Following an unprecedented period of upheaval in our careers and our day-to-day responsibilities as the pandemic thrust us into new roles, many have been left feeling anxious about our professional lives. Some of us now work remotely and many are questioning whether they’ve got what it takes to keep up with an ever-evolving world. And these feelings of self-doubt could be triggering a debilitating pattern of thought known as imposter syndrome.
Defined as a persistent inability to believe that your success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of your actions, imposter syndrome is on the rise, with surveys showing that up to 82% of people may be struggling with feeling like a fraud.
Not only does imposter syndrome undermine our confidence in our abilities, but it can also result in overworking, as we feel we must work harder in order to prove ourselves worthy of the success we’ve achieved. It also negatively impacts our creativity, as we’re not only overworked and mentally exhausted as a result of the syndrome, but we’re also striving for perfection, meaning there’s less chance of us taking those bigger risks that usually reap the biggest rewards.
But it’s not all bad news. Imposter syndrome and self-doubt are perfectly natural responses to everything we’ve gone through during the pandemic, according to psychologist and career coach Lisa Orbé-Austin.
In an article for Today, she explained that any time you’re in a new role, facing a new set of challenges or high-stakes situation, or you’re simply out of your comfort zone, there’s a lot of pressure to perform well, which can, in turn, trigger us to believe we’re not good enough.
Thankfully, as imposter syndrome is a series of irrational and illogical thoughts, there are strategies you can learn to control your thoughts and reduce or eliminate feelings of imposter syndrome altogether.
Who is imposter syndrome most likely to affect?
Imposter syndrome can affect anyone regardless of their job or social status, but studies have found that the psychological phenomenon is most prevalent in high achievers. Some psychologists even believe that the root of imposter syndrome is in childhood experiences, such as sibling rivalry creating a situation where a person regards their sibling as ‘the smart one’, which is then reinforced by comments from other members of the family.
It’s also likely to occur in particularly competitive fields, like medicine of the arts. For example, Academy Award and Golden Globe winning actress Kate Winslet admitted to Interview magazine back in 2000 that “Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.”
Imposter syndrome can also be particularly impactful on people who are in a new situation, such as in a new job, or thrust into lockdown as we all were in 2020, and not having others around you to exchange self-doubts with, making you feel like you’re the only one struggling to adjust.
What links all of these scenarios is that the person suffering from imposter syndrome is made to feel like they aren’t meeting expectations in their field, despite the evidence showing otherwise.
The Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale (CIPS)
Psychologist Dr Pauline Rose Clance was the first to apply research to imposter syndrome, or imposter phenomenon as she refers to it, after experiencing it during her time at graduate school and then noticing similar thought patterns amongst her students when she began to teach at a liberal arts school.
As part of her research into this field, she developed the Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale (CIPS) to help individuals determine whether or not their struggle with symptoms of Imposter Phenomenon and, if so, to what extent they are suffering. The higher the score, the more frequently and seriously the phenomenon affects the individual.
Although her research began in the 1970s, Clance’s findings have inspired further studies into why we feel like frauds, and she regularly attends workshops and talks, as the phenomenon remains prevalent in today’s society.
How 6 UK business professionals deal with imposter syndrome
One of the key aspects of imposter syndrome is the feeling that someone will ‘find out’ that your success is undeserved or a fluke – despite it not actually being either of those things! – however, discussing your self-doubts with others to understand that you’re not alone in how you feel can alleviate the feelings that accompany imposter syndrome.
If you feel like an imposter, it turns out you’re in good company. Here, 6 entrepreneurs share their experiences of imposter syndrome as well as their tips for overcoming it.
Francesca Baker, andsoshethink.co.uk
I'm a copywriter, marketer and PR working across B2B and B2C organisations. Proud non-nicher here! I love the variety and energy I get from working on multiple clients and in different forms, and genuinely think it makes me better at my job.
I have always suffered with imposter syndrome, and when I was 18 developed an eating disorder as a result, which I still have. But in my working life it manifests itself as never asking for the day rate I deserve, feeling like I'm not good enough to speak up in meetings, and worrying about my abilities.
My work and testimonials are proof I don't need to, but it still happens. I think it was worse when I was in an agency environment, which I found very toxic and damaging.
Now I'm hired specifically for my expertise, so that is reassuring.
The first time I gave my accountant my accounts for the year he was amazed because I was always giving the impression that I was scrabbling for work, whereas they proved otherwise.
My family still ask if I'm still doing bits of writing, when last year I turned over six figures. I think that running your own business from home can make you feel like you don't have a real job, because you're being paid on your sofa. But there's a lot of expertise, experience and knowledge that comes into it. I work with big names such as the National Lottery, NHS and National Trust, yet that feeling creeps in that everyone else is better than me.
Take time to reflect on what's going well. Build a community of peers that you can bounce ideas off and get reassurance whenever things get tough. And remember that what you are doing is valued.
Darren Yap, Wimble
I'm a tai chi, mindfulness and chi kung teacher and therapist, helping ethical business owners to reduce stress.
