Have you ever thought other people think you are better than you really are? Do you think you got your job through promotion or luck? When you succeed, do you think you have fooled everyone and are close to being ‘found out’?
If you answered yes to any of the above or are frequently dismissive of your achievements and agonise over every mistake, you could be suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’.
As defined by Dr Denise Cummins, an American cognitive scientist, imposter syndrome is a “disconnect between perceived and actual performance” or a case of a person having ample objective evidence they are doing well – promotions, salary increases or overall good performance – but they feel they are somehow ‘faking it’ and are continually waiting to be revealed as a fraud.
Although City Hive readers may relate to the telltale signs of imposter syndrome, they may have not heard it labelled as such, not realising it was an actual 'thing'. The term was originally coined in 1978 by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Clance. After panelling 178 women, they found a pattern of women dismissing their accomplishments and believing their success would disappear once others found out the ‘truth’ - that they were imposters.
“Many women believe they do not have the right to be themselves and are adopting a different persona or ‘mask’ when it comes to communicating, “says Lea Sellers, co-founder of The Confidence People, alongside Rosalind Adler.
The pair, a former TV producer and actress respectively, set up the business eight years ago to help people with communications skills but quickly realised confidence was the real issue in holding individuals’ back, with a particular hindrance being imposter syndrome.
They also pointed out those identifying with the issue are in good company; Albert Einstein said shortly before he died: “The exaggerated esteem at which my life’s work is held makes me feel very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as a voluntary swindler.”
Other high achievers have also spoken out about feelings of unworthy success; chef Jamie Oliver has talked about feeling “deeply inadequate” and that he is “blagging” his way through his successful career, while comedian and actor Steve Coogan has described his “creative angst” and feeling like he is going to be found out.
But it is not just high-achievers; it can happen to those at the very start of their professional careers – Sellers says a university lecturer asks a class every year how many of them feel they are the one mistake the university admissions team made – every year two-thirds of hands go up.
Sellers explains further: “It is that feeling of disconnect, that feeling that other people have got it wrong, they have inflated ideas of your talents and you fear your true lack of abilities will be rumbled. It is attributing success to external factors, such as luck.
“In other words, if you do well, it is not to do with your talent or hard work, it was down to luck. But if you do things badly, it is totally your fault. It is a lose-lose situation.”
Addressing members of the asset management community at a recent City Hive event on imposter syndrome, almost three-quarters in attendance said the characteristics resonated with them. One investment director, qualified in her field with 11 years’ experience under her belt, said she often doubted herself.
“I often feel like a fraud in a meeting or worry that my investment knowledge isn’t up to scratch. However, when I think this through rationally, I know the majority of the time I am good enough and I do know my stuff,” she says.
Imposter syndrome can also manifest in overconfidence, or “insecurities veiled in bravado”, says Adler.
“Have you ever seen someone enter a meeting all guns blazing, bulldozing their way around the agenda? They too could be an imposter; wearing a mask of bombast and an over-use of jargon to shield them from being discovered as a ‘fraud’.”
At the other end of the scale, she issues a mild warning to those holding back from speaking out for fear of looking foolish, knowing deep down others could benefit from their expertise: beware self-sabotaging. You could be giving a false impression of being “lazy or stupid” – by keeping a low profile.
“Not saying anything then wishing you had, people-pleasing, procrastinating, being risk-averse and not putting yourself forward for promotion are all examples… speaking out doesn’t have to be an ego trip,” adds Adler.
There may also be feelings of inadequacy, being the wrong gender or class, not having the right background or education, something which many in financial services could relate to.
Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party Nicola Sturgeon – the first woman to hold either position - says as a young woman in politics with few females around she subconsciously began to behave ‘like a man’, which she concedes meant coming across as quite hard, tough and humourless in order to be taken seriously.
As we progress through our careers, levels of comfort in being ourselves ought to ease and often the key to easing our anxieties and concerns lies in being our most authentic selves. But that is sometimes easier said than done.
So let’s stop faking it in order to try and fit in. After all, Oscar Wilde famously said: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
OVERCOMING IMPOSTER SYNDROME
This particular anxiety is something we have all likely experienced at one point in our lives, to some degree or another. Even if we hadn’t recognise that particular label at the time. So how do we handle it? For Sellers and Adler, the first step is self-awareness.
- Recognising it. Look in the mirror. If any of the characteristics resonate with you, be willing to entertain other people’s perspectives of you. It is possible other people’s good opinion of you is justified.
- Strike a balance. Some self-doubt is healthy and prevents confidence tipping towards arrogance. But if you are constantly batting away praise, it may be worth listening and seeing if your self-judgement is unnecessarily harsh.
- Be realistic. You don’t have to be right all the time – no one ever is and none of us has all the answers all of the time.
- Keep a ‘praise file’. Write down three things you did well on a daily basis and keeping an email file of all the positive feedback on your work. It may help to refer back to this at times when you’re feeling insecure.
- Show your human side. If you are a senior member of the team, don’t be afraid to expose your vulnerabilities from time to time – this can be very helpful to others in your team. If you are a more junior team member, don’t be afraid to ask questions – even if you think they’re “stupid”. You’ll often find others are thinking exactly the same thing. If you genuinely don’t know sometime, just ask. It commands a lot more respect than trying to “wing it”, when people nearly always get found out.