What makes certain successful people feel like imposters? Why are they weighed down by persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as frauds?
The imposter syndrome is real and complex. Although surprising to many, some research indicates that around 75 per cent of highly successful professionals believe they’re imposters. That’s a whopping statistic. The list of those affected includes famous and accomplished individuals such as Albert Einstein, Maya Angelou and Meryl Streep.
Imposterism tends to affect women and men equally. Those affected simply don’t believe in themselves despite evidence to the contrary, including degrees, awards and accomplishments. They find it challenging to celebrate their success. They feel fake.
This is the first in a two-part series delving into imposterism (also known as fraud syndrome). This part defines the syndrome and its causes. Part 2 explores how to begin to deal with it.
While not a realistic self-assessment, those living with imposterism are constantly afraid they’ll be discovered, embarrassed and even fired. They won’t, of course, because they aren’t imposters. They just think they are.
Although not a mental disorder, imposterism is draining because it’s a persistent feeling that doesn’t go away on its own, says Kim Vella, an accredited executive coach with a PhD in Sociology. Professional support is usually required.
So what causes the syndrome?
‘Externalising success is big,’ says Kim. ‘These people believe they owe their success to external factors such as favoritism, luck or social connections, not to their education, talent, skill or career accomplishments. They believe they give the impression that they’re more competent than they are. They don’t believe they’re as intelligent as they are. They believe they lack expertise. They don’t believe they deserve to be where they are.’
Those affected should deal with the issue because the symptoms can be debilitating. Without professional support, the strategies most people use to cope are exhausting at best and damaging to their careers at worst.
‘These entrenched beliefs drive certain behaviours,’ says Kim. ‘Those affected lose the capacity to balance life and work because they constantly worry and need to continually prove their worth to themselves. They fear failure and so overwork and overcompensate. They go, go, go to sustain success. It can affect their physical and mental health and affect their team members and colleagues.’
Although it can be challenging, the good news is that imposterism can be reversed.
Kim says seeking support from a professional who can help talk matters through and reposition thinking is important: ‘I’ve coached clients who have tried to solve the issue on their own through techniques like self-affirmation, but it’s rarely enough,’ says Kim. ‘If they could work this out by themselves, they would have done so. These are highly intelligent people.’
‘As a coach, I partner with clients to teach them how to recognise imposterism, name the feelings for what they are and develop the skills to remind themselves that this isn’t reality, just their perception. We concentrate on how to internalise success. We use hard evidence to break down their assumptions.’