5 mins

Feeling like a fraud at work: overcoming imposter syndrome

Do you ever worry that you’ll be “found out”? Like no matter what you achieve in life, it’ll never be good enough? That your successes were just lucky accidents – and soon enough, it’s all going to come crashing down?

Imposter syndrome is something most of us will suffer with at some point or other, but for some people, this feeling is a heavy burden they carry with them everyday.

It is – like many psychological vulnerabilities – a distortion in the mind but one that can feel very real and terrifying when it strikes.

What causes imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome can best be described as a habit of the mind, and its roots are most often found in childhood.

It’s a pattern of thinking and feeling; an idea we form about ourselves in childhood which isn’t true. In psychology, we refer to this as being schema-driven. A schema is essentially a blueprint through which we see ourselves, other people and the world around us. 

Imposter syndrome stems from the belief of not being “good enough” in some way – feeling like there’s something defective or inherently flawed about you. It usually develops following neglect, abandonment or growing up with parents who were highly critical or who placed too much emphasis on outwardly success.

As children, we don’t have enough life experience to differentiate between right and wrong. We take our caretakers’ treatment of us at face value. If we had a parent (or sibling) who put us down a lot, we’re likely to internalise this. We start to believe that it says something about us. We’re not good enough. We’re not smart enough. We’re not loveable.

And we take this defective feeling with us into adulthood. Regardless of how much success we achieve, we still have this internal voice telling us we don’t deserve it. It was just fluke – one day we’ll be exposed and it’ll all come crumbling down.

Imposter syndrome and high achievers – what’s the link?

We’re likely to cope with this feeling in one of two ways – either we surrender to it or we overcompensate. If we surrender to it, we make ourselves small and hold ourselves back, believing that if we put ourselves out there we’ll fail… Or worse still, we’ll be rejected.

Alternatively, we set about trying to prove ourselves wrong

Many people with imposter syndrome are actually high achievers. After facing so much criticism as a child, they try to compensate for it by striving for success and status. They work themselves into the ground, maybe even burning themselves out in the process. But regardless of what they achieve, it’s never good enough. 

Deep down, the feeling persists.

Their sense of self-worth becomes so attached to outwardly successes that they become vulnerable to big mood shifts. When things are going well, they feel on top of the world. But when they fall off track, a tidal wave of shame consumes them, all over again. 

Imposter syndrome symptoms – what are the signs?

  • You feel inherently flawed, like there’s something wrong with you – even if you can’t name what it is
  • You attribute your success to external factors instead of yourself
  • You experience a lot of self-doubt
  • When things are going well at work, you feel elated. When they’re not going well, you feel down and depressed
  • You suffer from a lot of shame
  • You feel like a fraud and worry that someday you’ll be exposed
  • You’re drawn to people who are critical and rejecting
  • You either overwork or procrastinate
  • Despite any successes, there’s an underlying sense that one day, it’ll all come crashing down
  • You present a false self to the world, hiding the real you

Imposter syndrome in relationships 

As with many psychological vulnerabilities, imposter syndrome is likely to work its way into other areas of your life too, such as your relationships.

You might avoid intimate relationships altogether, pre-empting the rejection you’ll face if you ever get “found out”. Or you might have multiple partners, steering clear of making any long-term commitments. Or you may date people who are themselves emotionally avoidant or who are unavailable in some way – so you never have to get too close.

Or, you might find that you repeat your childhood experience by choosing partners who are very critical and who reinforce your feelings of defectiveness.

How to overcome imposter syndrome 

Trace back where it all started – did anyone shame or criticise you growing up? Or make you believe you weren’t good enough? Start trying to connect with the part of you that feels like a defective child.

Build awareness – take a long, hard look at your thoughts. What kinds of stories does your mind like to tell? Does the tone or content of what it’s saying remind you of anyone?

Challenge these thoughts with evidence – recognise when this shaming voice rears its head and take action. Remind yourself of the evidence that points to these thoughts not being true.

If this feeling runs deep and stems from difficult childhood experiences that happened over an extended period of time then you might require the help of a professional to unravel it.

Dr Elena Touroni

Dr Elena Touroni

17 March 2021

"Dr. Elena Touroni is a skilled and experienced Consultant Psychologist with a track record of delivering high-quality services for individuals with all common emotional difficulties and those with a diagnosis of personality disorder. She is experienced in service design and delivery, the management of multi-disciplinary teams, organisational consultancy, and development and delivery of both national and bespoke training to providers in the statutory and non-statutory sector."

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Dr Elena Touroni Introduction

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Dr Stacie Tay

Dr Stacie Tay attained her BSc (Hons) Psychology at the University of Nottingham and worked as a psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health, Singapore, before returning to the UK to complete her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the University College London.   

Dr Tay has worked in a variety of settings within the NHS for more than eight years, including primary and secondary care, specialist psychological services and forensic inpatient settings. She currently works as a Clinical Psychologist at the North East London Foundation Trust.  

She has extensive experience working with individuals and groups, providing evidence-based psychological therapies including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Interpersonal Psychotherapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) and Mindfulness-based approaches as well as Schema-informed therapy.   

Dr Tay’s clinical experience involves working with people who present with a range of mild to severe mental health difficulties. This includes depression, anxiety (OCD, social anxiety, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, health anxiety, phobia-related disorders, PTSD), stress related issues, low self-esteem, complex trauma, interpersonal difficulties, grief and bereavement, and long-term health conditions.