Sarah* is the ultimate high achiever. After winning a national award for her master’s research, she went on to gain a prestigious scholarship to fund her PhD. On its completion, she was nominated for a sought-after prize and saw off stiff competition to win it. Her research is now triggering long overdue change in her chosen field.
But some days she’s almost crippled by self-doubt:
“I question why I think I have anything to contribute. If I address a conference or speak to the media as an expert, I feel terrible. I’m convinced that anything I’ve said is stupid and that I should just stop. I don’t want to tell anyone about the successes because acknowledging them just makes me feel worse. My parents don’t even know about the prize I won.”
This negative, confidence-sapping mental script is a sign of impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience). Sarah’s experience is an extreme example of this psychological pattern, but the signs and symptoms include perfectionism and overworking – all surprisingly common among high achievers and prevalent traits among academics.
The term ‘impostor syndrome’ was first coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr Pauline R. Clance and Dr Suzanne A. Imes. Their research identified three elements:
1. A feeling that others have a mistakenly high view of your abilities
2. A fear of being exposed or found out
3. A tendency to downplay success, attributing it to luck or disproportionate effort
If you ever feel that your peers have earned their position or reputation through merit, but that you somehow got where you are by mistake, you may be experiencing impostor syndrome. Try this diagnostic test devised by Dr Pauline R. Clance if this sounds familiar.
The effects of the phenomenon can be far-reaching and corrosive, including:
Isolation from your peers: you’re less likely to create and enjoy connections with others in your field if you’re anxious they might think you a fraud. This can lead to withdrawal and loneliness.
Limiting opportunities: anxiety may mean you avoid finishing tasks or move frequently between jobs for fear that you’ll be exposed. When this happens, you risk stalling your momentum and ultimately stunting your career.
Burnout: prolonged fear and doubt cause physical and mental strain, affecting your sleep and wider health. Trying desperately to stay one step ahead often leads to over-preparation, perfectionism – and exhaustion.
What’s more, the crushing irony is that the better you do, the worse you feel.
Negative feelings often spike after a particularly noteworthy achievement, such as winning a prize. Success only intensifies the fear of being ‘found out’. What might look like objective proof of success to anyone else ends up only deepening a sense of unworthiness.
The good news, however, is that once impostor syndrome has been identified there are effective ways to tackle it. Here are five suggestions:
1. Depersonalise it. It’s not a shameful secret; it’s an experience shared by many, successful people. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts” (The Triumph of Stupidity, 1933).
2. Break the silence. Read about it, understand it about it and join the conversation. By doing this you’ll help yourself and others who may be privately struggling. Everyone benefits when people speak out honestly to debunk myths about perfection.
3. Take time to clarify what matters to you. Reflect on your attitudes towards competence and failure, and the distinction between bettering yourself and having to be the best. Finding a mentor can be a great way to explore some of these questions.
4. When your confidence is taking a nose-dive, read your CV. It’s an objective, factual record of what you’ve achieved.
5. Practice receiving positive feedback. Collect it and work through it slowly, experiment with taking it on board rather than immediately dismissing or downplaying it. Try recalibrating your response so you start to savour and celebrate compliments.
Finally, for a sense of perspective, read about author Neil Gaiman’s experience of imposter syndrome to understand how reality often differs drastically from our perceptions of ourselves.
*This name has been changed