Imposter Syndrome: have you ever felt like a fraud?
Posted: Apr 11, 2015 in April 2015
Anne* has a role in management. She spent her University years studying business and finance. Upon graduation she interviewed at an agency with a sterling reputation. She was offered what she described at the time as her "dream job". Despite this, she was plagued by her thoughts: "What a fluke that I got that interview", "Clearly the people who make the important decisions in this company weren't there that day or I never would have gotten the job". Anne worked hard at her job, but continued to have the following thoughts: "it was pure luck I got that project completed on time" and "I was too quiet on that conference call, but if I say too much everyone is going to figure out I don't know what I'm doing". She began to feel increasingly anxious and sad. She second guessed everything she said and did. Despite external validation, like getting a promotion, Anne continued to hear herself say things like: "that promotion wasn't a big deal". She didn’t volunteer for new and different opportunities as she felt fearful, telling herself "it was only through luck that I got this job in the first place, if I have to work with another team they will see through me".
Imposter syndrome is a cluster of thoughts that can be categorized as discounting one's success (this promotion isn't that big of a deal), feeling like a fake (one day my colleagues are going to find out I have no idea what I'm doing), and attributing one's success to luck (it was pure luck that project got completed on time). These thoughts overshadow tangible evidence of achievement and lead one to conclude "I'm a fraud". This tends to lead to another series of anxiety provoking thoughts: "one day they will figure out I'm not as smart as they thought" or "if I keep quiet no one will discover I have no idea what I'm doing". Which, as you can imagine, can lead to a series of debilitating behaviours and a sense of crushing self-doubt.
If you’re reading this post and it’s resonating, you’re not alone. Over the years I’ve seen a number of people, many of whom have been incredibly successful in their careers, describing the same feelings and patterns as outlined above. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with those same people to overcome the thoughts that were preventing them from reaching the next level in their career. These thought patterns are amenable to Cognitive Behavior Therapy techniques. When these thoughts are properly addressed, people see gains in self esteem, self confidence, and decreases in anxiety. Not only does thus allow them to be more successful in their careers, but it allows them to derive more satisfaction from their current roles.
*Anne is not a real patient, this story is based upon a combination of factors from various clinical cases. All details have been changed to protect confidentiality.