The ‘imposter phenomenon’ affects millions of women across the world, but how does it really feel to think you’re a fake, day after day? Three women share their experiences with stylist.co.uk digital writer Susan Devaney.
Do these scenarios sound familiar: second guessing your decisions all of the time, feeling like you’re simply filling a quota at work, or deliberately sabotaging relationships before the other person quits on you? An estimated 70% of people will suffer from imposter syndrome at some point during their lives, and it can affect you in more ways than you might think.
American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, coined the term imposter syndrome back in 1978. They described the condition as “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative, despite evidence of high achievement”. They added that, while these people “are highly motivated to achieve”, they also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds”.
The syndrome appears to be more prevalent in high-achievers, with many outwardly successful people, including Meryl Streep, Emma Watson, Maya Angelou and Albert Einstein, all reportedly experiencing it.
But what does living with imposter syndrome feel like on a day-to-day basis, and how do we know we have it?
“Oh, you pretty well know,” Kate Keenan, an occupational psychologist, tells stylist.co.uk.
“You’ll say to yourself, ‘Do they really mean me?’ when you are praised, and you will tend to say something like, ‘It was nothing, just lucky this time’, when in reality you are something of an expert.”
This is certainly a feeling that Helen*, who works for a construction firm in the UK, can relate to.
“I recently got a promotion and my immediate reaction was that I didn’t deserve it,” she explains.
“I thought everyone around me thought that I didn’t deserve it either. I was happy to go for the promotion but then, the minute I got it, I was like: this is wrong. It was really horrible, because I wanted to celebrate but all I could feel was guilt. I almost felt like I was winging it, and that they’d soon discover I was and take away the promotion.
“With imposter syndrome you always think about what other people think, too, so it’s difficult to internalise achievements. You also tend to think that everyone secretly thinks you’re fake.”
Although millions of people experience imposter syndrome, research has shown that the condition affects more women than men.
“Women tend to be the main sufferers from this syndrome because they tend to indicate lower in confidence levels than men,” explains Keenan.
“It’s worth pointing out that more research has been done with women than men. But because no one likes to openly admit to this problem, it’s more than likely that many men might also feel this way.”
Amy Seales, who’s currently researching space and atmospheric physics at Imperial College for a PhD, found out firsthand that being in a male-dominated environment can affect the syndrome.
“My undergraduate group was mostly guys,” she says. “I think that’s another reason why I really doubted myself when I first went to university – and even while getting my PhD – because you chat to people and see what the entry requirements are, and mine seemed to be so much lower than the ones for the men on my course. I started to think that universities didn’t make me offers because I was intelligent, but because I was a woman and they had a quota to fill.
“It made me feel rubbish, like I didn’t deserve my place. It was the same with my PhD: the year I joined there were eight or nine of us starting, and I was the only woman. I thought I was just the token woman, even though my research group was probably 30-40% women. We actually have the biggest female ratio of all the physics groups and my supervisor is a woman. But there are some groups that don’t have any females at all.”
And Amy is not the only person who finds the thought of being part of a quota or a ‘box to tick’ is partly fuelling her imposter syndrome.
“As the most junior member of a team, and a black woman, it can be very difficult for my opinions to come across as being objective,” explains Tanya*, a copywriter at an advertising agency in London.
“I feel part of a quota. When I first started I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to make a difference and to be someone of colour in the team.
“I don’t feel the same way in my personal life: if you asked my friends or family, they would describe me as being confident. But that doesn’t translate at work.”
Feeling like “the other” is how Tanya describes it. And this feeling of isolation is not uncommon for ethic minorities.
All three women have tried various treatments in an attempt to relieve their imposturous feelings.
“I’ve done CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) twice and it worked, to an extent. It’s very much on you – you have to keep working at it. Some things work, some things don’t,” says Amy.
“I tried group therapy too, which was really good. It focused on blaming yourself for things, and being really hard on yourself – as well as struggling with procrastination. I always look at things and think: what’s the point, I won’t be able to do them. There’s no point in trying…
“The one thing I’ve found that helps is the five-minute rule. When you’re faced with all these big tasks that you feel you can’t complete, you simply say ‘I’ll just try it for five minutes and see how it goes’. After five minutes you’re so into the task that you think, okay I can manage five minutes. So then you try for five minutes longer and you keep going.”
However, one type of treatment does not fit all, as Helen has discovered.
“I see my doctor once a week for an hour, and we’ve had 10 sessions so far. You need to find a good therapist. It can be difficult – it took me three or four attempts, because sometimes you can just clash with a therapist. But the right one makes a world of difference.
“I also have a mental health journal and I write everything down. If something is bothering me then I write it down, and then I write down all of the evidence as to why it shouldn’t be bothering me.
“In addition, my office is very supportive of mental health. They let me work from home on days when I feel a bit overwhelmed.”
Finally, Tanya has found help through an inspirational mentor.
“I speak with my mentor twice a month. She keeps me grounded and makes me focus on why I started in the industry, as well as how valued I am – whether that’s at the place I’m working now, or somewhere else in the future. She reminds me that I shouldn’t give up just because of one or two bad experiences,” she explains.
“She encourages me to use my voice, and not feel silenced. I continually have to remember that change can only happen if I want it too.”
To a certain degree, we’re all winging it. But only we know what’s going on inside our heads, which is why we need to share those internal thoughts to see change.
“My best friend said to me a few weeks ago, ‘I have really bad imposter syndrome’,” explains Amy. “And he’s only just admitted that to me. I think part of the problem is that no one really talks about it.”
People might not talk openly about it, but most people can relate to it. As Pauline Clance told Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy in her book, Presence: “If I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it’s something almost everyone experiences.”
*Names have been changed
Images: iStock / Finn Hackshaw