When I was in the early years of my medical career, I was “promoted” from a senior house officer to a registrar level. For a time, it felt okay. Just okay.

Imposter Syndrome

But in a short time, doubts like weevils in a flour jar began to appear. Phrases popped into my mind like: you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re a fake, you don’t belong here when they find out you’ll be fired. Add a few nightmarish dreams to that, and you have the classical imposter syndrome.

Years later, I discovered that imposter syndrome affects up to 70% of people at some point in their careers.
Actors such as Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster and Emma Watson owned up to believe that they felt like imposters, as did the writer Neil Gaiman. This was echoed by John Steinbeck, who wrote: “I am not a writer in his diary. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” So what if you feel this way? Does it matter? It’s not fatal. Imposter syndrome is not fatal, but it can have serious effects on you in terms of physical and mental health.

Imposter syndrome tends to turn up when you experience a career change. Whenever you turn a career corner like a promotion, the view changes. Something new is expected of you. You might go from one of many salespeople to a regional manager with new responsibilities and are expected to lead or strategise. You go from invisible to visible. From the shadows to being in the spotlight. From follower to initiator. Every step up is a step out, and it raises the stakes and your exposure. The questions of authority, self-belief and identity get louder and more insistent. When ignored, problems arise.

The shouts of FAKE cause one of two responses. One is an increased pressure to perform, which drives you to new heights, longer hours, more and more effort and an inability to let go. Delegation becomes a dirty word used by others but not by you. If the situation doesn’t change, sustainability becomes a problem.

For some, the imposter inside means you either shift sideways or beat a hasty retreat down the career ladder. At that point, we hear people say: I can’t be bothered with the hassle, or it’s not for me.
Either way, the goal is to lower the tension between a new level or role and an old self-image.

In the worst cases, the imposter syndrome with all its pressures keeps you hyper-vigilant, running at a speed that leads to poor resilience and even burnout. A lose-lose situation for all. The other response is to procrastinate. Sitting on your hands or at worse not trying. Doing this means you can’t ever fail. Not good for productivity or your longevity in the company.

Signs of imposter syndrome.

  • compliments bounce off you
  • achievements feel more like luck than earned
  • criticism is personal and raise the hackles
  • failures last in the mind longer than successes

Why do I feel like an imposter?

  • Congratulations on your intelligence because it tends to be that more intelligent people get to feel like fakes. The problem arises because of the people in the room with you. If you are surrounded by other intelligent people you tend to compare yourself negatively.
  • Parents and educators have a part to play as they drive children to achieve. If shame is part of the equation this can lead to kids not feeling good enough.
  • Highly competitive environments lead to a winner takes all and losers don’t talk scenario. Areas like academia and journalism are highly status driven and prone to negative comparisons.
  • Class, gender and race also drive us to strive to achieve more. Here to fall short of a mythical finish line is an unacceptable place to be.

Why is it more important now?

Today’s relevance lies in the fact that we are in the middle of pandemic times. We’ve moved out of the office world to an online world. For people who have transitioned into new areas at the same time, two things happen.
You become more isolated and more exposed.
Moving on to Zoom means exactly that. The camera points directly at you. You are zoomed into. The camera becomes a microscope. Whatever imposter syndrome existed before now is magnified. The speaker’s image becomes the largest in the group, and every utterance has meaning, or at least it seems to take on more meaning.
But once the camera is switched off, you are left alone and ultimately more isolated than before.
Even for the most introverted of us, this isolation fuels the imposter within and drives us to greater degrees of effort as we try to achieve what we think we should achieve.

What can you do about it?

  • Do nothing as this too will pass. For some people this true.
  • The amygdala is the part of the brain that gets switched on by fear and increases anxiety. There’s a suggestion that with increasing age it becomes less sensitive to negative emotions. Maybe that’s a part of maturing, that we care less of what other people think as we get older. So for some imposter syndrome is a normal part of development.
  • Build a network support around you in the form of mentors. The community around you reduces the feeling of isolation and stops you from spiralling down.
  • Learn to separate your identity from the tasks or job title. So a judge can put on robes and a wig. A writer can promote a book without necessarily promoting herself. Spotlighting the project not the person means that it becomes the centre of attention, not you as the author.
  • Humour works. Finding a way to laugh at yourself and your mistakes releases feel good hormone serotonin. As you laugh at yourself the tension eases. It also helps others in the team to see that it is okay to show weakness and laugh at them.
  • Journal success stories. You can’t celebrate what you can’t remember. And it is good to show yourself proof that you are not an imposter. Also journal failures and reframe as learning opportunities of what to do differently in the future.
  • Compare yourself to you only. As most of the time we tend to compare ourselves with others. There will always be smarter and more competent in the world. And when you compare yourself to them you will be in trouble. When you compare the present you to a past you and then imagine a future you the voice of the critic is stilled. The imposter is silenced.

Forgive your mistakes.
Celebrate your victories.
Then do the same for others.
In so doing, you free yourself to be and release others to do the same.