It is, perhaps surprisingly, a story I hear with depressing regularity. The business executive at a leading technology company sitting in my clinic was visibly anxious and it transpired that despite being a key player in the boardroom, she was crippled with ruinous self-doubt.
She told me: ‘People think that I’m this great success story. They want to badge me up as some kind of poster girl for the working mother.
‘They have this inflated belief of who I am and what I can do. I cringe every time I hear it. And one day they’re going to catch me out.’
Jess Cook, 44, from Cheltenham, is CEO of a PR firm and earns £60,000 a year – yet she doubts her own accomplishments
This woman was in no shortage of compliments. What was lacking – in spades – was the belief they were valid or deserved.
And, odd as it might sound to those who have never felt this way, this is far from an isolated case.
‘I run a thriving company but never feel I am good enough’
High-flyer Jess Cook, 44, from Cheltenham, is chief executive officer of public-relations company Silver Ball PR and earns £60,000 a year.
She says: ‘I first realised I suffered from impostor syndrome in my mid-20s when I was picked from a pool of 1,600 candidates for a graduate position with the advertising giant M&C Saatchi.
‘I was terrified I’d be told they’d hired the wrong person. My psyche insisted the achievement wasn’t mine – I put it down to my husband’s coaching and a friend helping me with my CV.
‘Today I run my own thriving company, yet if I win business I’ll convince myself I was the only company who pitched or the competition wasn’t up to scratch.
‘Whatever I do, I never feel it’s good enough and then I relentlessly brood over what I didn’t make happen rather than on what I did.
‘My condition causes me to suffer from migraines and jaw pain, from being so tense, and so I sought therapy.
‘It has helped me to practise a list of strategies that take me to a positive mental place, and recognise my broken way of thinking.’
As a psychologist whose special area of interest is mental health in the workplace, more and more people are being referred to me suffering with what has been termed impostor syndrome. This isn’t just a case of low self-esteem.
It’s a distinct pattern of thoughts and behaviour that are alarmingly common, especially among women.
It makes sufferers believe they’re a terrible fraud, whose best is never good enough, and whose lack of capability for their highly lauded roles will soon be ‘discovered’.
Their doubts prevail despite evidence of their significant achievements. And ultimately, many succumb to burnout, anxiety, and stress-related illnesses triggered by their unhealthy thoughts.
Indeed a review article published in the International Journal Of Behavioural Science found an estimated 70 per cent of people – an alarming majority of them female – experience these impostor feelings at some point in their lives.
Sufferers include actress Meryl Streep and Facebook supremo Sheryl Sandburg, who all have spoken openly about the crushing psychological toll the condition can take on the body and mind.
Radio 4 Today presenter Mishal Husain – who is paid £230,000 a year – recently revealed herself to be another candidate when she said: ‘I still have many uncomfortable moments, and times when I come off air and think I’m not cut out for this job.’
And so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, where the greater the accomplishment the greater the worry that the ‘truth’ of your abilities will be uncovered and you will be laid bare for the phoney you really are. In the process it batters self-esteem, drains self-confidence, impacts on mental wellbeing and affects personal relationships.
WHY WOMEN ARE MORE VULNERABLE
When it was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, impostor syndrome was thought to affect only women. In fact the split tends to be around 60 per cent women to 40 men. But women seem especially vulnerable.
It may be in part that they are playing catch-up with the cultural inequities that in the past, meant they wouldn’t have played the roles they now do in professional life.They may feel they have been appointed out of luck or to fulfil some PC tokenism. And from an evolutionary perspective, success has been regarded a ‘male term’ with connotations to status and power.
SO WHICH TYPE OF ‘IMPOSTOR’ ARE YOU?
Broadly, there are five key impostor syndrome personality types, which therapists and sufferers need to understand in order to tackle the problem:
1: The Perfectionist: those who set an impossibly high bar for themselves.
2: The Superwoman/man: those who push themselves with work overload to smokescreen their insecurities.
3: The Natural Genius: innately brilliant people who judge success by ability rather than effort. So if they have to work at it, it must mean they are bad at it.
4: The Rugged Individualist: the person who believes asking for help will blow their phoney cover.
5: The Expert: somehow through trickery they hoodwinked their way into a position and now fear being exposed as inexperienced or unknowledgeable.
It is possible to exhibit more than one type of impostor characteristic but it is when the thoughts and feelings begin to impact on your way of life – causing day-to-day unhappiness, sleep difficulties, and even diagnoses like anxiety and depression – that it is time to get help.
HOW TO FIGHT BACK AGAINST INNER DOUBT
As I tell my clients, the first thing to do is acknowledge the problem, recognise it for what it is.
When that voice in your head murmurs that they’ll ‘find you out’ you can square up to it. As soon as you name it, you control it.
Start by writing down the facts: you graduated with honours, you’re in an important, responsible role, you were promoted after so many years with the company.
Radio 4 Today presenter Mishal Husain – who is paid £230,000 a year – revealed she sometimes thinks she’s not cut out for her job
Then be brutally introspective and score against these statements the percentage chances you got the job through, say, luck, rather than experience or success in previous roles. You can’t possibly have been lucky each and every time.
Acknowledge that you don’t have to be perfect to be a success.
I also advocate keeping a journal – note down every time you have a thought about not being good enough. Is it realistic to feel that way given the evidence?
Finally, realise that impostor syndrome has its benefits too. It means you constantly strive to improve.
You’re also likely to be courageous, compassionate and sensitive to others – harness those feelings.
Once you have grasped that self-knowledge you’ll realise the only impostors in your life were the sham feelings cheating you out of the success that is truly yours.
Dr Sandi Mann is senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire, Director of the Mind Training Clinic and author of Ten Minutes To Happiness.