I started experiencing imposter syndrome primarily as a tai chi teacher. It seemed like whenever I spoke to other tai chi teachers, they would have vastly more experience and knowledge than me which made me feel a bit of a fraud.
I’ve managed to overcome my imposter syndrome, I believe completely, as I no longer feel like a fraud in my specialist field. I worked on myself by looking at what I did, my life experiences and interests, and combined them to offer something unique called the EAST Way (Exercise, Awareness, Somatic awareness, Therapeutic transformation), which I believe is key to approaching life optimistically and realistically to be able to bounce back during times of hardship.
I also now help other business owners to go through this process so that they can stand out from the crowd as an expert at what they do.
Jessie Moore, Pocket Wanderings
I’m Jessie and I am a freelancer who runs two businesses: an SEO consultancy and a travel blog. Prior to full-time freelancing, I was Head of SEO at a digital agency in London. I quit my job two years ago to be a freelance SEO Consultant and to spend more time creating content for my travel blog.
I first started experiencing imposter syndrome when I was Head of SEO. With a whole team and a huge number of clients to manage, I felt a lot of pressure to be at my absolute best. Although I’d always had a lot of confidence in my ability and skills, I became increasingly concerned at how I was perceived, which in turn led to a feeling of not being good enough.
I believe this stemmed from the fact that I am both female and look very young for my age. I’ve always felt like I have more to prove, especially over my male colleagues. I have received comments from clients before who believed I did not ‘look’ qualified enough to be Head of SEO. Of course, these comments were in the minority – but as humans, we have a tendency to focus far more on the negative. Despite trying not to let these comments get to me, they definitely had a negative influence on the way I perceived myself as head of a department.
A turning point in dealing with my imposter syndrome was when I quit my job as Head of SEO to be my own boss. Suddenly, without the pressure of having to perform for someone else, I felt liberated. Now that it was only myself held accountable, I was able to approach client campaigns and projects with far more confidence. It took time, but I’m now at a point where I have no doubt in my ability and can convey this to clients without issue.
There will always be times when imposter syndrome creeps back in. I now have many years of expertise behind my SEO work, but I feel the effects more with new skills and endeavours. As an example, I have recently undertaken a photography course and am slowly beginning to get paid work. Yet I often feel like I’m not good enough to be getting paid yet – which, of course, isn’t true. I have to remind myself that paying clients wouldn’t have approached me in the first place if they didn’t think I was up to the job.
My first tip for overcoming feelings of imposter syndrome is to simply be aware of it. Catch yourself whenever you find yourself doubting your ability and try to ask why you feel like that. It’s easy to let feelings and emotions get in the way of the facts, so take a step back and try to observe your situation as an outsider. For me, acknowledging the ‘why’ behind my feelings was incredibly helpful in alleviating it.
It’s also important to remember that mistakes and failure are part of life and business. They don’t make you an imposter, they make you human. How you deal with failure is the most important part. Take your learnings away from the situation and move on with confidence.
Dr Joanna Woodnutt, The Veterinary Content Company
When I graduated from the University of Nottingham in 2016, I thought I’d be a small animal vet forever. But a few years in, I fell out of love with being a vet. The hours are long, the days are stressful, and the pay is pretty poor. I stumbled into a strange combination of my two loves – writing and animals – and now work full-time as a pet writer.
In 2020, I set up The Veterinary Content Company, which helps other vets find joy in writing by providing them with freelance writing opportunities. We produce over 100 articles a month for pet blogs based all over the world.
I don’t think imposter syndrome properly started until after I graduated. Even during a little ‘do I want to do this?’ wobble at vet school, I still felt like I deserved to be there. But once I graduated, I was thrown into a world where it seemed everybody knew what they were doing, except me.
My first job was tough – every night I would come home crying, wondering whether I’d made the right decisions and recommendations. I woke up in the night wondering if my patients wouldn’t be better off with a different vet. It’s only later that I found out that most vets feel like this – it’s really common! You’d think five years of university and nearly six months of placements in the holidays would help you have some confidence in yourself, but it really doesn’t. It’s thought to be a major contribution to vets burning out and leaving the profession – and I guess I’m a walking, talking example of that.
Even after making the change to writing full time, I still get imposter syndrome. But this imposter syndrome makes more sense. After all, I’m fairly self-taught in the world of business, writing, and SEO – so when I start questioning myself and my skill set, it’s easier to understand why. Although you might not think it would work like this, I find it easier to cope with when I know why I’m doubting myself – I can justify the feeling and move on, rather than getting stuck in a cycle. Somehow, I’ve learned to acknowledge the feeling, and then say out loud why a client should choose me – and the more clients this works for, the more I start to believe it. Positive affirmations make a huge difference to how I see myself and my business – as a result of my hard work, not luck.
The first thing to do to overcome imposter syndrome is to be able to name it. That questioning, niggling, doubting little voice in the back of your head is imposter syndrome. It isn’t your subconscious telling you things you should know, it’s a common trick of the mind making you doubt who you are and what you know.
