Overcoming Imposterism

By Suzie Shapiro, PGR Mental Health Adviser 

“I’m a fraud – everyone is going to find out!”

“Everyone could do a better job of this than me”

“I don’t belong here”

What’s going on?

If any of the above sound familiar, you have likely experienced feelings of imposterism… and you would be in good company. From Tom Hanks to Natalie Portman and John Steinbeck, many highly regarded people have spoken openly of their experiences of feeling like an imposter.  

In 1978, researchers Dr Suzanne Imes and Dr Pauline Clance identified imposter feelings (originally termed ‘imposter phenomenon’); their research found that the women who were high achievers in their study were unable to internalise and accept their success, putting their achievements down to luck rather than ability. Clance and Imes work was a revelation; subsequent research in this area has shown that that imposterism is absolutely not restricted to being women only, with researchers estimating around 70% of people will experience feelings of imposterism at some point. Given this prevalence, it is likely that your peers, supervisors and managers have all expereinced feelings of imposterism at some point through their career.

Some Common myths can fuel and perpetuate imposterism, inhibiting us from taking positive steps toward building a more balanced self-view. These myths minimise the impact that imposterism can have on our self-esteem, our productivity levels and outputs and ultimately our mental health and wellbeing. For example, have you ever thought to yourself imposterism:

  • makes me work harder
  • helps me aim for high standards
  • motivates me
  • stops me becoming over-confident

The research environment is particularly prone to inducing and heightening feelings of imposterism, as high value is placed on developing a strong public profile and continual career progression. Imposterism is particularly prevalent in early career, in which we tend to continually and rapidly develop a wide range of new skills, without necessarily having the opportunity to demonstrate and validate our growing capability.

The cycle of imposterism

When we experience imposterism, we can become trapped in an unhelpful cycle – we begin by believing that we really don’t know what we’re doing and experience discomfort and anxiety, fuelling our self-doubt. We become frightened of failing, and begin an internal monologue of negative self-talk, a drive for perfection and often lapse into either over-working or procrastinating. Even when we manage to achieve success, we simply discount it (as Clance and Imes identified) – putting it down to the work of others, or just plain luck.

This cycle represents the fundamental conflict that is imposterism – the conflict between how we see ourselves and how others perceive us.

The good news is that there are many strategies we can adopt to help minimise the impact of imposterism on our ability to function well.

Know your triggers

The first step in making any positive change is to start building our self-understanding. If you set impossibly high standards for yourself, find it difficult to accept positive feedback, avoid expressing confidence in your own capability or are simply convinced you aren’t enough, it is likely you are experiencing feelings of imposterism.

Taking some time to reflect on the events that might induce your feelings of imposterism, or to acknowledge when you are lapsing into the cycle of imposterism, can enable us to make more balanced choices about our behaviours, for example striving for healthy productivity, not over-working, and not avoiding what we need to do.

Let go of your inner perfectionist

Imposterism and perfectionism often go hand in hand; striving for more realistic standards, and showing ourselves kindness when we get things wrong, will help us to mitigate our imposter feelings. Proactively setting clear standards of success can be helpful here; before you start on a project or task, write down what you would consider a success; this will help stop you changing the goalposts later, and discounting your successes.

You can check out our blog post on Positive Steps to Reduce Perfectionism here, for more hints and tips on overcoming perfectionism.  

Prepare to make mistakes

Mistakes can stir up imposter feelings. Since mistakes are an inevitable part of life, it is a good idea to prepare yourself – giving yourself permission to fail – and cultivating that self-compassionate voice! Expect to feel annoyed, but then decide what action you will take; our challenges, mistakes and failures are prime learning opportunities.

Watch your language – reframe your inner voice

Impostor syndrome often manifests itself as a voice in our heads, berating us with negative messages like ‘you’re not good enough’, ‘you’re a fraud’ or ‘you don’t belong here’.

Continual negative self-talk is a bad habit, and it can heavily influence our stress and anxiety levels.

However, with practice, we can challenge these thoughts (‘is this thought a fact, or simply my opinion?’) and develop an internal voice that is more compassionate and ultimately more balanced. Try asking yourself – ‘if a friend told me this, how would I respond to them?’ to gain a fresh perspective.

Track and acknowledge your successes

Even when we achieve success, we dismiss it rather than celebrating it – writing it off as a stroke of luck. Committing to tracking and actively acknowledging (and even celebrating!) our successes help mitigate the effect of confirmation bias… that is to say, we are wired to unconsciously seek out evidence that supports our theory of being an imposter, while we are automatically blinkered to evidence that contradicts this self-belief. Consciously shifting the focus of our attention helps readdress this bias.

Share your experiences

Imposterism thrives in isolation – by sharing our own experiences, we can develop a much healthier, more balanced self-view. Talking about our experiences of imposterism with our peers helps us to move away from making unhelpful comparisons with others and offers us an opinion beyond our own.

Seek support  

If you are finding imposterism – or any other concern – is greatly affecting your ability to feel good and function well, it might be worth considering seeking to learn through therapy. Working with a therapist can help you explore the causes of your imposterism and develop strategies and tools to help you overcome the difficulties it causes for you.  

Although there are many steps we can take to support our mental health and wellbeing, sometimes we might be doing everything we can but still find our ability to function well has become impaired, and we would benefit from some external help. It can feel challenging to reach out for support; we might feel vulnerable or find it tricky to articulate what’s going on for us. There are a wide range of mental health and wellbeing support options available depending on your needs; this support can provide the comfort of a shared experience, help you manage practical challenges affecting your wellbeing or to further build your self-management strategies. 

If you are finding any aspect of your research experience unduly challenging, please do reach out – there is a wealth of support available to you to help you any difficulties you are encountering and help you successfully undertake your research role.  

Useful Websites:

Book Recommendations:

Sources of Confidential Support

  • If you are struggling with your mental health and wellbeing, do make an appointment with your GP (general medical practitioner) to explore support options. 
  • If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, you can access urgent support and advice in a range of different ways. For immediate support, you can call the following helpline numbers: The Samaritans 116 123  or the Breathing Space Helpline 0800 83 85 87 
  • If you are unable to keep yourself safe, attend your local Accident and Emergency Department or call 999.  

Developing our self-awareness, noticing when things change for our wellbeing and mental health and then taking early action can make a big difference, and stop things from escalating. Your health is worth your attention and effort, so please look out for yourself. 

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