The Daily Telegraph
The reason so many of us feel like a fraud at work
The Telegraph’s new podcast explores how successful people still experience imposter syndrome. Claire Cohen reports
AThe higher you get, there’s a part that comes in of, ‘I’ve got further to fall’
few years ago, I was invited to take part in a panel discussion to celebrate female success. Sitting on stage, alongside some highly respected women, I began to feel as though there was a big sign flashing above my head: FRAUD.
I felt sure I was about to be found out; exposed as someone who wasn’t as good as the others and didn’t deserve to be there.
Oh, and the topic of that discussion? Imposter syndrome.
Until that day, imposter syndrome was something I thought affected other people. Now, after making a new podcast for the Telegraph, Imposters, I know it can strike anyone, no matter how successful or confident they might appear.
Not that everyone wants to admit it. After all, having any sort of psychological “syndrome” sounds terribly grand, doesn’t it? Just who do you think you are? Or perhaps that’s just our inner imposters talking.
At its most basic, imposter syndrome is the struggle to believe that you deserve your success as a result of your hard work and experience. Instead, you attribute it to luck, fluke, or being in the right place at the right time. You worry that everyone will eventually realise this, whereupon it will all come crashing down.
The term was coined in 1978 by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Clance, who called it the “imposter phenomenon” and identified women as the sole sufferers. In a 2018 study of 3,000 UK adults by Onepoll, 66 per cent of women and 56 per cent of men said they had experienced imposter syndrome over the previous 12 months. Other surveys have placed the number of women suffering at closer to 90 per cent.
Now, as uncertainties around the return to the office continue, that number is predicted to rise further. The dislocation and isolation of working from home, the challenges of communicating virtually with our colleagues and anxiety of being out of our comfort zones during the pandemic have all contributed to an epidemic of self-doubt in the workplace.
“Lockdown has had an impact in terms of imposter syndrome, as you don’t have the same opportunity to bump into people making a cup of tea or go for drinks,” explains Dr Jessamy Hibberd, psychologist and author of The Imposter Cure. “It leaves less room for being reassured in terms of how you’re doing with work or getting the feedback you’d normally have in an office environment.”
Nor will the effects of WFH just disappear the moment we set foot back in the office, adds Dr Hibberd, who calls our homes “a breeding ground for insecurity and self doubt”.
“The cumulative toll means that moving out of the bubble you’ve created around yourself to get through this period can seem quite daunting,” she adds.
No one has been more surprised by this resurgence than “imposter phenomenon” pioneer Dr Pauline Clance. “I am surprised that the concept is now so prevalent,” she tells me. “When I wrote my book, I thought there would be an audience. I certainly did not think ahead to now.” Women, Dr Hibberd thinks, will be particularly prone to this postlockdown imposter syndrome because of the disproportionate pressures that have been placed on them. “Somebody said to me recently, ‘I don’t know why they think I’ve been doing a good job, I’ve been doing the school pick-up every day’,” she says. “It made me think of the rules imposters have: they have one rule for when things go well, which is that they then put that down to external circumstances. And then if things go badly, it’s a personal failing.”
That certainly rings true for me. It’s why I set out to demystify imposter syndrome, interviewing six women who have carved out amazing careers in challenging industries. And guess what? Each suffers with self doubt. Sometimes it manifests itself as crippling fear, leading them to miss out on exciting opportunities – such as the time TV presenter and BBC head of diversity June Sarpong hid from a famous person she was longing to meet, or the day she sat next to someone she was desperate to interview but didn’t ask.
For others, like Samantha Cameron, it is more subtle – the sort of traits she wouldn’t label as imposter syndrome, but prefers to call being “self critical” and a “perfectionist”. While Trinny Woodall often doubts herself, telling me about over-preparing for a speech, with hundreds of slides and notecards, when really the knowledge was all in her head – and the very reason she had been asked in the first place.
More than one woman told me that she had got to the top of her field by “luck”, including Clare Smyth, the first British female chef to win three Michelin stars, who worries that she could lose everything tomorrow.
Luck also reared its head when I spoke to Holly Ridings. Holly is the most exceptional woman you’ve never heard of: it’s her job to put the second group of astronauts (including the first woman) on the Moon in 2024. You can see why she might be daunted from time to time, but as Nasa’s first female chief flight director she still told me that she had “won” her job.
One woman I wasn’t sure would have the syndrome is Priyanka Chopra Jonas: Bollywood superstar, Hollywood A-list, entrepreneur, author and producer. She has a CV someone twice her age would be proud of, but she still has an inner critic, that voice in her head that makes her think: “Oh, my gosh, am I not good enough for this job? Or am I not good enough for this dress?” she said. Turns out you can star in more than 60 films, win 35 awards, announce the Oscars – and still feel as though you’re not enough.
“The higher you get, there’s also a part that comes in terms of ‘well, I’ve got further to fall’,” explains Dr Hibberd.
The trouble is, she adds, that there’s often a grain of truth in our reasons for feeling like imposters. “Loads of people have good luck, loads of people have good timing, but they make nothing of it. Even something like working really hard – anyone can work really hard, but most people don’t. It’s the way that you see those skills and the contribution they make towards [your success] and how much ownership you take”.
So how do we stand up to imposter syndrome?
“The key thing is having more transparency, making sure that you’re talking to other people,” says Dr Hibberd. “The other big thing is to externalise your imposter voice, so you’re not seeing it as your own voice but the voice of your fears.
“So if the imposter voice says :‘You won’t do well at this unless you work all weekend’, you can reply ‘OK that’s my worry but what’s the reality?’ It’s that idea of not basing it on a feeling, but basing it on factual information.”
She advises making a CV of your achievements. “Start to pay attention to things that are going well and writing them down, or looking back at your experiences and what’s gone well,” she says. “So that you see it as part of you, rather than fluke.”