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Feeling like a fraud? How to overcome "Imposter Syndrome"

Having humility about your achievements is healthy, but do you take it too far?

Are you successful, but feel you don’t deserve it? Do you attribute your achievements to luck and timing, rather than merit? Well, so did Albert Einstein. And I think we can all agree he wasn’t a slacker who coasted by on luck.

But it’s not unusual for high-achieving professionals to feel this way. There’s even a term for it: Imposter Syndrome.

Award-winning author Maya Angelou once said, “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.’”

This is typical of Imposter Syndrome, a phrase coined by two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, in a 1978 study about high-achieving women. They discovered that “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

While women tend to be most affected by Imposter Syndrome, men aren’t immune, particularly in today’s highly competitive corporate landscape.

Why it’s a problem

The phenomenon is summed up well by Ximena Vengoechea in an article for The Muse: “Imposter Syndrome occurs when we feel like a fraud — when we feel that our successes are undeserved. We convince ourselves they’re based on luck, timing or other factors outside of our control, instead of embracing the fact that we’re actually responsible for having made those successes happen.”

It often rears its ugly head when something good happens — say, when you land a promotion or are appointed as a project lead.

Aside from feeling that we don’t deserve those successes, Imposter Syndrome can lead to anxiety and depression, say experts. And it can be debilitating — it can hold you back from trying new things, asking for a raise or applying for a higher-level position.

imposter syndrome

Having a sense of humility about our work is healthy, “but it can easily cross the line into paralyzing fear,” says Carl Richards in an article for the New York Times. “When we have a skill or talent that has come naturally we tend to discount its value. Why is that? Well, we often hesitate to believe that what’s natural, maybe even easy for us, can offer any value to the world. In fact, the very act of being really good at something can lead us to discount its value.”

Where it can begin

This way of thinking starts long before entering the workforce. “As children our emotional need to belong often leads us to downplay our abilities as a survival strategy, believing we are more acceptable when we fit in rather than stand out. This can linger into adulthood where it harms rather than helps us,” says Fiona Buckland in an article in The Guardian.

So how do you know if you’re suffering from Imposter Syndrome?

If you feel like a fraud, you may overcompensate by staying in the office long after everyone else has gone home for the day, even though you’ve finished your work. You may have inappropriate boundaries, such as working all weekend and on holidays, and you’re unable to enjoy downtime — you’ve let hobbies and maybe even relationships fall to the wayside. You obsessively dwell on any minor failures, yet downplay your successes (since you feel you don’t deserve them) and shy away from attention.

Ann Friedman describes it in the Pacific Standard as “a nervous undercurrent that runs through your day-to-day experience, unacknowledged, only to crop up in salary negotiations or in small phrases like, ‘It might just be me but….’ or ‘Not sure I know what I’m talking about….'." Friedman says most of the time “the feeling remains a quiet, hidden thing that you can’t quite express.”

What you can do

That doesn’t mean you’re doomed to feel this way forever. The most important step in overcoming Imposter Syndrome is knowing it exists and putting a name to that nervous undercurrent. Once you realize you’re not the only person on the planet who feels this way — in fact, you’re far from alone — it takes away some of its power.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome requires self-acceptance, says Margie Warrell in an article in Forbes. “You don’t have to attain perfection or mastery to be worthy of the success you’ve achieved and any accolades you earn along the way,” she says. “It’s not about lowering the bar, it’s about resetting it to a realistic level that doesn’t leave you forever striving and feeling inadequate.”

Talking to someone outside of work can help you gain perspective. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is another route. The reality, though, is that it probably won’t disappear from your life altogether — and it may rear its ugly head the next time you receive praise, a raise or a promotion. But you can learn to live with it, recognize it for what it is and stop letting it hold you back from achieving your goals.

Up Next: The challenges every entrepreneur faces, and how to overcome them.

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Vawn Himmelsbach

Vawn Himmelsbach is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. She has covered technology and travel for 15 years, for media outlets such as, The Globe & Mail, Metro News, ITBusiness, PCworld Canada and Computerworld Canada. She also spent three years living abroad and working as an Asian correspondent.

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