Fooled them again! Mary had just delivered a brilliant presentation to a
room jam-packed with her peers. Appearing deeply engaged, asking thoughtful,
provocative questions, and rewarding her with a huge round of applause, they
clearly enjoyed her talk. Inexplicably, Mary is overwhelmed with anxiety that
these highly regarded individuals actually regard her as an “expert”. She lives in
constant fear of exposure that she doesn’t deserve her reputation and that she
has deceived others into believing that she is better than she really is. Well
educated, she is a leader in her field, and highly regarded by her peers.
Regardless of the external proof of her competence, Mary dismisses
compliments, and feels her success is more a result of luck than ability. Mary’s
constant fear of being exposed is an incredibly stressful way to live.
Ever heard of the Imposter Syndrome? Consider the scenario where
you’re working in your dream job, you have been promoted several times, and
everybody thinks you’re a star. Everyone, that is, but you. You can’t shake the
feeling that you don’t deserve all this recognition, and that somebody is going to
catch on and expose you. Clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne
Imes (1978) described it as “regardless of what level of success they may have
achieved in their chosen field of work or study, or what external proof they may
have of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced internally
they do not deserve the success they have achieved and are actually frauds.
Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others
into thinking we’re more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves
Have you ever held back from going after a promotion, accepting a
speaking engagement, or trying something new because you believed you
weren’t good enough, even if you were perfectly qualified? Have you learned
everything you can about a subject, and then still doubt that you know enough?
After all, you can’t really be an expert unless you know everything! You could
risk being exposed, after all. Even the smallest hint that your work isn’t excellent
can de-rail you for weeks.
While those with imposter syndrome are unlikely to regard themselves
highly, their willingness to continue learning can be a positive attribute. However,
the inability to internalize their own success, and the constant focus on the
negative, can definitely hold them back from achieving their potential. It might
prevent a great candidate from going after a promotion, and it definitely gets in
the way of ever feeling pride for a job well done.
People suffering from Imposter Syndrome have extremely high and
unrealistic expectations for themselves. If you can’t take credit for your
accomplishments, you’re crushed by mild criticism, you believe your success is
due to luck, and you feel inadequate to do work that you are fully capable of
performing, then you might be struggling with this syndrome.
What can you do when you suffer from The Imposter Syndrome? Dr.
Valerie Young, an internationally known workshop leader and public speaker
suggests that the “imposter” might consider re-framing things. Rather than
focusing on what you don’t know, think instead about how much you are going to
Another possibility is to write down any compliments that you receive.
Rather than deflecting the praise, just accept it for what it is. Consider the
possibility that it might be true. A “reality check” is simply checking the accuracy
of your thoughts. If you say that you’re not qualified to accept an assignment,
stop for a moment and check the accuracy of that statement, giving appropriate
credit to your training and experience.
If you are faced with something you have never done before, rather than
agonizing over the fact that you don’t know how, ask yourself, “Why would I know
this?” This is an opportunity to learn and improve. Stop holding yourself to the
impossible standard that you are supposed to know everything.
Take time to celebrate your achievements. Learn to acknowledge the truth
about how your successes came about. Taking a few moments to celebrate
accomplishments helps us to recognize how our particular skills are
worthy of the respect we receive from others. Give yourself the credit you
Be realistic. Often people with unrealistic expectations of themselves need
to set more accurate standards. While you may think you have to measure up to
some kind of ideal before you will be worthy of being labelled an “expert”,
consider finding out what the standard really is. “It is having a substantial amount
of knowledge in a field and being able to convey that knowledge in an
authoritative, professional, well defined manner”, says Chris McGirr, of Whole
Life Coaching, a coaching firm specializing in Transformational Coaching.
Consider hiring a coach to work with you to explore your beliefs and your
self-limiting thoughts. A coach will help you to clarify and embrace your strengths
and abilities so you can move forward with a realistic, achievable, set of goals
Finally, and definitely essential, know that you’re not alone. It has been
estimated that over 30% of the population suffers from Imposter Syndrome.
People from all walks of life have described these feelings. Jodie Foster said, “I
thought (winning the Oscar) was a fluke. The same way as when I walked on the
campus at Yale. I thought everybody would find out, and they’d take the Oscar
It can be a great relief to know that we are not alone. In fact, most of us
feel that way some of the time, particularly when we’re embarking on something
new. Stretching outside of our normal comfort zone is often uncomfortable. The
key is to take stock of what is true. If the evidence of your ability is there in the
form of degrees, promotions, excellence, and in the faith of your colleagues,
consider believing it to be true. Step into the wonderful, capable person they
believe you to be. And begin to step out of your own way!