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Banish imposter syndrome and accept your success


by Colette Sexton
11th Nov 2018
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Colette Sexton, news correspondent at The Sunday Business Post, on how to stop feeling like a fraud when imposter syndrome strikes.


Many people go through life achieving great things and climbing to sky-high levels in their careers but instead of feeling proud of themselves, they feel fear. The fear that they will be found out; that they are just lucky; they were in the right place at the right time, and that if their employers or their colleagues looked closely, they would find out they are a fraud. Sound familiar? Then you might be suffering from imposter syndrome.

It is more common than you might realise; in fact, the majority of the population experience imposter syndrome at some point. This means that they are unable to internalise and accept their success and attribute it to luck instead of ability. While it is not an official clinical diagnosis, psychologists acknowledge that imposter syndrome is real.

It was first described in the 1970s by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance and since then, some of the most successful people in the world have revealed they suffer from it. Three-time Oscar award-winning actor Meryl Streep told a journalist in 2002, “I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg felt she did not deserve to attend Harvard University. In her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, she wrote: “Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself — or even excelled — I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.” Author and Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou once said “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'”

It is not just something affecting the famous. A recent study found that two-thirds of women in Britain have experienced ‘imposter syndrome’ at work in the past 12 months. The study, which was commissioned by small business finance specialists Access Commercial Finance, found that, while men weren’t immune from experiencing imposter syndrome, they were 18 per cent less likely to do so than their female colleagues.

While people can and do achieve great things with imposter syndrome, it can also negatively affect productivity and limit career progression. Self-doubt can also discourage people from applying for new jobs or promotions. To stop imposter syndrome in its tracks, follow these tips:

  1. Focus on your past successes. Make a list of them and keep it nearby. When self-doubt strikes, read each one, remember the hard work you put in and clever ideas you thought up to make them happen. You can do this.
  2. Allow yourself to feel proud of your accomplishments. When someone praises work you have done, accept the praise instead of dismissing it.
  3. Be honest. Do not pretend to know everything. Ask questions so you fully understand what is happening in every conversation. Everybody must learn as they know – no-one in the world knows everything.