Feel like a fraud, or not worthy of success?

Do you ever feel like you’re a fraud, waiting to be exposed? Or do you worry that others will find out that you’re undeserving or unworthy of your success?

This sense of feeling like a fraud, or fear that others will discover you’re not as capable or knowledgeable as they think you are, has been called the ‘imposter phenomenon’. It’s also commonly referred to as ‘imposter syndrome’.

My earliest memory of feeling this way comes from my later years of high school. Although I was generally a good student, I didn’t study as much as my father wanted me to (as he never hesitated to remind me!) and I didn’t feel thoroughly prepared before exams. My final score at the end of Year 12 took me by complete surprise - the possibility of such a positive outcome had never even crossed my mind.

At university, I wasn’t particularly excited about the subject areas I’d enrolled in so, unsurprisingly, I wasn’t the most engaged student. This led to procrastination: I usually crammed for exams, and sometimes even started and finished writing 4,000 word law essays the night before they were due. I felt grateful, lucky and relieved to somehow make it through uni with grades that were high enough to land me a prestigious ‘good job’.

But as I started my career, surrounded by bright and talented colleagues, I was a little uneasy, anticipating an inevitable and spectacular stumble - the moment when the house of cards would come tumbling down.  

Have you ever felt this way too?

There are different flavours of the imposter phenomenon that you may have experienced. Maybe you find it hard to accept compliments or recognition for your accomplishments. You’re afraid that people have overestimated you, and will discover that your intelligence or ability isn’t what they think it is.

You might often feel concerned or anxious you’ll fail at a new task or project (or a test, back in school) even though your track record shows that you generally do well at what you attempt, and people who know you have confidence that you’ll succeed.

Perhaps you feel like you haven’t ‘earned’ or deserved your achievements and your successes, and you’ve simply been ‘lucky’ to be in the right place at the right time - the beneficiary of a mysterious fluke. Or, on the contrary, perhaps you’ve worked so hard for your success that you credit your achievements to pure effort, discounting your talent, ability or competence.

Either way, you worry that you won’t be able to repeat your success or live up to people’s expectations in the future.

The first academic paper on the imposter phenomenon was published in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, focussing on the experiences of high achieving women. Initially theorised to be more prevalent in women than men, subsequent research has shown that women and men experience imposterism to an equal degree, as Harvard social psychologist Dr Amy Cuddy clarifies in her book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges (multiple studies are also cited in papers such as here and here).

Imposterism is more common than you probably assume – even, or especially, amongst those who have demonstrated success or accomplishment. So if you do feel this way, you’re in good company.

business man in suit

Cuddy mentioned research from the 1980s - still frequently referred to in the press today - by Pauline Rose Clance and Gail Matthews that suggested up to 70 percent of people experience impostor feelings at some point in their life, based on a survey of 41 of their clinical psychology clients.

More recently, in 2014 leadership consultant Roger Jones surveyed 116 CEOs and other executives (73% male; 27% female; 91% US based) about what they fear most. He reported in Harvard Business Review that, “The biggest fear is being found to be incompetent, also known as the ‘imposter syndrome.’ This fear diminishes their confidence and undermines relationships with other executives.”

There are anecdotes that at least two thirds of the students in incoming classes at Harvard Business School and Stanford Business School confess to feeling like they are the one mistake that the admissions committee made. Across different industries, well known public figures like Sheryl Sandberg, Meryl Streep, Lady Gaga and Coldplay’s Chris Martin have spoken about feeling like a fraud. Even Albert Einstein reportedly confided, a month before he died, 

“The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”

 

What’s particularly difficult about the imposter phenomenon is that it makes you feel alone in your experience.

As Dr Amy Cuddy elaborated in Presence,

“Even when we learn that other people have similar fears, we don’t take it to heart. Instead we say ‘Fine, except your fear is unfounded, while I am truly a fraud.’”

If it’s any reassurance, research also shows that imposterism is more common in talented and capable individuals. It is correlated with perfectionism and achievement-orientation. Those who are incompetent are more likely to grossly overestimate their competence (a cognitive bias called the Dunning–Kruger effect).

The imposter phenomenon is so common that Pauline Rose Clance told Amy Cuddy in Presence,

“If I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it’s something almost everyone experiences.”

Unfortunately, the feeling may not disappear as you become more ‘successful’ or accomplished. For some people, increased expertise can lead to realising how much more you don’t know, and more recognition and success may give you reason to feel even more like a fake.

But really, we’re all making it up as we go along. Some of us just believe more strongly that we know what we’re doing...or are better at pretending!

 

If you are suffering from the imposter experience:

  • Know that there’s nothing wrong or unusual about what you feel. It’s a completely ‘normal’ and common experience and it doesn’t mean you’re a failure.
  • Don’t compare how you feel on the inside to what you see other people do on the outside. (You know that saying about comparing someone else’s highlights reel to your behind-the-scenes or out-takes…you never know what struggles people are experiencing that they don’t tell you about or publish on their beautifully curated social media feed.)
  • Acknowledge and celebrate your abilities and the role you play in your successes. Don’t ignore the objective evidence of your ability and talent! Being humble is fine, but don’t disown your achievements or attribute them purely to hard work (believing that doesn’t reflect your true ability) or external factors such as luck, timing, help from others, team effort, or an error.
  • Build a ‘more internalised sense of self-worth’, so your sense of identity is less reliant on others’ perceptions of your value. (For more tips on this, see this article.)
  • Make peace with your inner critic. Learn how to recognise the voice of your inner critic, what causes it, and 5 steps to manage it here.

 

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