Imposter Syndrome: how we get it, three techniques to try, and why it might actually help us

This week Dame Kate Bingham, the woman tasked with chairing the government’s Covid-19 vaccine task force, told the Times Education Commission that she had doubted her abilities when asked by Matt Hancock, then health secretary, to lead procurement of vaccines. “Why me?” She asked, “I can’t do this. There must be someone better.” Bingham has, of course, been widely praised for her response of the task force that saw the UK lead the way in securing a range of vaccines. But she says this was difficult, “I do think women have that as a sort of inbuilt problem. I really should have not had that. I’ve been doing this for over 30 years.”

What is imposter syndrome?

Most of us think we are imposters. It’s just that some of us hide it better than others. In schools we experience this feeling every September: can I actually teach? Will I manage the kids? How do I stand up in front of staff? Can I take on this new role? Why all of a sudden do we feel like imposters?

Imposter Syndrome is a defensive mechanism which protects us against disappointment or future failure. Because we are afraid of failing, we don’t put ourselves forward, and because we don’t start, we get stuck in a negative loop and don’t achieve what we could. In my role this year as a coach it has been this issue, more than any other, that people want to talk about. I have the privilege of working with some wonderful, successful school leaders. People who should have no difficulty pointing out their skills and strengths and competencies. But many describe feelings of self-doubt, are unsure of their ability, and question whether past accomplishments were really deserved or just lucky.

What are the symptoms?

We experience these feelings taking on a new role, preparing for interview, presenting ideas to our superiors, or beginning a creative task. Mostly you feel good about it, but as it gets closer to the start date you begin to feel that sense of foreboding, an inarticulate fear hanging over your head.

Should I apply for this role? We convince ourselves we shouldn’t consider that role, that our background experience isn’t up to scratch, or that our creative work doesn’t compare to that of others.

Everybody around me is smarter – I over-prepare and work harder than necessary to ensure no one finds out what it is that I really don’t know. Find out I’m a fraud. A pretender. A phony.

“I feel like a fake” – I try to give the impression I’m more competent than I really am. Yes, I was successful at interview, but it’s one thing persuading those on the other side of the interview desk that I’ve got what it takes.

Where does this feeling come from?

Psychologists believe imposter-hood is the battle between nature and nurture. Nature tells us we struggle to internalise our abilities, are prone to comparison, and are naturally hard on ourselves. The imposter feeling quickly becomes “I must not fail.” Researchers link imposter syndrome with high achievers and perfectionism, especially amongst women and academics. It is, paradoxically, those most likely to achieve high grades who find the weight of expectation and the visibility of results most crushing. So, they enjoy neither success, nor the process by which success comes about.

Schools and universities nurture us with regular testing, giving us a neat mechanism for tracking our progress. But once we escape this annual narrative, we’re less sure how we shape up. Against this we are bombarded with the glamorous exploits of our peers on social media. So even those achievements that once felt good to us now pale in comparison with these wunderkind. Anne Lamott reminds us, “don’t compare your inside with other people’s outside.”

So how can we manage this feeling?

The truth is we don’t have to collapse under the pressure. Success is possible. Most of us work it out. Students ace their exams, teachers stand up in front of classes, leaders deliver to audiences, artists and writers create and the world keeps turning. Our lives are not incapacitated by imposter syndrome. Self-confidence is key to our success, triggering the energy to face our fears and take the first step in a new challenge or stressful situation. We may feel dissatisfied or trapped within our current role, but lack the confidence to consider another more challenging one. And because we doubt our abilities, our confidence slides and we begin to feel trapped, unsure how to climb out of the loop of uncertainty

So here are three ways that might help us manage things better:

1. Collect your evidence:

Find the evidence that you are qualified, that you are now this next level version of yourself. Remind yourself of the work you put in – the late night revision for finals, your exam results, your MA, the sacrifices you made. Remember, this was not luck. It is the absolute definition of hard work and time spent honing your knowledge.

Celebrate each small accomplishment. Having a positive first week, nailing the first few lessons, delivering the seminar, presenting to the senior team. Each one provides me with the thing I’m looking for: evidence. I’ll have begun to accomplish some goals, and this remind me and others that I’m not a fraud. It won’t eliminate my imposter syndrome, but it will shift it to the back seat. Even if each small project feels like a tiny win, each time you celebrate, you are reminding your brain that you did what you said you would do. This supports your new identity. James Clear tells us, “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”

In interview, remember that people only see the tip of your iceberg. Most of the real you is hidden beneath the surface. When we preoccupy with the short interview process we somehow believe we’ve been erroneously selected, whereas the truth is that this process is simply a confirmation of my work and achievements over time, the confidence in the knowledge and skills that I bring, the whole person I am. Astute leaders appoint on the capacity of an individual to develop, whereas our minds tell us we must be the finished article right now.

We need however to beware the temptation to invest more and more time and energy in order to over-prove ourself, lest we fall for the perfectionist trap. Know when what you have done is enough.

No single piece of evidence will cancel the imposter feeling, but as you learn to understand yourself, and especially the warning signs at the beginnings of projects or new roles, this will begin to provide you with evidence that you really are good enough.

2. Visualise yourself in the new role/situation:

Once you have reminded yourself that the ‘evidence’ shows you have what it takes, next visualise yourself as being in role, planning the future actions you will take as though they were already happening.

First concentrate on just getting the first lesson, the presentation or the first day completely right. Visualise success in that single activity. This will keep you calm and focused.  Keep your eye on the tasks in front of you, not on the things you think people are thinking about. 

