imposter syndrome

Imposter Syndrome is defined as an internal belief system of not being good enough – despite evidence to the contrary – which leads the sufferer to feel like an intellectual fraud. Such is the influence that these self-defined inadequacies hold over people’s confidence levels, that the result can have an adverse effect on a person’s career and overall feeling of wellbeing. An internal monologue determined to ignore intrinsic capability and proven achievement will repeatedly ask, “Who do you think you are?” or “When will they notice that I’m a fake?”

This invisible affliction manifests from a number of causes, the most common of which is self-doubt. Compared to others who appear to be higher achievers, having to ask for help from colleagues and receiving criticism are also contributing factors which, left unchecked, can lead to anxiety, depression, and a negative impact on work life in terms of job performance and job satisfaction.

Identified by two American psychologists who were studying a group of highly successful women in the 1970s, the cognitive dissonance between indisputable achievement and perceived inadequacy has been labelled Imposter Syndrome.

More recent studies have uncovered the scale of this form of anxiety within the workplace and, such is its prevalence, it can now almost be classified as ‘the norm’.

Reaching across a wide demographic, imposter syndrome affects a higher number of women than men. Millennials appear to have greater susceptibility than other age groups due to societal pressures (including social media), and ethnic minority groups are also disproportionately more affected. This phenomenon also throws up the paradox of high achievers being some of the worst sufferers.

Particularly relevant in today’s work environment, remote workers lacking physical interaction with colleagues and therefore less likely to receive positive feedback and feel part of a team are among a growing section of society who are struggling to hold back the waves of isolation and professional insecurity. Thankfully, there are ways to fight back. The most important one being to talk about it honestly.


Diffidence can encourage the desire to learn, to prepare better and to practise harder. Which, while it may not feel as such at the time, can only be a good thing. By acknowledging fear within the framework of a positive mindset, negative feelings can be transformed into motivation in order to stretch towards new goals and competencies.

“When I feel self-doubt and lack of confidence creeping in, I pause and try to identify the root cause of that. 10 times out 10, I realise that I need to spend time researching a topic, talking to somebody who is more experienced than me on the subject, and reading as much as I can about it. Inevitably, I feel better prepared and that in turn makes me feel more confident. It’s the internal change of perspective that matters.” Tea Colaianni – Founder and CEO inclusion in.


To counterbalance the unhelpful but hardwired human trait known as negativity bias (a tendency to focus on the bad stuff), reflecting on successes can help push back Imposter Syndrome by reframing thoughts into positive (rather than negative) achievements. This could be in the form of a list of accomplishments, remembering job progression or favourable testimonials about past work.

A mental technique used by professional athletes is projecting future success. For example, visualising a positive response to a presentation prior to making it conditions the brain for a successful outcome and instils more confidence.

Focusing on achieving rather than failing and celebrating small wins at each step towards a goal prevent our motivation levels slipping. pace their understanding of inclusive leadership and their role as leaders in making an impact.


One line of thought to tackle self-doubt is to conceal it in a layer of artificial bravado and pretend to be the confident person we want everyone to think we are. However, defining self-worth by our status within an organisation put being real into the “I’m going to get found out” danger zone.

Rita Clifton CBE, author of Love Your Imposter, discourages this approach preferring to advocate honesty and authenticity. Despite her own formidable career path, she assures that insecurities affect everyone and describes Imposter Syndrome as a normal part of the human condition.

Take on your imposter self and use it as a driver to come out stronger”. Rita Clifton CBE – Deputy Chair John Lewis

Faking it for a short period might be manageable, but keeping up the pretence day in, day out uses up a great deal of energy, much in the same way that keeping up a lie needs a very good memory! The reality is that many, many people present themselves in this way. But does that make it right? appropriately and admit to sometimes not knowing or understanding. It is also important for male colleagues to cultivate self-awareness in relation to male privilege and unconscious biases while maintaining a growth mindset. To be more influential, male allies should make their stance clear and public from the start in order for others to follow, and finally, encourage male/female colleague interaction within the workplace including gender equality initiatives. Positive professional encounters enable greater understanding and inclusion.


Adopting a growth mindset can be hugely beneficial. This is defined as the belief that intellect and natural talent are just a starting point in personal and professional development. In order to grow, a love of learning and having a natural curiosity to advance authentic purpose, can encourage self-doubters to add small, incremental steps to their climb up the corporate mountain.

I still have a little impostor syndrome… It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously. I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is.” Michelle Obama – former First Lady


Inner confidence can be developed through having clarity around personal strengths and talents and from there, fully defining goals – short, medium, and long term. Self-awareness is key.

Applying brand thinking to our own personal brand – about us, ourselves and identifying our authentic purpose, understanding what drives us and what we are good at provokes mental solidity aka self-confidence. This added to a relevant skill set simplifies the process of creating a coherent (and desired) direction along a career path and speaking from such a place of authenticity will come across to others.


Evolving job needs are empowering women and levelling the playing field. The new service economy doesn’t rely on physical strength but skills that come easily to women, such as determination, attention to detail and measured thinking. The female brain is naturally wired for long-term strategic vision and community building.

Strong leadership involves using the power of nurture, thereby creating space for employees to grow and shine. To build long-term, sustainable relationships, CEOs need to lead by example. And women are naturally good at this through a willingness to share their vulnerabilities and to talk openly.

Shame always shrivels when you share it out loud.” Marie Forleo – American Entrepreneur


Imposter Syndrome in men is possibly less understood than for women and also manifests in a slightly different way. The ‘testosterone effect’ pushes some men into over-confidence. Expectations for men can differ from women in terms of workplace demands and men are certainly far less likely to open up about their anxieties than women or ask for help if they struggle.

As with women, however, the destructive internal dialogue can be turned down by greater self-awareness and clarity of purpose.

“The only true failure in life is giving up!” Rita Clifton CBE – Deputy Chair John Lewis

When you feel like an imposter and start to doubt your capabilities, it can be easy to think about giving up on something before even trying. The only true failure in life is giving up; as long as you keep pushing forward, no matter how small the steps may be, you will eventually find success.