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Feeling like a fraud? 7 tips to help you obliterate impostor syndrome

Reach your full career potential while ridding yourself of fear and self-doubt

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Afraid  businesswoman hiding behind deskAccording to a report by the International Journal of Behavioral Science, 70 per cent of people experience impostor syndrome at, at least, one point in their lives. (Jose Luis Pelaez Inc./Getty Images)

We can all remember a time when we stepped into unknown territory. Felt more than slightly off our game. Heard a little voice telling us we aren’t good enough, questioning what we are doing there and how we fooled everyone into thinking we belong.

It’s impostor syndrome at its finest and it strikes all kinds, from comedians (like Tina Fey) to actors (think Tom Hanks) and sports icons (i.e. Serena Williams). According to a report by the International Journal of Behavioral Science, 70 per cent of people experience impostor syndrome at, at least, one point in their lives. Those struck typically fear failure, desire to be best (Superman/woman complex), deny their competencies and feel guilty about their success.

So, what’s going on when someone feels their achievements, or praise they’ve received, are undeserved?

“It’s a [person’s] lack of confidence in their ability to do something. Even though their success rate is proven, but they are still questioning themselves,” says Toronto life coach, Catherine Thorburn. “They may actually say something like ‘I feel like a phony and I’m waiting for someone to uncover that I don’t know what I’m doing.’”

But why would someone be feeling this way? According to Thorburn, it comes down to confidence level, familiarity in the position we hold or task we undertake, and fear of how we will perform and be perceived.

“It’s a lack of experience, lack of confidence that comes with that overall experience,” says Thorburn, who has had clients from real estate agents to surgeons expressing the impostor sentiment. “It usually occurs with something new and doesn’t matter what level you’re at. If it’s a new skill for you, then impostor syndrome creeps in.”

For some, the feeling comes in waves, it’s manageable, and, with a shift of perspective, they can get back on track. For others, it can be debilitating to a state of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where repercussions such as client alienation or job loss can ensue. For everyone, there’s a risk of coming across as disingenuous and perhaps untrustworthy.

“If you don’t really believe in yourself, then you can’t put your best foot forward,” reminds Thorburn. “The outcome will be, people won’t be satisfied with your overall performance…which can ultimately lead to failure. [Those suffering] need to get their head around the issue and make themselves more comfortable, so they are not [feeling like] an impostor.”

Just how would you go about doing that?

Regardless of where you sit on the impostor syndrome spectrum, here are seven tips to help steer you towards the path of authentication.

  1. Admit to move on. Identify that that you are experiencing impostor syndrome to take the next steps.
  2. Plug into the past. Remind yourself of past achievements. Write them down, discuss them with someone you trust, envision those times you felt good about your successes.
  3. Reframe thinking. Shift to positive thoughts about yourself in the current position. Think of examples where you have already made headway.
  4. What’s on offer. Remember why you were hired. Look back to your resume and identify the skills and attributes that you bring to the table. What differentiates you from everyone else?
  5. Look around you. Find a mentor you trust and respect and look to them for guidance, or simply mimic those that represent success for you. “Start acting like they do, dress the way they dress, go to the office at the same time, use the materials they use,” advises Thorburn. “To replicate it, you need to be acting and doing the same things.”
  6. Embrace vulnerability. Share your feelings with your manager, employer or client. Admitting that you are getting your bearings and ask for understanding if there are slips along the way will be a weight off your shoulders. “A lot of people are open to hearing that and appreciate the honesty and it makes the person delivering it feel better, too,” shares Thorburn.
  7. Seek intervention. If it is all too much to bear, then perhaps you need a third party to help clear your path forward. Seek help from a business or life coach, or medical professional “if you feel miserable about what you are doing; if you’ve also been told by people that you are not doing a good job, when you know that you should be able to do this,” advises Thorburn.

For advice on how to steer your career in the direction of growth, check out CPA Canada’s webinar, Grow your capacity for career success.