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Feel like a fraud? How to overcome impostor syndrome
When you receive a compliment about a job well done, do you immediately respond with, “Oh, it was nothing”? Do you really think that it was nothing and believe that anyone else could’ve done it better than you?
If you constantly feel that what you do is not good enough, you may have impostor syndrome, which is a psychological term describing a pattern of behaviour where you doubt your accomplishments, and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.
Rest assured, you’re not alone: the highest achievers are often the ones who worry about this the most. In reality, you can even give yourself a pat on the back if you feel this way, because it’s a sure sign that you care about what you do and are unwilling to settle for mediocrity.
Recognising the signs of impostor syndrome
Impostor syndrome, sometimes called fraud syndrome, is a psychological problem where successful people are not able to internally recognise their accomplishments. This might seem to be taking it to the extreme, but high achieving, very successful people often suffer, so this condition doesn’t equate with low performance. In fact, some researchers have linked it with perfectionism, especially in women. The tendency to downplay and discount success is significant amongst those with imposter syndrome.
‘Impostors’ dismiss any proof of their success as luck, being in the right place at the right time, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and capable than they are.
In the more mild cases, you might just wonder why you have been chosen to lead that important project, or why your boss gives you a great rating at your performance review. But if you have a more extreme case, it can negatively affect your career. If you are convinced that you are not up to the job, this can stop you from asserting yourself or taking necessary risks. For example, you can become fixated exclusively on not making a mistake, rather than being proactive and taking measured risks that may provide great positive returns.
Here are some example scenarios in which you might recognise you suffer from impostor syndrome:
- You are about to deliver a presentation, and you secretly think you’re about to be found out for how hopeless you really are.
- You finally get the promotion you’ve wanted at work, and your inner narrative tells you they must have been short on candidates, or that you didn’t really deserve the promotion. You’re convinced you won’t live up to expectations.
- You’re sitting in a big meeting and you just know that your manager will walk in any minute, tap you on the shoulder, and tell you that you really aren’t qualified for the job (even though you’re the most experienced person in the room).
Often people with impostor syndrome are perfectionists who have a huge fear of failure and constantly undermine their own achievements.
This can be debilitating, causing stress, anxiety, shame and low self-esteem.
Tips for overcoming impostor syndrome
Think you might have impostor syndrome? Here are some steps you can take to break the impostor syndrome cycle:
Leaving things for later will only aggravate feelings of inadequacy. Deal with any issues head-on and cross items off your to-do list. Tackle difficult tasks first and you’ll find that once they’re done you’re left with feelings of accomplishment and strength.
Write a list of your strengths
Keeping track of your accomplishments is a good way to remind yourself that you are NOT a fraud or a fake. When you're feeling anxious or bad about yourself, have a look at your list. Accomplishments that may have seemed like no big deal at the time often become impressive with the passing of time and a fresh perspective.
RELATED: Finding your strengths
Recognise and write down ‘impostor’ feelings when they arise
This will help to break the cycle of negative thoughts. Often when you’ve written them down, you see the thoughts from a different perspective and can more easily separate yourself from them.
Build a strong support system with people you respect
Lean on a mentor, peers, family and friends – and ask for ongoing feedback that validates your efforts and outcomes. To deal with fraudulent feelings it can also help to voice your fears with a safe peer group as you will find you’re not alone – impostor syndrome is more common than you think.
Create a strong pitch for yourself
It’s empowering to know what to say when someone asks what you do. Use this suggested template to create a brief pitch:
I’m [name] and I’m a [area of expertise]. I help [people or companies] to [outcome of your work] by [how you do it].
Working on these issues is clearly important but a touch of impostor syndrome can be a good thing. It keeps you humble and focuses you on improving your practice. Without the effects of this syndrome, people can become megalomaniacal and convinced of their own infallibility.
If you remain unable to find your confidence in the workplace and it is negatively affecting your career, speaking to a professional career coach or another support person may also be a helpful step.
For more advice on how to take charge of your career and drive future success, check out more of our career advice articles.