Ever feel you need to hide to avoid exposure? Image: Shutterstock

Thursday 5th May 2016

The fraud within

How even the best of us fall victim to Impostor Syndrome

If you’ve ever suffered from ‘Impostor Syndrome’ – the fear that you’re not as good as people think and you might be ‘found out’– you’re not alone. A recent survey reports that 40% of workers in the UK share your insecurity.

The research from the Association of Accounting Technicians also found that 67% of people regularly feel ‘out of their depth’ at work, 50% ‘chance their luck’ on aspects of their job and – wouldn’t you have guessed – 40% admit to using business buzzwords that they don’t actually understand.

‘Impostor Syndrome’, then, is pretty widespread. You’ll possibly have experienced it yourself if you’ve ever experienced unreasonable levels of discomfort at a review, before a presentation to your peers or even when sitting in a challenging meeting. CBT expert Judith Beck has a strong definition:

It’s a handy label to describe the self-doubt that many people, particularly high achievers, experience. It’s that sense that you don’t fully know what you’re doing and that you have fooled other people into believing that you’re more competent and talented than you really are. This self-doubt can plague people who are in a new job or who really are incompetent, of course, but it can also plague those who truly are at the top of their professions.

That last point bears repetition. Some of the most celebrated people in the world suffer from it. Saying Impostor Syndrome is the product of genuine incompetence is like saying toad in the hole is a product of genuine toad. There’s pretty much no connection between perception and reality here.

Famous frauds

Jodie Foster once told the TV show 60 Minutes that she feared having to give her Oscar back. ‘They’d come to my house, knocking on the door,’ she said, describing her nightmare. ‘’Excuse me, we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep.'”

Winslet: a ‘fraud’

Ah, but Streep isn’t actually any more confident than Foster. ‘You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?’ she once told filmmaker Ken Burns. Kate Winslet once told author Susan Pinker, ‘Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, I can’t do this. I’m a fraud’.

You’d expect actresses to be insecure, maybe. But it’s not just luvvies that succumb to the syndrome. The American author Maya Angelou once said, ‘I have written eleven books, but each time I think, “Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'” Liz Bingham OBE, an ex-Managing Partner of EY and the President of R3, is quoted in Forbes as thinking to herself: ‘What are you doing here? What do you think you’re doing? You’re going to be found out.’ Whether or not Donald Trump has ever suffered though is sadly unrecorded.

If you’re thinking there’s a gender bias to this, you’d be right. In fact, the 1978 article that got the ball rolling on this, by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, positioned Impostor Syndrome as an essentially female issue. Sheryl Sandberg, writing in 2013’s Lean In, shares insights about fear (of failure and of being judged, for example) being ‘the root of so many barriers that women face’.

That said, there are some examples of men who suffer too. According to online sources, writer Neil Gaiman and funny man Tommy Cooper both thought it wouldn’t be long until someone exposed them as incompetent.

Are you a sufferer?

Try these questions. If you answer C to most, you might be one of the afflicted 40%:

1. To what do you attribute your successes?

a) Honestly, they’re pretty well all down to me

b) They’re a team effort, but the team wouldn’t do quite as well without me

c) They’re sheer luck – I’m usually in the right place at the right time

Gaiman: Insecure

2. What’s your relationship with praise?

a) I enjoy it – it makes me feel good about myself

b) It depends – I only like it when it’s from someone I respect

c) I dislike it – it tends to make me focus on my failings

3. You’re about to undergo a panel interview. Do you:

a) Look forward to it, because it’s a chance to show off?

b) Prepare only moderately, because you have a good grasp of your subjects?

c) Dread it, in case the panel shows you up as a know-nothing?

4. You’re in a meeting and feel confused about a topic. What do you do?

a) Immediately ask for clarification – if you don’t understand, others won’t either

b) Make a note to ask your boss for clarification in private afterwards

c) Don’t ask at all – showing ignorance will make people suspect you’re thick

5. If you were a chocolate, which chocolate would you be?

a) A Yorkie – solid all the way through

b) A Mars bar – a mix of different consistencies and tastes

c) An Easter Egg – hollow in the middle and liable to shatter

Conquering the syndrome

You get the idea. But assuming you are suffering from Impostor Syndrome, what are the tips that’ll help see you through? Here’s a selection inspired by Joyce Roche and her book The Empress Has No Clothes.

Talk about it. Discuss your concerns with people who feel the same – or even people who don’t. Sometimes talking can help you see how flimsy your concerns actually are. A good coach might help discourage you from discounting your strengths.

Sandberg: Gender issue

Read up on other people’s experience. The more you investigate the issue online, the more you’ll discover that many impressive people feel the same way you do. Seeing the syndrome as a systemic gender issue might also help you to objectify it, and therefore control it more easily.

Learn not to brush off compliments. As Roche puts it, ‘Learn to internalize external validation.’ When someone pays you a compliment, spend some time exploring that compliment. Analyse it and understand that your strengths are just as important as your weaknesses.

Write down your successes. Keep a success list on your phone, or habitually update your CV or LinkedIn profile. Don’t write down any negatives. Those bad boys aren’t welcome here.

Take a good look at your colleagues. Think about the people you respect, particularly those you work with and of whom you can build a rounded assessment. Consider their strengths and weaknesses. This process should help you understand that we’re all a complex mess of good and rubbish qualities – just because you’re on a learning curve with one thing doesn’t mean you’re not completely brilliant at another.

About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.