How to beat impostor syndrome

Nervous woman  walking on tightrope.
Some successful people fear they are fakes who will be 'found out'.

My most recent Southern Star column explored what's known as impostor syndrome – a sense that you are a fake, someone not nearly as competent as others seem to think, a fraud who has achieved things by fooling others or through luck. The column is reproduced below.


‘I always had this thing where I thought, “What am I doing here? I'm about to get found out. Everybody in the stadium is going to find out I've been getting lucky for years. Everybody in the stadium is going to find out I've been getting lucky for years”’.


The above words come from former Irish rugby player Andrew Trimble. Being plagued by self-doubt despite enjoying much success is not uncommon. Take actress Emma Watson: ‘It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going, “Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved”’.


Or Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet: ‘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.’


Or Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg: ‘There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.’


Or take the late, celebrated American author Maya Angelou: ‘I have written 11 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”’.



Anxious woman at work.
People with impostor syndrome often work very hard – too hard.

All these quotes are indicative of impostor syndrome – ‘a sense of phoniness in people who believe they are not that intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement’, to quote American psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who coined the term in 1978.


With impostor syndrome, you feel you are a fake, someone not nearly as competent as others seem to think, a fraud who has achieved things by fooling others or through luck. You fear others will discover the “real” you and may try to hide your supposed incompetence by not asking for help or asking questions. If you have impostor syndrome, you probably work very hard – too hard. You likely over-prepare and obsess over minor details, feeling you need to work much harder than everyone else. Your hard work and diligence leads to more praise and success, but this only compounds the feeling you are a fake who is unworthy of your position.


There are many reasons why people develop impostor syndrome – family expectations; overprotective, anxious or critical parenting; a pressurised school environment that placed excessive emphasis on accomplishment, amongst others. Being a perfectionist, having low self-esteem, a tendency towards depression or anxiety, excessive self-monitoring and focus on self-worth – all these can be linked to impostor syndrome.



What should you do? Well, firstly recognise that it’s common and that other people you respect share the same insecurities. Impostor syndrome is common in high-ranking circles and in academia, but it’s rarely discussed due to people’s sense of shame and fear.


Secondly, when you’re good at something, there can be a tendency to discount its value. We often think what comes natural to us is “easy”, that “anyone can do it”. That’s not true. Don’t discount your achievements.

Thirdly, relax your perfectionist standards. Your colleagues aren’t perfect and you don’t have to be either. One Israeli study found 73 per cent of doctors were overweight or obese, 45 per cent had high blood pressure and 22 per cent had high blood cholesterol. That doesn’t make them bad doctors or “fakes” – it makes them fallible human beings, just like you.


Fourthly, catch and question your thoughts. Ask yourself: is this really true? Am I really incompetent? Are these thoughts accurate? Are they helpful? Gather evidence that supports and contradicts these thoughts and try to arrive at a more balanced assessment.


This simple approach helped Andrew Trimble. A sports psychologist recommended he write a short list of games where he had played really well and to consult this list on match days. The list ‘is just that rational way of saying – Here's how good I am’, said Trimble. ‘It is not rational to think that I've been getting lucky for years… I addressed those fears by trying to think about it more rationally and objectively’.


In cognitive therapy, we like to say that just because you think something, doesn’t mean it’s true – a line that’s especially worth remembering if you suffer from impostor syndrome.