Once I’ve reminded myself who it is that’s ‘speaking’ to me, the feeling usually fades. But saying some of the reasons she’s wrong out loud helps too. Reminding myself of lectures I’ve attended, late-night studying I’ve undertaken, and all the papers I’ve read that means I do know what I’m talking about is one of the best ways to make that little voice quieten down.
For many vets, keeping notes of the good things that happened- the time the client said your stitches were beautiful, or the thank you card you received from a grateful client – can really help, too.
Beth Greer, Ivy& Bee-Interiors
I'm Beth, owner of an award-winning online homeware business, Ivy&Bee-Interiors.
We help our customers to create an effortlessly stylish home through our online store, providing beautiful homeware with a focus on sustainability
Imposter syndrome is something I have continually struggled with from being a very young age. At 34 years old I have learnt to manage it better than my younger self but it definitely still creeps in now and again.
At times I do still feel like a fraud. I started my business last year with little 'formal' interiors experience and even less business knowledge, because of this, some may deem me as not worthy of running a successful business, but it's my passion and it drives me to push any negativity aside to keep succeeding.
I'm a strong believer in having a positive mindset.
My top tips for overcoming imposter syndrome are:
- Reflect on how far you've come and your achievements, there's always plenty to be proud of when you take some time to look back.
- I remind myself that everyone at some point has experienced imposter syndrome and usually on more than one occasion.
- 'Fake it til you make it' is one of my favourite pieces of advice! it's up to you to have the confidence to put yourself out there and position yourself as an expert in your field.
- Stay positive; it’s not always the easiest choice but keep practising that mindset and it becomes second nature.
Donna Scott, Microsoft Excel Specialist
I'm a Microsoft Excel Specialist and I design custom, automated, easy to use spreadsheets for businesses, as well as solving any issues people may be having with existing spreadsheets.
I started my business around September of last year and I struggled badly with imposter syndrome. With small businesses, it seems like everyone is very confident and knowledgeable about what they do, and while I was confident with my ability to create spreadsheets, general business skills and things like pricing was something I had difficulty with.
I'm much more confident now, thanks to joining a networking group and a small business support group where everyone is always happy to share their experience and knowledge to help drive self-improvement and confidence.
My biggest tip would be to know your worth. As previously mentioned, I struggled with knowing where to price my services and massively undercharged for a while. I'm now confident in what I charge because I know my skills are worth it.
I recently received a fairly long email comparing my prices with other people and telling me I was too expensive. I politely thanked them for their feedback and moved on. Previously, I would have really felt the imposter syndrome kick in and would likely have reduced my rates.
My other tip would be to find a group of like-minded business owners, who you can bounce ideas off, and who will have your back when the feelings of imposter syndrome might kick in. Having support is priceless.
Strategies for overcoming imposter syndrome
1. Call it out
If you resonate with any of the experiences above or recognise yourself in the definition of imposter syndrome, you’ve already taken the first step in tackling it. By giving the voice in your head a name, you’re then able to separate your illogical thoughts and question them.
2. Question it
The next step, according to business mentor and money mindset coach Joseph James, is to work on challenging your mindset.
“The important thing here is not to make yourself wrong, but to start looking at things with an inquisitive mindset,” James says. “If you’re feeling like an imposter, ask yourself ‘If I didn’t feel like an imposter, what would I be saying to myself?’ If I felt confident in my abilities, what would I be doing?”
3. Practise mindfulness
James values mindfulness and teaches this to business owners and professionals who are struggling with imposter syndrome through his coaching sessions.
“One of the first things I do with coaching clients is to get them to create a list of all of the reasons they are great at what they do and to add to it every day for at least 30 days. This sounds simple but it’s incredibly powerful because what we focus on, we bring.
“Most of the time, we downplay our achievements and overlook the amazing things we have done in our lives, so this exercise is a really great way to get you focusing on the things that make you uniquely qualified.”
4. Cultivate confidence
Feelings of being a fraud often occur when we lack confidence in our abilities – but we are often our worst critics. By changing the way we speak to ourselves, or our “self-talk” as James calls this, to be kind and encouraging – just like we would with others – can go a long way in alleviating symptoms of imposter syndrome.
“My top tip for overcoming imposter syndrome is to understand that you are a unique individual with your own version of brilliance. One of the key ways I help clients with this is to support them in finding their own unique place in the market. We all have a unique set of experiences, talents, gifts and skills that are completely individual to us.
“Instead of comparing yourself to others, shift the focus to what makes you unique. Consciously focus on the things that make you feel qualified and confident every day. Train your mind to focus on the things you want more of.”
Imposter syndrome affects the lives of many driven and successful people. By recognising the signs and symptoms, and knowing you can control it, you can prevent it from blocking your progress, whether that’s at work or in your personal life. There are lots of strategies, such as practising mindfulness or attending business coaching sessions, that can empower you to maintain optimal performance and help put your thought processes back on the right track. And sometimes it just helps to know that you’re not alone in how you’re feeling.