At the same time remind yourself that you are in training, and see yourself as a learner – borrowing wisdom from those around you who will guide. Acknowledge that there is a gap between where you need to be and where you are right now, that it’s OK that you don’t know everything and that you’re here to learn. Rewire your thoughts: instead of telling yourself they’re going to find you out, see yourself as a successful person who will find ‘it’ out, and include this new learning as part of your plan. If you imagine yourself in position, this helps people see that you have great ideas, yet you want to learn from others. You are confident of your plans, yet you arrive with humility. This is a winning formula.

3. Talk:

Firstly, talk to others. Talk to your line manager or a trusted colleague about this imposter feeling. If they’re not feeling like you are right now, they definitely have done so in the past. Opening up about how you feel can be hard, but it may be a small chink of humanity that you need right now. Remember, it’s normal to be unsure, not weakness to tell.

Secondly, talk to yourself. Ask yourself powerful questions. It is tough to reverse the natural psychology of doubting our achievements and fearing exposure. One way to talk ourselves out of self-doubt is to ask ourselves deeper, more Socratic questions. These are designed to help us to think clearly for ourselves, test false assumptions, generate our own solutions and make better, wiser decisions.

One technique is to try to remove limiting assumptions:

We all have negative words and phrases which hold us back, and kill our confidence. Our assumptions drive everything, and they are often untrue, based on false beliefs. Untrue, limiting assumptions can hold back the way we think and work. The first step is to notice them, and then to replace the untrue ones with true ones. Then to reword them into a powerful incisive question. The construction of this question can often be the way that our mind help get us unstuck. Here’s the sequence:

What are you assuming that is most stopping you from going forward? I’m assuming that people think I’m not qualified for this job

Do you think that assumption is true? Not really, I hit the person spec. pretty well and the interview went OK I suppose, but…

What is true (and liberating)? It would be true to say that I was appointed by a good team, against strong competition, and that I trust their judgement.

If you knew this to be true, how would you go forward? It would stop me worrying quite so much, and wondering what others think, and I’d be able to focus more on what getting the job done, which is actually what I’m paid to do!

Another technique is to question your negative thoughts until you cancel them out:

Q: You’re not fit to stand up and present to these people (negative rumination).

A: Didn’t the boss ask you because she knows you’re an expert in the area? (positive self-talk).

Q: Maybe, but people will be remembering that thing you fluffed last month (negative rumination).

A: Who are these people? What evidence do you have they’re really thinking this? (positive self-talk).

Q: And anyway, person X is a much more charismatic presenter than me (negative rumination).

A: They definitely have presentational gifts yes, but don’t compare yourself with them – focus on the things that you do incredibly well, skills that person X may not have (positive self-talk).

Imposter syndrome can be your secret weapon:

Having negative thoughts is perfectly natural and can actually be a healthy springboard to action. Instead of trying to eliminate imposter syndrome, it can help to know that we can go on to do powerful things in spite of it.

And maybe I don’t actually want to rid myself of its energising potential. The only people without imposter syndrome are narcissists and psychopaths, who know no fear. Imposter syndrome teaches us to look fear full in the face and use it to spur us to action. This is the paradox. Fear, as well as being the thing holding you back, can also become your greatest ally. It is possible to be both desperately afraid and also terrifically excited about the new challenge ahead at the same time.

We have these feelings online too. We carefully curate our identities – exaggerating some aspects, repressing others. Online I want to appear friendly, organised, calm. I don’t want people to know that my life is less than exciting, or that I am less together than I show. I want to repress these qualities. You may be surprised by my failings, I’m only too aware of my shortcomings. But the closer we try to approximate to our artificial self the less real we are for others, and the more others think they have to pretend to be perfect too. There’s something about perfect CVs, spotless application letters and flawless presentations I’ve never quite believed.

It took Kate Bingham considerable courage to overcome her imposter-hood. “People don’t expect to have lots of female engineers nor do they actually expect to have lots of sciencey women like me in finance.” This courage in taking on a key role during a national crisis happened because her need to act was more powerful than her fear of things going wrong. For such individuals, their desire to help, their unwillingness to accept the status quo overcomes their fear of being an imposter. These are the people who quietly propel history forwards.

We discover our vocation, our calling, when we realize we are summoned by something outside ourselves. And although our fear never disappears, we put it behind us because it’s less important than what we know needs to get done. Bingham’s sense of imposter-hood and mine are poles apart. I can only imagine her fear of things going wrong, the accountability, the loneliness of decision making, the likely criticism from the press. But she because she dared to step up, lives have been saved. People like this are important because they help us to be more honest about the things we don’t know, or are afraid of. They show us what we might do. They help us be more brave. 

So when your imposter-free self glides through the presentation or the pitches to emerge faultless and perfect, this may not ultimately satisfy. But when your lesson crumbles, the PowerPoint dies or the tumbleweed skips across the interview table, this is the moment people want you to succeed, because they know you’re real. And when you feel like an imposter, take a look at everyone else in the room – believe me, we’re all pretending too.

3 thoughts on “Imposter Syndrome: how we get it, three techniques to try, and why it might actually help us

  1. Hi Ian Loved this! Thought it worked very well. Hope you’re pleased with it. Will be interested to see the reaction it gets.  Good to talk earlier this week.  All the bestPeter

    Sent from the all-new AOL app for iOS


  2. Pingback: Kicking Perfectionism | ianfrosteducation

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