It’s that pervasive fear that takes root in the most successful of businessmen and women.
I am not good enough. I do not deserve this success. I am a fraud who will be found out any minute.
Dubbed the imposter syndrome by US researchers in the 1970s, it refers to a stultifying and crippling belief that one’s success in life is undeserved.
And while it affects most of us to varying degrees in the workplace, some people are so anxious about being “found out” it hinders their job performance.
Just ask careers, life and business coach Sally-Anne Blanshard, director of Nourish Coaching, who recently conducted a straw poll among her clients as to whether they were affected by imposter syndrome.
“The responses came back very quickly and there certainly was an abundance of people who felt that way,” Ms Blanshard says.
“It affects people who run their own business as much as people who work in offices too.”
Is it just me?
Behavioural change consultant Suzanne Mercier says imposter syndrome can cause many workers to self-sabotage their chances of success. And she should know.
Ms Mercier was the first woman to be appointed to the board of George Patterson advertising, but was crippled by anxiety over her worthiness for the role.
“I didn’t speak up, I didn’t ask for help, I just sat there hoping that no one had worked out that I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says.
“And the reason I didn’t know what I was doing was because I never asked.”
She ended up quitting to start her own consultancy and now helps people overcome their own struggles with imposter syndrome.
“Both men and women suffer from it in different ways, but it does affect both sexes,” Ms Mercier notes.
“With women they are more likely to be afraid of success – as well as failure – because they sense there will be a price to pay in other parts of their life.
“With men it is more ‘fake it, until you make it’. They think the syndrome is part and parcel of work life and they tend to push through it.”
Strategies to cope
If you are one of those people who believes they have been promoted beyond their capabilities do not fear: there are strategies you can employ.
Ms Blanshard recommends tackling the negative thoughts with a “vision board” of where you want to be in 10 years’ time, as well as reflecting on all the positive feedback you have received at work (as opposed to the negative comments).
“It helps, too, if you have a mentor who you can talk to about this, someone who you can say to, ‘Look this fear is really holding me back’,” she says.
Ms Mercier recommends her clients ask a friend they respect for their opinion on what they are genuinely good at, and to look at the environmental triggers that cause imposter syndrome to flare up.
“Perhaps they point to a belief, or a set of beliefs, that need to change,” she says.
Being naturally resilient to bad news helps, according to Ms Mercier, but this can be built up by “not wallowing in negativity”.
“Think instead of what you can learn from a certain situation or problem and then move on, stop beating yourself up about it,” Ms Mercier says.
While Ms Blanshard believes imposter syndrome can be cured, she argues that half the battle is becoming comfortable with fear and failure.
“Sometimes you have to move yourself out of the way because you are your own worst enemy,” she says.
“Imposter syndrome is linked to that fear of rejection, but like I tell my clients, fear and courage must stand side by side.”
One of the big hurdles, according to Ms Mercier, is becoming OK with making mistakes.
“You must let go of that need to be perfect and you must understand that whether you have a certain skill or not it does not define who you are as a person,” Ms Mercier says.