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Imposter Syndrome: Why Even Successful People Feel Like Frauds

Updated: May 12


A group of people holding signs that say "Fraud", "Incompetent" and "Fake" revealing their feelings of imposter syndrome


Have you ever felt like a fraud in your own successes? Perhaps you were sitting in a room full of accomplished individuals and were wondering how on earth you got there?


Was your mind telling you the story that your achievements are just a result of luck and circumstance rather than being down to your talent and hard work?


Were you feeling anxious that at any moment you would be exposed as a fake and a fraud, despite all the things you have accomplished and the expertise you have developed with years of hard graft?


If this resonates with you then your story is not unique – it's a tale of Imposter Syndrome which is a surprisingly common experience!


Imposter syndrome is a perspective where someone doubts their accomplishments and feels like a fraud, despite the fact that everyone around them perceives them as highly successful and skilled.


A woman seated at a table looking at a message on her laptop wihich says "They'll find out" revealing her feelings of imposter syndrome

It can be deeply entrenched and very rigid, with the individual feeling absolutely convinced by their belief that they are somehow pulling the wool over everyone's eyes.


Even people who would be considered to be the most successful in society can still experience imposter syndrome, despite how confident and 'together' they may appear on the outside.


Imposter syndrome can have a significant impact on our mental health, relationships, and career development, so it's really important to take it seriously.


The good news is that there are effective ways of working on it to help you break free of the cycles of self-doubt and poor self-esteem that are part and parcel of imposter syndrome.



Understanding Imposter Syndrome


Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that was first identified in the 1970's by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes.


A woman holding a blackboard upon which is written "I am not enough", thus revealing her feelings of imposter syndrome

It is a pervasive feeling of self-doubt that someone experiences despite there being ample evidence of their competence and their success.


Someone with imposter syndrome can often hold the belief that they have somehow managed to fool other people into thinking that they are competent.


Their mind feeds them stories that tell them that in reality they are actually incompetent which makes them feel like they are frauds and that they're living on borrowed time before they will be found out and suffer the humiliation of being exposed.



Causes of Imposter Syndrome


There are a variety of factors playing into Imposter syndrome, including:


Perfectionism: The Double-Edged Sword


Perfectionism is a mindset that can propel us towards excellence but it's also a very common cause of imposter syndrome - so in that respect, it's a bit of a double-edged sword!


A woman holding up a sign saying "Anything less than 100% means I have failed", thus revealing her feelings of imposter syndrome and perfectionism

It can inspire us to hold ourselves to the highest of standards (which can seem like a good thing) but it can also contribute to us feeling like we are never good enough, even when we do achieve the successes that we have been working so hard towards.


Perfectionism and imposter syndrome can end up together in a vicious cycle where we set ourselves (what turn out to be) impossible goals and then judge ourselves harshly against them.


We feel inadequate when we can't meet our goals 100%, believing that anything less is a complete failure - this is an example of black-and-white thinking that I discuss in an earlier post, here.


Even if we do manage to achieve our goals, we can often feel dissatisfied and find ourselves immediately looking to the next thing ahead.


Unfortunately, when we dismiss our achievements like this it can reinforce our feelings of being an imposter, feeding back into the vicious cycle to keep it going....on and on and on and on...


"Don't let perfection be the enemy of good"



High-achieving Family Members: Setting Unattainable Standards


It's really tough if you are growing up in a household with high-achieving family members.


It's not uncommon for parents to compare their children to each other, or even to their cousins...perhaps the parents themselves grew up in a household where they were compared to their own siblings, so it might seem natural then to compare their own children to those of their siblings.


A woman holding a blackboard upon which is written "I'm a disappointment; everyone has always been better than me" thus revealing her imposter syndrome

If this happened to you as you were growing up then you can probably relate to feeling a sense of pressure to perform well and live up to standards that were set by the people that you were being compared against.


By being constantly compared to them it could have triggered feelings of self-doubt and insecurity for you, even though you may well have achieved many great things; making it difficult for you to really be able to appreciate your achievements.


A constant comparison like this in childhood can also promote competition and rivalry between siblings and/or cousins and that may lead to unhelpful behaviours such as trying to "one-up" each other rather than being supportive of each other and celebrating each other's accomplishments.


These feelings can stay with you as an adult and leave you feeling like you have to work twice as hard as anyone else in order to prove your worth and to gain recognition; but it's important to remember that we are all individuals, with our own unique strengths, talents and gifts.


We can set our own individual goals to work towards, regardless of what other people are doing.


The only person to compare yourself to is YOU!



Cultural and Societal Pressure: Navigating Expectations


Cultural and societal expectations can potentially have a huge impact on an individual's imposter syndrome, as they can contribute to feelings of inadequacy, particularly if you belong to an underrepresented or marginalized community.


You can end up feeling that you need to work harder to prove your competence and worth, especially if you find yourself in an environment where there is a lack of diversity or representation.


A woman holding up a tablet device upon which there is written a message saying "I have no iidea what I'm doing" thus revealing her imposter syndrome

The pressure can be internally generated by you, but it can also be externally generated when sometimes unrealistic expectations and standards exist within a particular community or society.


Any external pressure then just compounds the internal pressure that you're generating and it can maintain a vicious cycle of self-doubt and questioning of your own abilities, despite any successes that you have.


It is really important to acknowledge and recognise the influence that social and cultural expectations may have on our self-esteem and our broader mental health.


Social & cultural pressures can be a weight that sinks our self-esteem; learning to swim against the tide can make us stronger.



Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome


Imposter syndrome can manifest in a variety of ways, including:


Self-Doubt: From Occasional to Constant Scrutiny


A man holding up a sign saying "It was no big deal, anyone could have done it better" thus revealing his imposter syndrome

It's natural for all of us to doubt our abilities and accomplishments sometimes.


All of us can find ourselves scrutinising our choices, aptitudes, and self-worth on the odd occasion; but when we have imposter syndrome this can tip over into a near-constant feeling of doubt and uncertainty. It's a formidable challenge to face up to an onslaught of these emotions, especially when they can leave you feeling hesitant, indecisive, and mistrusting yourself.


It's no wonder that people with imposter syndrome spend a huge amount of time worrying that they will be exposed as a fraud or that they are not as competent as other people think they are - thoughts like "one day they will find out the truth" will be very familiar visitors.




Fear of Failure: Roots, Manifestations and Coping


The fear of inadequacy (or failure) can have a variety of roots; for example:


in worrying that we won't be able to satisfy the high standards that we, or others, have set for us;


or in having a sense of shame around the possibility of disappointing other people;


or perhaps in dreading being harshly judged by others;


or even (in a worst-case scenario) fearing being reprimanded by others for not coming up to scratch.


The impact of fearing failure can manifest itself in many ways, and it may not be immediately obvious that they are related - insomnia, loss of appetite, irritability, and fatigue.


A man holding a large sign upon which is written "I am a failure" thus revealing his imposter syndrome

In severe cases, the fear of failure could even trigger depression or other mental health conditions.


When a fear of failure takes hold of us, we tend to be too hard on ourselves, questioning the choices we've made, but we also might start to avoid taking any risks so that we're not putting ourselves in a position in the first place where we could fail at something.


Although this strategy helps keep us safe (in our comfort zone) it's really not a helpful coping strategy as it gets in the way of us achieving our goals, and it is a barrier to us reaching our true potential.


To overcome a fear of failure we need to cultivate a growth mindset - framing any failures as learning opportunities rather than thinking of them as being an indictment of our abilities and self-worth.


Remember, everyone fails at something at some point in their lives - what this does is show that we are human, what it doesn't do is reflect our value as a human being.

A helpful perspective is to think of failure as being an essential part of the learning process and a necessary step towards success.


FAIL = First Attempt in Learning


If we can welcome the possibility of failing and learn from the process, we can become more resilient, confident, and successful in whichever area of our life is impacted.


Overworking: The Perceived Need to Prove Worth


A man holding a sign upon which is written "I've just got to keep smiling & work harder" thus revealing his imposter syndrome


You may find yourself overworking in an attempt to prove that you are competent and worthy of your role, whether that is in a workplace or study setting, or even at home in the way that you parent or keep house.


It might feel like you have to work so much harder than other people just to be able to achieve the same level of success as them.





Impact of Imposter Syndrome


It's not surprising then that imposter syndrome can have a significant impact on our mental health, relationships, and career growth.


Some of the negative consequences of imposter syndrome include:


Anxiety and Depression: The Psychological Toll


It makes sense that if you feel like you are constantly under scrutiny (so fear that you will be exposed as a fraud) then you will start to feel anxious and depressed.


Self-Sabotage: Breaking Cycles of Undermining Success


Sometimes when we have imposter syndrome we can end up in cycles of self-sabotage. This can happen as we attempt to avoid failure or exposure as a fraud. An unfortunate consequence of this is that it can lead to missed opportunities and career setbacks.


Relationship Issues: Navigating Personal Connections


Imposter syndrome can also impact our relationships if we struggle with feelings of inadequacy and fear of rejection.



Strategies for Managing Imposter Syndrome


If you are experiencing imposter syndrome, there are strategies you can use to manage your self-doubt and overcome your fears. Some of these strategies include:


Acknowledge Your Accomplishments: Celebrating Success


Take time to acknowledge your accomplishments and recognize that you have achieved success through hard work and dedication.


Two women dressed in exercise clothing, supporting each other whilst doing the plank exercise

Talk to Others: Building a Support System


Share your feelings of self-doubt with trusted friends, family members, or a mental health professional. Talking to others can help you gain perspective and realize that you are not alone in your struggles.


Challenge Negative Self-Talk: Reframing Thoughts


Challenge negative self-talk by identifying and reframing your thoughts. When your mind tells you a story such as "I don't belong here," try to reframe it by saying something like "I have earned my place here through hard work and dedication."


Set Realistic Expectations: Embracing the Learning Process


Set realistic expectations for yourself and celebrate small victories along the way. Remember that success is not always linear and that setbacks are a natural part of the learning process.


Practice Self-Care: Prioritising Wellbeing


Practice self-care by engaging in activities that bring you joy and relaxation. This can help you manage stress and anxiety and improve your overall well-being.



You Are Enough: Moving Forward with Confidence After Conquering Imposter Syndrome


Imposter syndrome is a common phenomenon that can affect even the most successful of individuals.

A woman sitting at a board room table working at a laptop. On the wall in front of here are two frames. In the frame on the left are the words "You Are" and in the frame on the right are the words "A Fraud" indicating her feelings of imposter syndrome


If you are experiencing imposter syndrome, it is important to recognize that you are not alone and that there are strategies you can use to manage your self-doubt and overcome your fears.


By acknowledging your accomplishments, challenging negative self-talk, setting realistic expectations, and practicing self-care, you can overcome imposter syndrome and live a more fulfilling life.


If you are experiencing imposter syndrome and would like some support then please get in touch - CBT can be a very effective tool in helping overcome the challenges presented by imposter syndrome.


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