Or how to free yourself from Imposter Syndrome
by Daniel Kingsley
You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?’
Meryl Streep, Actress
I would have this recurring fantasy in which there would be a knock on the door, and I would go down, and there would be somebody wearing a suit…and they would be holding a clipboard…and they’d say, “Hello, excuse me, I’m afraid I am here on official business. Are you Neil Gaiman?…I’m afraid we are on to you. We’ve caught up with you. And I’m afraid you are now going to have to go out and get a proper job.
Neil Gaiman, Author
I just look at all these [famous] people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.
Neil Armstrong, Astronaut
So…there’s this voice in your head and it’s saying ‘You don’t deserve to be here’, or ‘One day they’ll catch up with you and expose you as a fraud’, or ‘You can’t charge that much money for what you do – you’re not worth it’. And when you listen to that voice you feel deflated or dejected and it feels much more difficult (or even impossible) to put yourself out there in the world.
It’s a painful experience, and for many people a pretty debilitating one.
Does that sound in any way familiar?
If so, the good news is that you’re not a freak, you’re not defective, you’re not broken, and you are far far from alone. It’s been called Imposter Syndrome, it’s very common, and if you suffer from it there are some very helpful things you can do to combat it.
It’s an issue that most speakers or leaders face at one time or another, and in this article, I’m going to share what I think is useful to know about this issue and (most importantly) how to deal with it effectively.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
In my understanding, Imposter Syndrome is just a fancy name for a deep and persistent belief that we are not good enough to be doing what we’re doing and we are (at some stage) going to be “found out” and exposed. In common language, we “feel like a fraud”.
Imposter Syndrome causes us to doubt and second guess ourselves, to try too hard and worry too much, especially about what others are thinking or may think of us.
What adds insult to injury, is when we are suffering in this way, we tend believe that we are alone in feeling this way and that everyone else has “got it together”.
(Feeling alone is for most people worse than feeling harassed – it also activates the same areas of the brain as physical pain does).
This leads us to the first thing you need to know about imposter syndrome.
You are not alone
Far from it. In a 1985 study by Pauline Clance and Gail Matthews of their clinical psychology clients, around 70% had experienced “imposterism” and according to a 2013 article, at least two-thirds of Harvard Business School students experienced imposterism. And although women are more likely to talk about it than men, studies show that it is experienced equally by both genders. So the majority of people feel or have felt this way.
My guess would be that almost everyone feels at least a bit this way some of the time. I certainly used to suffer from these sort of experiences quite frequently up until a few years ago. I do still sometimes recognise the experience of a voice in my head telling me that I have no right to charge what I do for my work, or that I am not sufficiently qualified to do what I do (neither of which is true). I believe that in my case I’m now able not to take these voices very seriously because I have access to the tools that I’m going to share with you below – but I can see how without those tools, these voices could get seriously out of hand.
This reassurance that you are not alone, if you experience this, is echoed by Amy Cuddy in her book Presence (where she has an excellent chapter on Imposter Syndrome). She quotes a number of research studies showing that this phenomenon cuts across ages, races, life experience and professions. She quotes the researcher who coined the term Imposter Syndrome as saying “If I could do it all over again, I would call it the imposter experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness. It’s something we all experience”.
The reason that we can feel so alone in these experiences is that people feel ashamed of them, and most people feel too ashamed to tell others that this is how they have been feeling about themselves.
Success and talent are no insulation against the imposter experience
There is a huge amount of anecdotal evidence that many successful and talented people suffer from imposter experiences. In addition to the names in the quotes at the start of this article we can add Daniel Radcliffe, Natalie Portman, Tom Hanks, Michelle Obama, Sheryl Sandberg and even Mahatma Ghandi who have spoken publically about this. Jennifer Lopez was not immune either – She’s reported as having said: “Even though I’d sold 70 million albums, there I was feeling like ‘I’m no good at this’.”  
I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’
Maya Angelou, Poet
Ironically, the more we achieve and the more talented we are, the more other people will expect of us, so achievements and talent are not a cure for imposter experiences.
If getting more successful and working harder aren’t a solution for imposter experiences– what is?
How to deal with imposter experiences
Ultimately, imposter experiences are a type of Inner Critic attack. If you want to read more about the inner critic you can read the article I wrote about it here. What you need to know for now is that:
- The inner critic is a voice that speaks in our heads speaking (usually) untrue and dis-heartening opinions or points of view
- It only speaks when a child-like part of us is feeling exposed or vulnerable.
One of the most effective ways to “switch off” this voice is to give reassurance to the child-like part of us that is feeling vulnerable.
But in order to do that effectively, we need to reassure the adult part of ourselves that what that voice is saying is in fact untrue! So let’s start there…
Is it true?
Let’s use Neil Armstrong’s example of “feeling like” he didn’t belong at a meeting of famous or successful people, quoted at the start of this article. Another way of putting this is that he “felt like” an imposter or a fraud.
Although we may call this a feeling, it’s not a feeling. It is in fact a belief.
Getting the naming right is very important because feelings (like angry, sad, happy, confused) cannot be wrong or untrue. If you feel angry, you really are feeling angry. But beliefs can be untrue – if I believe that so and so dislikes me, I may be correct or incorrect in that belief. If I label my belief as a feeling (“I feel like he doesn’t like me”) then it’s harder to recognise the fact that it may be untrue.
So, we need to identify what Neil Armstrong was believing and then see if it was actually true. (Before we can reassure the scared child-like part, we need to do some reality testing!).
It seems to me is that Neil Armstrong was believing something like “All the other people deserve to be here and I don’t – therefore I’m an imposter”.
The actual words he used in the quote were:
“I just look at all these [famous] people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”
A useful way to examine beliefs that are making us feel bad is to use Byron Katie’s 4 questions.
