Are you ‘faking’ your way through your career?


Award season is upon us; the time of year when the Hollywood elite dazzle us with svelte figures and designer dresses. The Oscar parade gives rise to another annual trend – an examination of Impostor Syndrome, the psychological phenomenon whereby the sufferer feels as if they’re ‘faking it’, worries they’re about to get ‘found out’ for being a ‘fraud’ and dismisses their successes or achievements as pure ‘luck’.

It’s a condition afflicting some of today’s best-loved actresses. ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? I don’t know how to act,’ said Meryl Streep, the most Oscar-nominated actress in the Academy’s history. ‘People will find out that I’m really not very talented. It’s all a big sham,’ Michelle Pfeifer told an interviewer, while fellow award winner Kate Winslet said: ‘I wake up in the morning before a shoot, and think, “I can’t do this. I’m a fraud”.’

But Impostor Syndrome isn’t the sole preserve of silver screen stars; it’s a phenomenon that can blight the careers of successful businessmen and women. It’s commonly associated with high-achievers of all ages and backgrounds and both sexes, though it was the propensity of Impostor feelings in women which led to the term being coined.

There are an awful lot of peopl;e out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.

Dr Margaret Chan, Chief, World Health Organisation

Some of the most common elements of Impostor Syndrome include:

  • Ignoring your successes and concentrating on failures as an indicator of your professional ability
  • Feeling as though you’ve cheated your way to accolades or successful outcomes, or that the end result was born of luck or external factors, rather than personal accomplishment
  • A creeping unease that those around you are going to ‘find you out’, that you don’t belong or aren’t qualified to work alongside your peers
  • Difficulty accepting or believing compliments – dismissing them as someone ‘just being nice’ or even ‘feeling sorry for me’
  • Making statements (either vocally or internally) like ‘I must not fail, ‘Somebody made a mistake giving me this job’, ‘I just got lucky’, ‘That success was no particular big deal’.
  • Being unusually sensitive to criticism, perceived or otherwise

I have written eleven books, but each time I think, “Uh oh, they’re going to find out know. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”

Maya Angelou, Pulitzer Prize nominated writer

While there are clear self-doubt factors at play, psychologists say Impostor Syndrome is not necessarily associated with low confidence or self esteem, since many sufferers are confident risk-taking entrepreneurs. So what’s behind the feelings? Some experts say their roots are in messages we’re given as children. Sufferers may have been overly encouraged as youngsters – told they’re superior to other children, will go on to achieve great things, even described as ‘geniuses’ or prodigies’. Alternatively, sticky labels might have been attached to sets of siblings – one is the ‘intelligent’ or ‘creative’ child, the other the ‘sensitive’ or shy’ one. The ‘creative’ child may develop Impostor feelings in non-creative situations, while the ‘shy’ little might feel like an Impostor in limelight situations.

Especially prone may be those whose age, gender or other factors mean they’re under-represented in their field (women in STEM careers – science, technology, engineering, mathematics, for example) and those in areas associated with high intelligence (academics, doctors and teachers). First-timers, innovators or thought leaders are equally susceptible: ‘Entrepreneurs often feel like impostors because they’re constantly trying to do things they’ve never done before,’ said an article in Entrepreneur magazine.

‘Most people who experience the Impostor Phenomenon would not say, “I feel like an impostor”,’ says, Pauline Rose Clance, the psychologist who first coined the term. ‘Yet, when they read or hear about the experience, they say, “How did you know exactly how I feel?”’

The dangers of ‘feeling like a fake’ are fairly self-explanatory. The sufferer’s wellbeing is at stake, they may hold back from opportunities they feel underserving of, or fail to reward themselves adequately for those they do pursue with successful outcomes. Others are not so obvious but pose just as harmful consequences: Impostors are often perfectionists who set ‘excessively high, unrealistic goals and then experience self-defeating thoughts and behaviours when they can’t reach those goals…perfectionism often turns neurotic impostors into workaholics’[ii].

Another problematic side effect – identified by Valerie Young, author of ‘The Secret Thoughts Of Successful Women’ – is that the ‘Impostor voice’ can speak louder than other internal voices we need to listen to. She cites the case of Sharon, an IS sufferer who was sent into a panic over a job offer. She didn’t deserve it, she said, and wouldn’t be able to do the job in any case. As the conversation unravelled, it transpired that alongside all those thoughts and feelings, Sharon didn’t actually want the job. She was so focused on her feelings of unworthiness and inability, that she’d ignored the voice telling her that the job wasn’t right for her.  

There are other schools of thought, which say that mild Impostor Syndrome – when managed – can be beneficial:

  • It ensures you don’t get too egotistical and demonstrates humility;
  • It pushes you to seek guidance from mentors when you feel out of your depth;
  • The perfectionism with which its associated can lead to all sorts of high standards being smashed and new successes being achieved along the way.

Every single day of the three years I spent at [Cambridge University]… I was waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me there had been a mistake in admissions. Today – despite the evidence of degree certificates, books published – I am still wondring whether I got here by luck or accident.

Gill Corkindale, Harvard Business Review

Gill Corkindale, the coach and author of the Harvard Business Review article ‘Overcoming Impostor Syndrome’ – herself a sufferer – offers her advice, adapted below from the above mentioned article:

Recognise your feelings. Jot them down as they occur, noticing any patterns in how, when or for what reasons they emerge.

Experiment with giving yourself new messages. If one common message you give yourself is ‘I don’t know enough to do this job’, replace it with ‘I don’t know everything yet, but I’m committed to learning and improving’.

Share your feelings. The chances are your friends, peers and senior colleagues harbour these feelings also. An open dialogue can lessen the impact of your thoughts when they come along.

Acknowledge that nobody feels 100% confident all of the time. When limiting beliefs get in the way of activity, rate your confidence levels. Recognise that it’s a ‘low’ day and that it’s normal to have such days.

Focus on what was learned when you do slip up. Reframing your failure as a learning opportunity builds resilience. Be kind to yourself. Acknowledging your mistakes and learning from them is the mark of a true leader.

Build strong networks. Support systems are critical at every stage of your career. Create your own personal ‘advisory board’ of friends, colleagues and mentors who you can turn to when you need help, advice or to offload. Pay the support forward to your own mentees.

Set realistic goals and track your progress. Visualise what a successful outcome looks like and keep this in mind when things aren’t going to plan. Re-evaluate goals at regular intervals to ensure they remain relevant.


Fake it until you become it

In her classic Ted Talk on body language (currently at 23 million views and counting), Amy Cuddy reveals her own personal strategy for dealing with Impostor feelings: Faking it.

When a head injury sustained during a car crash caused her to drop out of college, she had to fight her way back to health and education, eventually graduating four years later than planned. When a mentor found her a place at Princeton, she ‘wasted months’ feeling like she didn’t belong, and came close to quitting. Her advisor said: ‘You are not quitting. This is what you’re going to do. You are going to fake it. You’re going to do every talk that you ever get asked to do. You’re just going to do it and do it and do it, even if you’re terrified.’

Amy began to fake it – fake confidence, a belief that she had as much right to be at the table, and enthusiasm for things that terrified her. Years later Amy realised she hadn’t just ‘faked it ‘til [she] made it’, she’d ‘faked it ‘til [she] became it.’

More like this on the everywomanNetwork:

Workbook: Smashing limiting beliefs

Workbook: Boosting your self confidence

Workbook: Resilience and bouncing back


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