The Impostor Syndrome — I Will be Found Out!

By Gill Garratt

Psychological research conducted during the 1980s by two researchers seemed to show that two out of five successful people are constantly worrying that they are fraudsters and don’t deserve the success they have. They live in fear of being ‘found out’.

Doing really well at work, but feeling anxious it is all going to disappear?

You may sometimes find it hard to acknowledge your talents and accomplishments and put it all down to luck. You may engage in behaviours that start to inhibit your ability to enjoy life and certainly the fruits of your labours. Hanging on to your money and being reluctant to buy things and use up your savings could be one such behaviour. Extreme anxiety might mean you become quite miserly and avoid social events that entail spending money.

This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the ‘impostor syndrome’. This term first appeared in an article written by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. They noticed that many people, and in particular women who were high achievers, could not believe positive feedback given about their skills and talents and thought that they weren’t really very intelligent. This didn’t seem to be linked to certain types of personalities, but anyone could be prone to these feelings.

Although these feelings of self-doubt are common and to be expected, particularly when you start a new job, for some people these negative anxieties and behaviours can persist, even when their success is clearly evident.

Some well-known characters such as Albert Einstein and comedian Tommy Cooper wrote about believing themselves to be an impostor. Business tycoon Sheryl Sandberg, American technology executive and chief operating officer of popular social media site Facebook, have reportedly experienced these feelings. Sheryl wrote an article titled ‘Women who feel like frauds’, in the publication Forbes, and the actress Emma Watson also wrote ‘I suffered from imposter syndrome after Harry Potter’ in Now magazine in 2011.

This is now recognised as a psychological condition and characterised by being unable to internalise your achievements.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been found to be particularly helpful as it encourages the individual to look at the rationality of their thoughts, based on their own evidence of success. Their thoughts are challenged with the therapist and an open dialogue encouraged to change the irrational thinking to rational thinking. The discrepancy, or ‘flaws’, in their thinking are exposed and debated. The anxiety levels and fear of failure or ‘being caught out’ are greatly reduced.