Feel like a fraud? How to handle imposter syndrome

Experts say feelings of inadequacy – or imposter syndrome – affect most of us at one point or another. Here is how to spot the signs and what to do.

Ever felt undeserving of your achievements, or that you’re not nearly as competent or intelligent as people think?

You might have imposter syndrome, an internal psychological experience experts say affect as many as eight out of 10 people at some stage in their lives.

In fact, according to a 2021 study, 65 per cent of professionals live with it regularly.

According to Awaken Consulting director and clinical psychologist Amanda Pulford, who facilitates conquering imposter syndrome workshops at the Leaders Institute of South Australia, imposter syndrome is experienced across all age groups.

“It’s also worthwhile noting that imposter syndrome can be felt for a few days or weeks, like when we’re new to a job,” Amanda says.

“For others, it can last years or even a lifetime.”

What causes imposter syndrome?

Amanda says it can manifest through early childhood family experiences, early schooling experiences and even early workplace experiences.

“Environments where getting things ‘right’ are rewarded, where achievements are rewarded, and where an importance on achievement is experienced can all contribute to imposter syndrome” Amanda explains.

“In short, it’s linked to when we’re seen and rewarded for what we can do versus being seen and rewarded for who we are.”

Amanda adds that there also seems to be a link between imposter syndrome and specific personality traits.

“Some people who experience imposter syndrome will also describe themselves as having high perfectionistic traits,” she says.

Signs of imposter syndrome

According to Amanda, the signs associated with imposter syndrome may include having less confidence, lower self-esteem and less resilience.

“Approval-seeking behaviours and a thirst for validation, as well as an obsession about mistakes and negative feedback can also be common,” Amanda says.

Stress, anxiety, depression and burnout sometimes go hand-in-hand with imposter syndrome.

“People with imposter syndrome may also experience decreased job performance and satisfaction, and may avoid taking on responsibility,” Amanda adds.

An unexpected upside

Imposter syndrome is often put in the “problem” basket, but research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows this isn’t the full story.

Study author Assistant Professor Basima Tewfik says people harbouring imposter thoughts become more “other-oriented”, making them good team players with strong social skills.

“The idea that having these thoughts at work is always going to be bad for you may not be entirely true,” Asst Prof Tewfik says.

“For those having imposter thoughts (at the beginning of the time period), two months later their supervisors rated them as more interpersonally effective.”

When the study shone a spotlight on student doctors with imposter thoughts, it was a similar story.

“Those physicians in training were rated by their patients as more interpersonally effective – they were more empathetic, they listened better and they elicited information well,” Asst Prof Tewfik says.

How to feel less like a fraud

Amanda says overcoming imposter syndrome takes time, energy and persistence, but it’s worth the effort if you find it’s holding you back.

Here are some ways to overcome feelings of inadequacy:

1. Be persistent

Amanda says persistence will pay off in the long run.

“Harness your ability to persist and move forward, despite the noise of imposter syndrome,” she says.

2. Cultivate awareness

Amanda says in order to work with imposter syndrome, you’ll first need to be able to recognise it.

“Get to know your imposter syndrome – when and why it shows up, and what it tells you,” she explains.

3. Understand yourself

“Understanding the untested assumptions that you carry around on a day-to-day basis that direct what you do and how you do it, can be invaluable.

“You may be operating from ‘old stories’ or ‘old patterns’ that are no longer true, real or valuable,” Amanda says.

4. Challenge yourself

 “Once you have cultivated persistence, have grown your awareness and understand yourself more, challenge what you’re learning about your imposter syndrome and the story it tells you by conducting experiments.

“And really take note of the results – gather evidence and consider how different the results are to what you expected,” she suggests.

5. Build a support network

 “Find people you can talk to about your concerns or fears, people you can unpack your untested beliefs and assumptions with, people who can challenge the story of your imposter syndrome, and people you can celebrate your successes with,” Amanda says.

Written by Karen Fittall.