Impostor – Have you ever felt like a fraud?

A photograph of a face half woman half cat
Have you ever felt like an impostor?

Do you think you weren’t so intelligent and you are over-estimated by others? Many people consider themselves frauds and feel like an impostor.

Emma (not her real name) is a successful publisher. She’s based in London and travels extensively putting book deals together and chasing syndication rights for her company.

She and her partner Felix, a successful photographer, have an apartment in an upmarket suburb near Chicago and a small villa on the Amalfi coast in Italy.

They drive a fancy new 4×4, dress in the best clothes and they dine out at the finest eateries and if a new venue opens, they’re among the first to give it a try. Outwardly, they’re a fine example of a hard-working, talented and fulfilled young couple.

Every silver lining has a cloud

Beneath the glamour, though, is a very unsatisfied soul. Emma is constantly questioning the reasons for her success and she cannot escape the idea that it’s all down to luck.

She’s convinced the rewards that she works so hard for are only temporary and that, at any moment, her world will come crashing down.

Felix has tried for several years to persuade Emma that a woman in her early thirties who is an internationally-respected publishing executive didn’t get where she is simply by riding her luck.

She’s a talented, dedicated professional who will continue to rise to the most senior level in the company she works for and, when the time is right, she’ll break out and set up her own business.

Despite her best efforts, Emma was unable to convince herself that she is genuinely talented and not a fake who happens to be lucky, so she sought the help of a clinical psychologist.

She’s not alone

Fortunately, Emma’s condition is a common one, called Impostor Syndrome. This term was coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. In a study of high-achieving women, they discovered many who believed they weren’t intelligent and felt that they were over-estimated by others.

After more extensive studies, it turns out that two out of five successful people consider themselves frauds and that 70 percent of all people feel like impostors at one time or another. There appears to be no bias towards either sex.

The good news is, it’s not a psychological illness and, in fact, shouldn’t be called a syndrome at all as almost everyone suffers from it at one time or another.

Fame and wealth is no antidote for Impostor Syndrome

Andy Molinsky Ph.D, professor of international management and organizational behaviour at Brandeis University is a sufferer too.

So are Natalie Portman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Emma Watson, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor and countless other successful people from all corners of business and professional life.

How do you cope with Impostor Syndrome?

Psychotherapy, especially in groups, is a very common and effective way of relieving the impostor experience.

Professor Molinsky suggests a couple of other ideas that have worked for him. First, if you’re a novice at your job, think of the advantages you have. You’re seeing everything through fresh eyes, you’re not bound by decades of routine and conventional wisdom.

Next, adopt what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a learning mindset.  Accept that the mistakes you make are not proof of your inadequacy, but an inevitable and welcome by-product of the learning process.

Consider the empathy you would show a close friend who had this kind of anxiety. Aren’t you worthy of the same? You wouldn’t think they were a fake or a failure, so don’t think of yourself as one.

Perhaps most importantly, remember you’re not alone.  According to a 2014 survey by Vantage Hill Partners, the number one fear among executives world-wide is

“…that others will discover how incompetent and unprepared they really are.”

Your feelings of inadequacy may never disappear but, with a little practice, you can learn how to associate your achievements with reality and be justifiably proud of them.

Luck will always play a part in success but remind yourself regularly that the harder you work and the more you practice, the luckier you’ll get.

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