Do You Feel Like a Fraud?

Chronic self-doubt is a hallmark of impostor syndrome, and a telltale sign is the disconnect between perceived and actual performance.

Do You Feel Like an Imposter?

Sometimes we don’t receive acknowledgement because we fear we don’t deserve it.

In her excellent book The Charisma Myth (Penguin Books, 2013), Olivia Fox Cabane reports a curious yet highly reliable phenomenon: Every year, she asks the incoming class at Stanford Business School, “How many of you in here feel that you are the one mistake that the admissions committee made?" And every year, about two-thirds of the students raise their hands.

Now this is a curious state of affairs because getting into a top-notch program is not easy. There are many hurdles to clear, including achieving a high GPA in college, scoring high on the GMAT, and obtaining strong letters of recommendation from prominent professors and professionals. Building an impressive dossier takes consistent and concerted hard work as well as talent. It would be difficult to consistently pull the wool over everyone’s eyes during four years of college, internships, and grueling tests like the GMAT. Yet despite this, the majority of students who achieve their goal of admission to the program seriously doubt they deserve to be there. In short, they suffer from Impostor Syndrome.

Impostor Syndrome and Lack of Acknowledgement

According to the California Institute of Technology Counseling Center, Impostor Syndrome is “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.”

The telltale sign of impostor syndrome is a disconnect between perceived and actual performance. “Impostors” have ample objective evidence that they are doing well—good performance reports, promotion history, grades, etc. Yet they feel that somehow they've been faking it or skating along on thin ice. Any minute now, they are going to be ummasked and revealed to be a fraud.

Impostor syndrome has been studied by researchers for over three decades. One striking characteristic of the syndrome is that, although impostors crave acknowledgement and praise for their accomplishments, they do not feel comfortable when they receive it. Instead, praise makes them feel anxious because they secretly feel they do not deserve it. After all, they think, I'm just faking it—unlike everyone else here who seems to know what they're doing.

Who suffers from Impostor Syndrome?

If you suffer from it, take heart from the fact that over 70% of people studied report having experienced it at one time or other in their lives. Also take heart from the fact that people who are high achievers are the very ones who are mostly likely to suffer from impostor syndrome. Both men and women experience impostor syndrome, but they tend to respond to it quite differently. In a study involving 135 college students, women who scored high on measures of anxiety and impostor syndrome also worked harder and competed harder to prove themselves. Men who scored high, on the other hand, avoided situations where their weaknesses could be exposed. Their primary motivation was to consistently appear strong by pursuing activities that were likely to showcase their strengths.

Where does it come from?

Impostor syndrome can stem from a variety of sources. One study discovered that paternal overprotection and lack of paternal care led to a greater likelihood of developing impostor syndrome. In another study, having non-supportive friends was found to be associated with greater incidence of impostor syndrome in both men and women. "Frenemies" can sap your confidence, while true friends strengthen it.

More importantly, impostor syndrome is sometimes considered a “rite of passage” when building one’s career. As you move up the ladder in your profession, you will undoubtedly become more skilled at what you do. So you would think that your self-doubts would fade. After all, you must know what you’re doing or they wouldn’t be promoting you. 

As it turns out, the reverse is often true. As you progress through your career, you become more skilled, but you are also given greater responsibility. And with that greater responsibility comes increasing costs for failure. When you were an intern and made a mistake, others probably had your back, and the mistake was probably salvageable. But when you are a CEO, mistakes can end up costing your business millions and costing others their jobs. Is it any wonder that CEO’s (and surgeons) tend to have egos the size of Saturn? They need to in order to quiet the voice of self-doubt that can lead to decision-mechanism freeze-up in the face of such enormous responsibility. 

How to Combat it.

While there is no consensus on how to treat impostor syndrome, a wide variety of very useful advice articles have been written on the topic, particularly on Huffington Post. In my own readings in this area, it seems these three habits were frequently recommended as excellent ways to diminish or overcome impostor syndrome. 

Own your successes. People who suffer from Impostor Syndrome don’t internalize successes. They are more likely to attribute their successes to luck or help received from others. Disagree with Nike here: Just DON’T do it. Own your successes. They are YOURS, even if you got a little bit lucky or had help from others. Certainly thank others for their help and give credit where credit is due—even if a little of it came from Lady Luck. But take your credit as well. You did it and you deserve the praise and acknowledgement. 

Own your thoughts. Impostor syndrome thrives on self-criticism. The more you find fault with yourself and your performance, the more you create a fertile field in which impostor syndrome can take root and flourish. Unfortunately, we are “wired” to remember the negative more than the positive. Why? It is part of our evolutionary history. Negative experiences can have more severe, life-threatening survival consequences than positive ones. Not remembering your negative experience with the lion that chased you can have more disastrous consequences than not remembering that those berries tasted pretty good. So we tend to dwell on and relive our negative experiences. It is our brain’s way of trying to keep us safe.

To combat this negative self-talk, you need to own your own thoughts, your own mind. The worst way to combat negative self-talk is to use negative admonishments, as in “I will not criticize myself anymore.” That’s just more criticism. The best way to take control of a negative thought is to put a different thought in its place—one that you’ve chosen to fit the job. In Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863), Russian write Fyodor Dostoevsky made the following observation: "Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute." How do you not think about a white bear? Think about a black one instead. Or an eagle. Or almost any other vivid image. Whenever the image of a white bear begins to encroach on your cognitive turf, summon up a different image instead—and really focus on that image. Whenever an unhelpful self-doubt threatens to invade your thoughts, shift your focus to one of your strengths or your successes—and really focus on those.

Understand what those feelings are for. Anxiety, fear of success, fear of failure, fear of being unmasked as a fraud—these are all very unpleasant feelings. And they are supposed to be. In moderation, they motivate you to do something. Look at it this way: Why do babies cry? Because that noise is so unpleasant that it forces mom or dad to do something about it. The question is what do you do?

Accept that everyone everywhere—no matter how successful—experiences the self-doubt that underlies impostor syndrome. It is part and parcel of becoming accomplished and successful. There is nothing unusual or wrong about feeling these things. Leave no cognitive space for them to grow, and you willl regain control of your life and your future.

Posted Oct 3, 2013

Copyright Denise Cummins

Dr. Cummins is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Live (Cambridge University Press, 2012). More books by Dr. Cummins can be found at http://www.goodthinkingbooks.com. More information about Dr. Cummins can be found at http://www.denisecummins.com.

Do You Feel Like a Fraud?