Why Feeling Like You’re A Fraud Is Surprisingly Common For Successful People

Being a perfectionist suggests that you at least believe in your ability to do a job, but there’s a kind of perfectionism that leads you to secretly, deep down, think that all of your success has been down to luck, to guessing and bullshitting your way through. Leading psychologist Dr Mark Winwood reveals to RSNG why this feeling is so common and what to do about it…

RSNG What is imposter syndrome? DR MARK WINWOOD, PSYCHOLOGIST ‘Imposter Syndrome is the fear that you’ll be exposed as inadequate, or a failure, despite evidence proving you’re successful. And it’s a mindset that’s more common than you might think. If left unchecked, Imposter Syndrome can lead us to feel stressed and anxious. So, it’s important to challenge negative thoughts surrounding this fear, turning them into positives. Rather than thinking “If this goes wrong, I’m fired’, think “I’m qualified. If I make a mistake, what’s the worst that could happen?”

Success doesn’t necessarily bring relief – it can heighten a sense of being an imposter

RSNG Why might you suffer it without realising it’s actually a feeling shared by others – is it normal to feel like a phoney? MW ‘While Imposter Syndrome is commonly experienced, it’s rarely spoken about. Employees may be reluctant to open up to managers, for example, for fear that their ability will be questioned. Equally, high-achieving individuals may believe their success is down purely to luck. They may feel a sense of shame to share their self-doubt. It’s important to remember these feelings can be a natural reaction to success.’

RSNG What kinds of people are vulnerable to it? MW ‘Most of us can be vulnerable and Imposter Syndrome is commonly experienced as an individual moves up the career ladder. Many people believe their success is more down to luck than ability. Men tend to experience a heightened sense of failure – they think the stakes are higher due to stereotypes of successful male breadwinners.’

‘Essentially, women are generally more willing to discuss their emotional experience than men, rather than bottling it up. Opening up should be seen as a sign of strength and willingness. There’s a cultural element to it, too. We’re often taught from a young age to downplay our abilities otherwise we’re the one who sticks out in the crowd.’

RSNG What questions can we ask ourselves to see if we might be suffering it? MW ‘The kind of questions might be along these lines: “If my colleague couldn’t come into work tomorrow, could I confidently pick up their workload?” “Am I staying later in the office than the rest of the team, even when I’ve already completed that day’s work?” “Am I sacrificing my hobbies or leisure time for work?” “Do I feel like I’ve truly earned this title? Am I good enough?” “What’s stopping me from going for a promotion?” “Do I feel I know enough for the job I’m in?” “Do I believe my work has to be perfect, 100% of the time?” “Could someone else run my team/business better than me?”’

RSNG Is it a kind of perfectionism, then? MW ‘Yes. It can mean we set excessively high goals for ourselves then, if we fail to reach a goal, self-doubt sets in and we worry someone will question our ability. However, perfectionism isn’t always negative – it can indicate a healthy drive to excel, so long as it doesn’t escalate into obsession and you don’t dwell over routine tasks. Therefore, it’s important to forgive failings and learn from mistakes. Have the courage to be imperfect. After all, if you’re not open to making mistakes you might not benefit from lessons learned and move forward.’

RSNG Are you seeing more of it in professionals as we become less tied down to single roles? MW ‘There is a connection. Whilst it’s positive that many professionals are branching out into different roles, as sideline ventures (setting up a business based on a hobby, for instance) or due to transferrable skills (a journalist and simultaneously an author), this could trigger self-doubt.’

‘Equally, some roles require a broader range of skills in today’s society than when a professional first started out. Reasons include the rise of technology and a greater need for soft skills in mathematical or scientific industries. As an individual accelerates through the ranks, it’s natural to feel intimidated by modern expectations.’

Be a bolder you, take risks, don’t seek validation from others all the time

RSNG Can it actually impair our progress and performance at work? MW ‘Yes, Imposter Syndrome can prevent us from believing in ourselves. Lack of self-belief can lead us to overwork and over-preparation. If we’re so fearful of making mistakes, we won’t take risks. A mindset of “I got here by luck, not ability” might prevent us taking risks. A business that doesn’t take risks might find itself with diminishing returns. Imposter Syndrome can also stifle productivity. We may procrastinate, delaying tasks we don’t feel we’re equipped to undertake, or meetings we’re nervous about running.’

‘Success doesn’t necessarily bring relief, either – indeed, it can heighten this sense of being an imposter. Owning and celebrating achievements can help counter these feelings, however.’

RSNG What three steps can we take to move past it to become more confident and self-assured? MW ‘Name the self-doubt. Acknowledge it for what it is. Ask yourself, “what’s holding me back here?”’

‘Challenge the negative thoughts, then convert them into positives. Focus on your best attributes and acknowledge daily accomplishments, focussing on the facts, not the feelings. Share your successes with loved ones and don’t shy away from praise. Visualise the future, set goals and be motivated.’

‘Be a bolder you. Take risks. Don’t seek validation from others all the time.’

RSNG Would getting a mentor be useful for an independent viewpoint? MW ‘Opening up to someone you’d like to emulate could really help you. They could give you tips, or even help you realise you’re not alone by confiding about their own experience of Imposter Syndrome. Alternatively, you could speak to an impartial advisor. If you feel your worries are overwhelming or escalating, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help you break the cycle of persistent negative or self-critical thoughts and challenge or dispute your self-defeating internal narrative.’

RSNG Do you have any other tips to handle feelings of self-doubt? MW ‘Yes: beware of ‘people pleasing’. It’s easily done but, once we become people pleasers we lose the confidence to stand by our own decisions – whether it’s relying on clients too much for direction or looking to colleagues for unnecessary approval. People pleasing means we’re not directing our lives to our own purpose.’

‘Think “what would failure mean?”, “what’s the worst thing that could happen here?” Be clear on your values. What are your goals? Make sure these are manageable and work towards them. Many people with Imposter Syndrome know they’re not where they want to be, but don’t actually know what their goal is.’

‘Rather than putting off a project you’re nervous about, force yourself to start – the earlier the better. Accept that there will never be a ‘right’ time to start and that your work won’t be flawless. This will also help you be more prepared in managing your own expectations.’

WHAT NEXT? Watch successful co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes present his Ted Talk where he confesses to constantly feeling like a fraud…

Dr Mark Winwood is Director of Psychological Services for AXA PPP healthcare

Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations.