“Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself. 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.” Sheryl Sandberg, COO Facebook
“You think: ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?’“ Meryl Streep, record-holder for the most Academy Awards nominations for any actor ever
“I don’t know whether other authors feel it, but I think quite a lot do- that I’m pretending to be something that I’m not, because even nowadays, I do not quite feel as though I am an author.” Agatha Christie, best-selling author
“The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” Albert Einstein, Nobel Prize Genius
Aren’t these quotes astonishing? Meryl Streep thinking she’s a bad actress? Albert Einstein that he is a charlatan? Agatha Christie that she’s not a proper writer? It goes to show that nobody is safe from the infamous “impostor syndrome”.
According to research, 70% of the population experiences at least once in their lives this syndrome, a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud", despite external evidence that they are competent. Indeed, paradoxically enough, the self-perceived “fraudsters” tend to be highly competent individuals. While both men and women are affected, this syndrome is more prevalent with high-achieving women.
The symptoms include:
Persistent self doubt: no matter how good they are at their jobs, they never trust themselves to be competent enough;
Worry that they will not live up to expectations: they always fear that they will disappoint those around them;
Attribute success to outside factors: be it luck, hard work, good looks… They always doubt their competency and attribute success to external factors rather than their abilities.
Self-sabotage: they experience a constant internal struggle between achieving success and avoiding being "found out", which often prevents them from reaching their full potential.
Experience job dissatisfaction: they may not feel challenged enough, but a fear of failure or discovery stops them from seeking promotions or extra responsibilities, or to seek a better job somewhere else.
Avoid asking for a raise: as they undervalue themselves and their skills, they believe that they’re just not worth what they are being paid, and don’t believe they should ask for more;
Go overboard on tasks : intense fear of failure pushes them to overwork, but while they are often overachievers, they tend to feel that they’re never good enough.
I remember being at a press conference about fifteen years ago, having prepared some questions but going into complete panic mode and finding myself unable to speak out. Here I was, having been the first French journalist to get an exclusive face to face interview with Tony Blair since he had become Prime minister, having had some TV documentaries shown on prime time TV and sold worldwide before I had even turned 30, but feeling completely self conscious and unable to speak in front of a crowd of peers, as if my questions were not worth asking- even though, they were, really, just as much as those asked by my colleagues. I really felt like a fraud, and it’s not a nice feeling, as I’m sure many others can testify.
Luckily, there are a few things that we can do to fight the culprit. Below are a few tips which I find useful:
Confide in someone close who knows you well and knows of your achievements: they will be able to reassure you, remind you of your past and present successes, and boost your confidence. If you can’t stop that nasty, little inner voice yourself, then it’s good to bring someone else into the dialogue.
Make a list of all your achievements, both personal and professional: you will be amazed at how much you’ve already accomplished, and that will remind you that you’ve earned your spot- nobody but yourself got you where you are.
Be more assertive: drop the apologising tone when you bring a new idea to the table or disagree with a colleague, infuse more confidence into the way you talk, and always assume that your questions are valid, and that you’re probably not the only one to have them.
And remember that the imposter syndrome is more than anything a sign that you are doing something right: the most successful and talented people are paradoxically those most likely to suffer from it. So if you’re feeling like a fraud, it is most likely because you are not one!