliments. 

It often strikes when you start a new job or have recently been promoted; when you might feel that you don’t know enough about your new job, or that you’re under-qualified to manage or lead a team. 

The impact of imposter syndrome

Left unchecked, imposter syndrome can do more damage than simply making you feel scared to speak up in a meeting (although you should never feel scared to speak up, anywhere); it can eat away at your self-confidence, back you into a corner, and undermine your ability to do the very thing you are qualified to do, and absolutely deserve to do. That can lead to anxiety, depression and burnout. 

While it’s normal for everyone to feel insecure from time to time, it’s important to recognise repeated patterns of imposter feelings and address them head on, rather than overcompensating for them by pushing yourself harder and further to outperform your feelings of inadequacy.

Related: Seven ways to square up to imposter syndrome

More on imposter syndrome

The Squiggly Career Podcast: Imposter Syndrome

The Cut: 25 Famous Women on Imposter Syndrome and Self Doubt

Quartz: Men and imposter syndrome

Fast Company: It’s not just you: these super successful people suffer from imposter syndrome

Clance Imposter Syndrome Self Assessment

Dr Valerie Young: Imposter Syndrome

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