It is estimated to be experienced by around 70 percent¹ of us in at least one stage of our lives. It has many different names: imposter syndrome, fraud syndrome, imposterism, to name a few. One thing’s for sure though, it can massively dampen your self-confidence.
Imposter syndrome is the belief that you are a failure, despite evidence of your success. People suffering with imposter syndrome doubt their skills, talents or accomplishments and often put these things down to luck or timing, rather than their own hard work and success. They live with a fear of being ‘found out’ and ‘uncovered’ for being a fraud.
Unfortunately, imposter syndrome is very common amongst graduates in their first few years out of university. Starting their first jobs, graduates often feel like they don’t deserve their careers and worry about being uncovered as a fraud.
Expert on the subject, Cate Murden, the founder of wellbeing and performance company PUSH, shared with us her own experiences of imposter syndrome and offered advice for graduates on how to deal with it.
She said: “When I was young, imposter syndrome played a huge part in my life. I’d been put into a new role and I didn’t think I was good enough for it.”
Who experiences imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome was discovered in Georgia State University in 1978 by two researchers, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Ines².
They found that high achieving individuals tend to feel like they can’t live up to other’s expectations. Rather than viewing failure as an everyday part of life, they tend to deeply personalize it and see it as a reflection of themselves.
“Previously, it always seemed that imposter syndrome was only experienced by women, but it has been found that men experience it just as much,” said Murden.
It’s more about the individual’s personality traits than anything else, Murden explained. For example, perfectionists are statistically much more likely to experience imposter syndrome due to the incredibly high standards they set for themselves.
Murden said: “Imposter syndrome is very much based upon your own world. Our perception of the world is very much based upon our own belief structure.”
What are the common causes of imposter syndrome?
Clance’s and Imes’ study found that imposter syndrome can often be traced back to early family or school life, where as a child you received mixed messages about achievement and about your own competency. This can then have an impact on your every-day life.
According to Murden, graduates are more highly to suffer from imposter syndrome in their first job after university because they are experiencing something completely new.
She said: “Graduates are more likely to experience imposter syndrome as they’re in a brand-new environment. The more times you’ve experienced something, the less likely it is that you feel symptoms of imposter syndrome.
“That’s why those industries that move at pace, where you’re doing lots of new activities every day, that’s when it will kick in. Of course, as a graduate that’s going to be rife.”
How can you deal with imposter syndrome?
There are several ways you can deal with imposter syndrome. Murden told us how she has personally learned to cope with it.
She said: “When negative thoughts come up, I now immediately tell myself: this is my imposter. It’s not real. It’s just in my brain. It’s going into an old behaviour based on an old belief that’s just not accurate for now and isn’t serving me.
“Then I think about where I have been successful, not where I failed. I can’t change the way my brain thinks but I can try to override those thoughts.”
Murden offers the following tips for overcoming imposter syndrome:
Recognize imposter syndrome for what it is
“The first step is being aware of it and calling it out,” said Murden. She suggested naming your imposter syndrome in order to recognise it as something separate to yourself and therefore as something you can confront head on.
“Giving it a name – Barbara for example – will help you be able to call it out as it comes up,” she said.
Ask yourself these four questions
Murden said: “Ask yourself: Is this really true? What evidence do I have for this? What benefit does this thought to bring to me? Where would I be if I didn’t have this thought?”
Once you’ve answered these questions, you’ll soon find that your feelings are just that: feelings.
Separate feelings from facts
Understanding what’s real and what is just in your head is the best way to overcome imposter syndrome.
Murden said: “When you get a negative thought, try to separate your feelings from the facts. Do this by finding evidence to the contrary and playing up these positive moments”.
By reminding yourself of your successes and your achievements, you can prove to yourself that the feelings of being a fraud and a failure are not a reflection of your true self.
When things do go wrong, avoid taking it personally
“Try to keep failures in line. When things do go wrong, don’t attach yourself to it too much,” said Murden.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Murden suggested trying to play out the situation in a more positive way. She said your brain is much more likely to see the negatives of a situation but asks you to consider what positives might come out of the situation.
She said: “You can’t get rid of the neural pathways that you have in place but you do get a lot better at building new ones”.
Ask yourself what you’re pleased with
When you’re feeling negative and starting to experience imposter syndrome, make a list of your successes, advised Murden.
She said: “In those moments, just turn it round. Write down three things where you have been successful, and three things that you have done brilliantly. Doing this can change your thinking about yourself.”
¹Sakulku, J. (1). The Impostor Phenomenon. The Journal of Behavioral Science, 6(1), 75-97. https://doi.org/10.14456/ijbs.2011.6
²Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006