Feeling like a fraud

By 5th December 2018 No Comments

Feeling like a fraud is experienced by up to 70% of us at some time. Even Michelle Obama admitted recently that she still feels like an impostor when others tell her how much she inspires them.

Healthy self-doubt at times of change or promotion is different from permanent feelings of simply not being good enough, ever, despite evidence to the contrary.

This feeling might manifest itself in being extremely tough on oneself, driving to achieve standards far in excess of what is required (to the detriment of those trying to keep up), and one’s own feelings of worth and value.

Numerous clients have mentioned feeling almost like an imposter and how they cannot possibly see themselves in the position they aspire to or have already attained, that someday someone will find out that they are really no good at their job and will even be fired.

Incongruously, I have come across this a number of times with clients who have recently been promoted because of their superior performance. They feel their success is down to luck and cannot possibly be down to their own efforts.  They do not internalise their success and achievements.

Research into this phenomenon began with the work of psychotherapists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who wrote a paper on the topic in 1978. (

They found many executives with notable achievements also had high levels of self-doubt, which could not be equated with self-esteem, anxiety, or other traits, and seemed to involve a deep sense of inauthenticity and an inability to internalise their successes.

“Research done in the early 1980s estimated that two out of five successful people consider themselves frauds. Some people, the more successful they become, the more they feel like frauds,” says Valerie Young, who leads professional development programmes on the subject. “They feel as though they’re fooling people. There’s a dissonance between self-image and external reality.”

With the increased pressure of any new role, it is imperative to keep others with you and your vision, to build strong relationships and to be very selective on what you spend your time and attention. This is not the time to increase your anxiety and decrease your appetite for risk.

It has been reported that those  who suffer from impostor syndrome can even actively avoid promotions and new opportunities, for fear of being found to be lacking. This will cause their careers to stall en deprive their employers from benefiting from their skills and experience.  An internet search on impostor syndrome will reveal the volume of research and articles on the subject.

Two of the most prevailing results of imposter syndrome are the fear of failure, and, by contrast,  the fear of success. Over-internalising any failure while fearing the responsibility and visibility of success inhibits  performance and living up to one’s potential.

  • The first step to overcoming these debilitating thoughts are to become aware of them. Only then can you choose to change the way you think. Ask yourself: “What is the worst thing that can happen if I…”. Then have a go, don’t let fear of failure hold you back. Become aware of your self-talk and create some balance by also thinking about your successes and abilities.
  • Stop telling yourself that you are no good and this is all down to luck
  • Make a list of everything you have achieved and refer to that when you have doubts
  • Celebrate your success, even privately and to yourself. Maybe a little treat, or a special meal?
  • Know your own strengths and limitations, then build a strong and diverse team to cover areas where you are weaker
  • Ask for feedback – and listen to the positive and negative messages
  • Manage your pay and reward to be in line with your value
  • Ask someone you trust to provide instant feedback when they see you underplaying your abilities
  • Manage your diary: spend at least 40% of your time on the strategic business agenda and 60% on  “must-do” tasks – then leave the rest to those you have delegated to
  • Manage your personal reputation and career proactively and positively, it might help you to start believing in yourself
  • Stop and reflect before you play down your success – it is sneaky, so watch out for it and be vigilant
  • Believe that you can do it

Rather than being stuck with these feelings forever, consider talking to others about it for a reality check. You may not the only one feeling like this! Do a sense-check: “Is this a feeling or reality?” If you are not sure, ask for feedback from others