Are You an Imposter?

Are You Suffering From Imposter Syndrome?

By Tim Sternberg
9 Min Read

“You know, I think you suffer from Imposter Syndrome.”

My heart sank.  Eventually I gathered up the courage to ask my wife: “what do you mean ?”

As it turned out, she had been listening to a podcast about a successful business woman who had struggled psychologically with what she had come to know as imposter syndrome.  Apparently my wife saw some similarities in me, and I was worried that she had “found me out”.

But once the initial blow to my ego had dissipated, I began to research this fascinating topic.  What really struck me is how many business owners and leaders might be suffering from this issue without even knowing of its existence.  I learned a lot about myself through that experience and can now share with others and help them to:

  • recognise the signs of Imposter Syndrome
  • better understand the impacts that Imposter Syndrome has on work and life
  • cope and even thrive by changing a few behaviours

Imposter Syndrome: Recognise The Signs

Imposter Syndrome is the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.

People with Imposter Syndrome typically suffer from chronic self-doubt, an irrational belief that their successes are only attributable to good luck, and an overwhelming concern that they will be “found out” to be frauds. This negative mental state may lead to anxiety and override any enjoyment that sufferers legitimately deserve.

Historically, it has been considered more likely to affect objectively high achieving women in senior positions.  Confused as to why I was experiencing the same issues, I found a recent study that now confirms it is equally as common amongst men.  In fact, Imposter Syndrome surfaces in a more extreme fashion when men are in high pressure situations.

If you are concerned that you might be at risk of Imposter Syndrome there are some fundamental questions you should ask yourself (and answer as objectively as you can):

  • Do you feel the need to be special or the best ?
  • Do you unconsciously or consciously try and be a Superman / Superwoman ?
  • Do you have a fear of failure ?
  • Do you have a denial of ability and discount praise ?
  • Do you feel fear and guilt about success ?

Understanding the Imposter Cycle

Unfortunately, the Imposter Syndrome is a vicious cycle:

  • Achieving success through personal hard work or individual talent is misinterpreted by the sufferer as being attributable to external factors, eg “being in the right place at the right time”.
  • Positive feedback does not increase the individual’s perception of self worth.
  • Sufferers may even discourage others from praising them, which can lead to friends and colleagues becoming confused and even withdrawing.
  • Isolation further increases the sufferer’s misconception of causes and effects and how they might be negatively seen by others.

So the more success you have, the more you might feel fraudulent and less capable.   This in turn creates more anxiety with ever-increasing fear that at some point you will be exposed as the fake you have come to believe you really are.

Managing the Fear and Anxiety of Imposter Syndrome

There is no simple cause or overnight fix, sadly.  Some research suggests that Imposter Syndrome could stem back as far as childhood, eg through being labeled as the “intelligent” or “perfect” child.  Not that we need to blame our parents for more things !

However I have found some simple actions that work for me to reduce the fear and anxiety that is associated with Imposter Syndrome:


Tell the People Close to You

Obviously my wife saw the signs in me, but I also told my business partner.  This actually made a good partnership great. He can identify when I move into “the imposter cycle” and create awareness for me (he’s also pretty good at telling me when I can genuinely do better).  Once others know about your fear and anxiety they can give you more nuanced feedback that helps you to see matters more clearly.

At the very least, when you tell others there are fewer people for you to be concerned about finding out that you are an imposter !


Utilise Mentors, Coaches and Advisors

Unfortunately, I still can’t see achievement as most do.  This has become more risky and important for me now that I have my own business.  An external mentor, coach or trusted advisor can go a long way to ensuring you set reasonable goals, review your achievements in a balanced way, and don’t burn out, in a way that complements the support you get from friends and family.


Lastly, Be Kind to Yourself

I still catch myself “overpreparing” because I have an excessive fear of failure.  However, I am getting better at dealing with situations as they evolve rather than trying to anticipate issues all the time.  The time I would spend working out scenarios, I now have as downtime with family or friends – and, ironically, that downtime actually allows me to see situations and my true part in them far more clearly than before.

So next time my wife casually tells me what she really thinks of me, I don’t think I will be so worried.

Tim Sternberg

Tim Sternberg

Tim is an expert in sales, marketing, recruitment and leadership with a particular flair for helping his SME...

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