In the 1960s a couple of US therapists invented a term for a severely debilitating and self limiting condition: the fear of being found out suffered by high achievers. People who felt that they were imposters, that they did not deserve their success, that they were not really qualified for the job they were doing. These were not people who suffered the odd wobble of confidence but people whose lives were being riven by constant terror of being exposed.
Since the 1960s there has been considerable research into ‘imposter syndrome’. Research done in the early 1980s estimated that two out of five successful people consider themselves frauds; other studies have found that 70 percent of all people feel like fakes at one time or another. "Some people, the more successful they become, the more they feel like frauds," says one researcher.
Most likely to affect people whose lives have been an uninterrupted string of successes, they feel a fake, discount praise, dismiss their achievements, focus on their mistakes and finally attribute their success to luck or chance. The consequences include a tendency to over perfectionism; the individual puts in more effort, studies obsessively, practices every detail compulsively, works and reworks the report in the small hours. This strategy increases the chances of success but re-inforces the individual’s sense that they are not really talented, they have only achieved the success because of the extraordinary amount of work. So they repeat the efforts. Alternatively the imposter fails to prepare thoroughly or work hard. They then attribute the success, not to an ability to ‘wing it’ but to pure luck, a fluke, to the fact that no-one spotted the flimsy nature of the work.
Imposters will go to great lengths to ensure they are not ‘found out’. They work harder than others, they don’t ask questions in case it is seen as exposing their ignorance, they don’t ask for help as it will expose weakness, they can be belligerent when challenged and turn aggressive if offered help. Often they won’t apply for promotion, they don’t ask for pay rises, they underestimate their abilities and they suffer constant anxiety as they continually benchmark their efforts against those of others.
Suffering from this is debilitating and self limiting, managing someone who suffers can be challenging and frustrating as they decline additional responsibilities or obsess over details. So can the cycle be broken?
· Give detailed feedback on precise things that the person did that made the work a success
· Point to the skills or talents needed rather than the effort
· Help the person to make the causal connection between what their talent and the end result
· Draw comparisons between them and those who can’t do what they can (they will be comparing with others who can do it better)
· Help them value what comes easily to them, to recognise their accomplishments
· Help them identify their development needs constructively
And if it is you that is suffering: take this medicine for yourself, review your successes in detail and explore your precise contribution and ask ‘what would have been different if I had not been there?’ Get support from a third party to identify what you can do, understand that the small things add up to big things and be kind to yourself.
Ps The very early research did find that imposter syndrome was a feminine thing more recent research reveals that it is equally distributed between the sexes.