Feel like a Fraud? How to Deal with Imposter Syndrome

Feel like a Fraud? How to Deal with Imposter Syndrome

Ever felt you don’t deserve to be where you are? That your achievements have been down to luck? And at any point in time, you are one action away from being exposed for the fraud you are?

Welcome to the world of imposter syndrome.

In today’s society, achievements are plastered everywhere. From personal accomplishments filling up social media feeds to professional milestones being shared on LinkdIn, we live in a world were we are constantly reminded of people’s “perfect lives”. Whilst sharing big wins with those closest to you is wonderful, for some people, simply recognising what they have achieved can be a struggle. In fact, a reportedly large proportion of individuals are thought to be so unable to take on board their well deserved attainments, they endlessly question their own abilities in their personal or professional position.

This self-doubt fuelled questioning of one’s ability in spite of physical evidence proving you are well-qualified for the role defines imposter syndrome and it has been estimated that 70% of people feel this way about themselves at some point in their lives. These sensations are of course false, but they seem real as anything when in the imposter headspace. Our bias to focus on negative events over positive is proposed to be wired into our brains as a negative-centric view of the world better protects us from unknown threats. But when such bias leads to dwelling on all our failings and preventing us from seeing why we are worthy of where we are, it can be not only a tough headspace to be in but a detrimental one to future success. Individuals who have imposter syndrome thoughts can become less productive, feel more likely to fail, be more likely to procrastinate and feel really insecure.

Although imposter syndrome can effect anyone, it is thought some people are more susceptible than others. Individuals who identify as perfectionists – who want to steer clear of failure at all costs to avoid feelings of shame – are likely to feel undeserving of their position as an 100% success rate in life is an impossible task. People who are classed as “experts” in their field of work are also likely to succumb to imposter thoughts as an expert is extremely aware of how much they don’t know on a topic. Asking for help or struggling with a concept when you’ve always been told you are a “natural” in a certain area or pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone where you have always been “successful” can invoke self-doubt. And finally, in studies to date, women are believed to suffer higher incidences of imposter thoughts than men. In addition to certain groups of people, personality traits like being more anxious are proposed to drive feelings of being a fraud and other traits – such as accent, race, sexuality and gender – can promote imposter syndrome when you feel like the odd one out in a group.

The science behind imposter syndrome is still poorly understood and it is only recently a call to the scientific community has been put forward to study the psychology, biology and neuroscience behind the condition which holds back many talented, capable individuals. It has been suggested imposter thoughts may have evolved as a form of anticipatory anxiety – allowing us to predict potential non-secure situations before we faced them – or as a means of keeping us in the “tribe” – feeling the need to rely on others to survive. In terms of psychology, theories behind who imposter syndrome effects include people who feel their abilities have been overestimated so live in a state of worry trying to live up to a societal expectation. And neuroscience proposes imposter syndrome may be caused by alteration to the stress response, meaning an individual with imposter syndrome may be more susceptible to stress than people not as likely to feel this way (although this theory will be hard to untie from other high-stress conditions like anxiety and depression). Or imposter syndrome could manifest in individuals who have problems with their reward circuitry, meaning they are less able to feel an internal sense of accomplishment for their achievements. Studying the underlying biology of imposter syndrome will be essential for understanding this state of thinking and hopefully provide more help to those who go through it.

As a PhD student, I have dealt with my fair share of imposter syndrome and have a few ways I manage this headspace:

Do not engage or dwell in the imposter thoughts! A thought is a thought, but how we react to it stirs our feelings and beliefs. Easier said than done but recognising your thoughts before reacting to them can help – speak them aloud or journal to get better at pinning down what thoughts and situations are making you feel like an imposter. Label these thoughts as “imposter syndrome” to help in telling yourself they are not real.

Challenge yourself: what is it that you think will expose you? Do it! A lot of us harbour fear around a certain situation where we think our inability will come through but most of the time, our brains have built up fear around these actions as a protection mechanism. Showing your brain you can do it (and do it well!) will teach it to drop the fear. For me this was presenting science and thinking I would get exposed for not knowing anything. This was not the case and after doing many presentations, I now feel really comfortable talking about my work to an audience of experts.

Teach others: there are always people a few steps behind you and helping these people helps convince your brain you do know a lot. You could teach junior staff at work, or teach people not in your field about what you do online in a blog or on social media. You will soon see how much you do know!

Get okay with saying “I don’t know”: This feels like the biggest fear when trying to convince others you are meant to fit in but honestly, everyone says it. And by openly saying you don’t know, you will get to learn about the things you don’t know about!

Schedule your work time: this is so important for not letting imposter thoughts impact your work. Schedule your work time in advance and do your best to stick to it. Even if you are having a day when your brain is being really harsh, show up and do something. Split up work into manageable chunks and over time, you will build up an even more amazing bank of knowledge.

Talk to your peers: likelihood is, many of them are going through or have been through the same thing. It is reassuring to hear someone you think is ‘perfect and deserving’ say they feel like a fraud. It can help act as a mirror for your thoughts to show you might also be painting yourself in a negative light. I found speaking to senior scientists about these feelings really helpful because even after years of work and piles of publications – they still can feel like imposters!

Imposter syndrome feels almost like an inevitable part of pursuing an ambitious plan or big goal. Your brain wants to keep you safe and in your comfort zone, so will try to convince you to not push the boundary by making you worry you are not worthy of where you are meant to be. But you are so worthy! Hopefully with scientific advances, we can understand more about imposter syndrome but for now, know you will not get exposed by doing the scary thing because you are capable and so deserve to be were you are.

Brains hugs,

Julia xoxo (@julia.ravey.science)

For more science and productivity tips by me, see my Youtube!

This blog was based on a recent review article about the theories of imposter syndrome.

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