Are you a fraud and soon everyone will find out?

Written by Mari Järvinen for Coachademy

“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’ ” — Maya Angelou

“I’m not as good as that guy”… “I’m just not cut out for this”… “Am I completely stupid for thinking I can do this?”… “How could they hire me for this position?” … Does this sound familiar to you? A little bit of anxiety can be the necessary ingredient that makes your performance great, or adds that extra bit of effort that makes you pay attention to details you would otherwise overlook. But what if your mind goes through a constant loop of thoughts that include “I’m a fraud and sooner or later everyone will see it”? There is a name for it: imposter syndrome.

The term was coined in the ’70s by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who observed that many high-achieving individuals, particularly women, were harboring a feeling that they are not intelligent or that they do not deserve their success. The word syndrome can be misleading, however, because it is not classified as a mental disorder and should not be treated as such. Nonetheless, these harmful thought patterns can be extremely limiting to those stuck with them. They can lead to fear, anxiety, stress, lost opportunities and underachievement. The problem is very common, and probably most of us have these thoughts occasionally. It stems from a discrepancy between the outward attributes of a person and that person’s perception of themselves.

So, look around you at the office. That attractive, educated, successful young man or woman might be constantly afraid of being “found out” or being exposed as a fraud. There’s plenty of objective evidence of their competence, but somehow this doesn’t translate to a belief that it’s real or deserved. Of course, being intelligent individuals, these people can see their achievements. However, typical for imposter syndrome is that successes are attributed to luck, connections, gender quotas, or some irrelevant characteristic like appearance. Really intelligent people are also often acutely aware of everything they don’t know. Therein also lies the silver lining: the genuinely incompetent slackers don’t usually suffer from this, so if you do, chances are you’re not one of those people.

The roots of these thought patterns can be in childhood, previous experiences in school or work settings, or other dysfunctional relationships. Today’s work environments often perpetuate them because in ambiguous settings and a world of constantly shifting requirements, it can be very difficult to figure out how much is enough and when one has done a good enough job. Add to this a sense of self that doesn’t provide a stable backdrop, and voilà, we have thoughts like “I’m fake and they’ll find out soon enough” circling through a young professional’s mind.

Why is knowing this important in a work setting?

Because this phenomenon is common among young adults, especially women, it is important to take it into account in hiring and onboarding practices. It is typical that people suffering from imposter syndrome are unaware that others have, or have had, the same thoughts of inadequacy. Often just realizing this can help curb the harmful thought patterns. Mentoring programs, coaching or peer support can be easy ways to help young talents to live up to their potential or at least avoid unnecessary stress. And obviously, you would like those talented young people to contribute as much as possible to your organization and its goals — that won’t happen to its fullest potential if they’re constantly afraid they’re not cut out for it.

Young employees are also at risk because they do not have the same amount of experience to fall back as someone older — it can be hard to put things into perspective when one’s perspective is not very wide yet. Provide feedback, acknowledge successes, celebrate accomplishments. Make sure there’s a chance to safely voice the thoughts of insecurity or incompetence, since that in itself often makes them more bearable.

This sounds exactly like me, what can I do?

First of all, realize that most other high-achieving people have these thoughts, too. You’re certainly not alone, so take comfort in that. It’s a bit like imagining everyone in the boardroom naked — if you can’t see how much they feel they’re faking it, they’re probably just hiding it well. Second, don’t try to push away the feelings of insecurity, but instead try to consciously combat them with acknowledging your successes. When you get through a situation that at first seemed impossible, make sure to note that. Then, when those inevitable not-so-successful moments come, they’re not the only ones you remember.

It’s completely normal to feel like you’re in over your head in a new job or when faced with a challenge bigger than any before. Most people go through it at one point or another — first you pretend to be the expert, and while doing it, you start becoming one. Acknowledge that you have these thoughts of incompetence and a fear and try to figure out where they come from. This helps in catching them and learning to control them.

Stop comparing yourself to others. Yes, there will always be someone who knows more, is more talented in something, is more successful or even may deserve something more than you do. Stop thinking about those people and comparing yourself to them. It’s useless and will perpetuate those harmful thought patterns. Instead, focus on what you’ve achieved and what you can achieve. Stop trying to please everyone, because you can’t. It will only make you bend over backwards in ways that are counterproductive to your well-being.

If you feel like you can’t get over the hurdles your own mind puts in front of you, seek support. Maybe your workplace offers a mentor program, or perhaps there are more experienced colleagues you can talk to. Or talk to a coach! Remember, it’s a process of getting your thoughts to match what you actually already are.

“It’s not what you are that holds you back, it’s what you think you are not.” — Denis Waitley