What is imposter syndrome (and how can we manage it)?

Imposter syndrome describes the state where someone isn't able to consistently internalise their own work-life success. Despite their high performance and appearing high functioning to others around them, people who experience it hold little consistent, solid sense of their worth and value within themselves.


They'll often, therefore, believe they're not good enough and don't deserve their success at work. They might think that it's only a matter of time before other people find this out too and can be very affected by other's feedback, even perceiving criticism where none is intended.

You can see how imposter syndrome can profoundly adversely affect a person's performance and their enjoyment of their work and cause problems in work relationships. Not believing in their own skills, competencies and talents also means someone may be less likely to apply for promotions and new jobs, directly impacting job prospects and their growth and development in life generally.

Why do we experience imposter syndrome?

All of the issues in this article are expanded on in my video on the subject, but the first thing to say is it's very normal for us to experience imposter syndrome. 

About three-quarters of us report we can relate to the concept. The reason it's so common is that we're actually programmed to survive rather than to be happy. As such, we often see ourselves and the world through our survival lens, i.e., the lens of identifying, even imagining, flaws, problems and deficits. In survival mode, we'll only notice perceived shortcomings, the things that go wrong and what we might not do as well as others. It has no capacity to recognise and maintain a sense of the great and the good about us, leaving us struggling to build solid and consistent self-esteem.

The other lens we'll often look through at work is our drive lens. This is about competition and winning, about closing the next deal and achieving the next goal, bonus, or promotion. For drive, what we have is never enough and we're never enough as we are for any prolonged period of time. Drive is most often dissatisfied and always in search of the next 'high' or win.

You can see if we're moving between our survival and drive lenses as ways of seeing ourselves, neither are the place of being good enough as we are. Having a connected, sustained, internalised sense of our worth, value and success, i.e. the counter-balance to imposter syndrome, is mission impossible in both.

The above are innate reasons why many struggle with imposter syndrome. Environmental factors also encourage it, like the fact that we're taught from early in life to look outwards for validation. Whether it's by teachers or caregivers, we're often ordered to listen, rather than to talk about who we are. This can all compromise our ability to internally validate ourselves. The feedback we most often receive through early life is also about our achievements rather than our personal qualities and usually comes with comparisons to others.

How can we manage imposter syndrome?

You can hopefully see how our default human state often gives us reasons not to feel good enough and reminds us to forget how good we are at our jobs. It's possible to make imposter syndrome just moments though, rather than our 'trait' way of being, by actively affirming our own worth and value as we go about our day.

If you want to build a more solid internal frame to counter imposter syndrome, you need to try to consciously value yourself as often as you can from this point on. Some ways to do this are:

Have a 'competent and confident' anchor memory

Try to recall a moment in the past you felt confident, competent and connected to yourself and others. It can be from any time in your life and in any situation. What did you believe about yourself in that moment? What did you believe about yourself in relation to others? Try to remember each detail of the memory, i.e., what you could see hear, touch taste and smell, expanding the feeling of it in your body. Then try to bring this memory of confidence and self-esteem to your mind and body as often as you can.

Make a timeline of achievements

Draw a horizontal line across an A3 page, write your birth year on the left end of the line and the current year on the right. Then fill in all the important dates, adding colours or symbols to categorise them if you want. These dates could include births, deaths, romantic relationships, job changes, moves, friendships and, most importantly, all happy times and any successes, awards or achievements.

As you create this timeline, reflect and expand on those memories that give you a pleasant feeling and make you smile, as well as the effect on you of those that might have been painful. Reflect on the qualities, skills, competencies and talents that enabled you to both achieve success and to get through the tough times. Think about how they all helped you to become the person you are today.

Make sure you actively own your accomplishments as they're happening

Whenever something goes well for you in life, no matter how small it might seem, make a conscious and active effort to say well done to yourself and tell yourself what it means about you as a person that the situation worked out. 

The 20-second rule

Whenever you notice you feel good about something generally in life, actively bring your attention to it and enhance the feeling. Unlike the 'witness and let go' approach to unhelpful anxious thoughts, try to take hold of any moments of joy, peace, gratitude, love, pride, etc. and make them much bigger in your mind and body.

Lean into these experiences. Where do you feel them in your body? What are the sensations like? It's believed that aiming for at least 20 seconds when you do this is what's needed to make a new neural pathway you can rely on in the future.

Notice if you are avoiding behaviours or situations

In terms of behaviours, try and notice if you are avoiding behaviours or situations because of the fear that's at the root of imposter syndrome. Where possible, imagine what you might do if you didn't experience it, then try to feel the fear and do the thing anyway, taking opportunities where possible.

Seek professional support 

As common as imposter syndrome is, it's not an inevitable part of life, so if it persists it can be a good idea to talk to a therapist about it. All of the above issues and areas can be explored in therapy and of course many more besides.

Incidentally, the term 'imposter' means someone who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive and I'm not sure we use this word by accident. Many of us might be doing jobs we don't really feel like doing to survive, and/or for the money or status. If our heart isn't really in it, we're therefore carrying on despite what we feel and, in this way, you could say we're pretending to be someone who's enjoying our job in order to keep it or thrive in it.

Perhaps we are, therefore, in this sense, pretending to be someone else to mislead people around us. If so, we might also need to take a general look at how we make decisions in life and whether they're truly in accordance with our values and felt experience of life.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Cobham, Surrey, KT11 2BH
Written by John-Paul Davies, UKCP Registered, MBACP, PG Dip
Cobham, Surrey, KT11 2BH

John-Paul (www.thistrustedplace.co.uk) is an experienced therapist running a busy private practice from his home in Cobham, Surrey. He has also published a well-received self-help book, 'Finding a Balanced Connection', currently available on Amazon.co.uk and recently released an online self-help course 'Life Unlimited' available via his website.

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