(This is a very powerful method for letting go of unhelpful beliefs – you can find out more here). In brief, the 4 questions are:
- Is it true? Can you be sure it’s true?
- How do I feel when I believe it?
- Who would I be without that belief?
- Is the opposite equally true?
So, let’s this method with Neil Armstrong’s example:
- Is it true? Can you be sure it’s true?
So the first answer he might give is, yes, the other people at the meeting have created amazing things and he’s just famous for going where he was sent (being one of the first people on the moon), so they are more deserving of being honoured than him. So, yes, it may superficially appear true.
Now we ask – Can you be sure it’s true? And at this stage, it’s good to answer the question the way that a close friend who loves you and cares about you would answer it.
That close friend might say something like: “You’ve been invited to this meeting because what you did inspires people. And yes, there’s an element of luck there, but you also put in hard work and training as well as being lucky, and you genuinely are an inspiration to many people about what human beings may be capable of. So I don’t think it’s true that you don’t deserve to be there”.
So, listening to what a close and supportive friend would say, what Armstrong can conclude is that (at the very least) he can’t be sure that that belief is true.
99 times out of 100 you will be able to conclude that what the voice in your head is telling you is not actually true – that you’re not really a fake/fraud/imposter.
- How do you feel when you believe it?
That’s easy – He probably feels awful, horrible, worthless, sad and scared (of being found out). Generally a whole bunch of unpleasant feelings.
- Who would you be without the belief?
He’d almost certainly feel much lighter and happier, and perhaps able to use his fame (whether fully deserved or not) to support other people and give back to the community.
- Is the opposite equally true?
There are usually lots of opposites you can find to any belief. Some examples here would be:
- I do deserve to be here (because people want me to be here as what I did inspires them)
- Everyone deserves to be here (because all human beings are equally valuable and worthy of being honoured).
- No-one deserves to be here (because the whole concept of fame, celebrity and awards is suspect in itself).
It’s possible to see that each of these opposites has an element of truth to it, which allows us to take the original belief much less seriously.
It’s time to reassure the child-like part
Now we know that the belief we were holding is not really true we are in a position to reassure the child-like part of us that is feeling vulnerable. We locate a more adult part that can speak to this young of part of us (rather in the way the trusted loving friend did in the sequence above).
The first thing to do is to listen to what that young part is saying. It will usually involve a feeling, and that feeling will usually be some flavour or fear or worry. If we take Neil Armstrong’s case it would be saying something like:
‘I’m scared that people will think that I don’t deserve to be here and that they will laugh at me or criticise me for being here, because I haven’t created anything, I just did my job and got sent somewhere cool’.
The adult part of us could then respond with warmth and empathy:
‘I can really hear that you’re feeling scared. And I can understand that you’re worried that people will judge that what you did wasn’t worthy of being included in this meeting…[This is listening to and validating the feeling, which is actually the most important part of reassurance].
…but the people who invited you here know exactly what you did and who you are, and knowing all of that they wanted you to be here, because you act as an inspiration to many people. So there’s very little chance of you getting “found out” or judged. If people were to judge you, that would be their problem not yours! (And by the way, a lot of other people at this party are probably feeling exactly the same way – believing that others are more deserving than them of being here)…[This is explaining to that young part why it’s fears are not really justified]
…don’t worry I’ve got you, you’re going to be OK.’[This is the final part – it’s like the adult part giving the child part a hug and reassurance].
And you can can give this young part reassurance as often as you need and whenever you need to.
My experience is when I do this for myself – locate the adult part that can listen to the young scared part and give it reassurance, the critical voice in my head simply melts away and does so pretty quickly. It’s not that it’s been eliminated from my system – it’s more like a TV that’s been put into standby mode – it’s no longer needed, so its switched itself off! I’m then left with the adult voice that can give me a much more balanced, supportive and realistic assessment of the situation. This is one of the most powerful tools I’ve learned. Do give it a try, you may be surprised by how quickly it can work and how effective it is.
So…it turns out that you are (almost certainly) not an imposter. But feeling this way is very common. When we can understand this and listen to the scared child-like parts of ourselves that are feeling vulnerable and give them reassurance, the voice that is saying these things simply melts away. Allowing us to enjoy our lives and get on with doing what really matters – enjoying our lives and helping others.
Do let me know how you get on with this approach, either in the comments below or by email…I always love to hear from people.
And if you’re interested in being coached in person in this and other related powerful approaches to feeling confident in the world, do check out our Foundation Workshops in London.
 Implicit in the definition above of imposter syndrome is that we “feel like” a fraud, when actually we up to the job. Of course, there could be situations where we are genuinely out of our depth, or are pretending to have skills that we simply don’t have. In these cases, the solution is to come clean, or to do some serious up-skilling.
 Eisenberger N.I., Liberman, M.D, & Williams K.D. (2003) Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion, Science, 302, 290-292
 A Matthews G and Clance, P.R (1985) Treatment of the Imposter Phenomenon in psychotherapy clients – Psychotherapy in Private Practice.
 B Friedman, A (2013, October 22). Not qualified for your job? Wait, you probably are. Pacific Standard. Retrieved from http://www.psmag.com/business-economics/qualified-job-wait-probably-imposter-syndrome-psychology-68700
 Amy Cuddy – Presence (2016) Orion Books – Chapter 4
 Amy Cuddy – Presence (2016) Orion Books – Chapter 4 – Page 95
 Of course 1 time in 100, there may be situations where even your close friend might conclude that you are pretending to be something that you are not. (For instance if someone has faked their university degree or their professional qualifications or is actually lying about who they are). In those situations this is not an imposter experience – you are actually an imposter! And if that’s the case you may simply need to “come clean”.