Imposter syndrome: a therapist's guide

Our resident therapist on confidence building
Photography: Getty Images

Our new columnist, psychotherapist Jess Henley, PGDip, MA, offers top advice on how to help stop imposter syndrome ruling – and ruining – your life

So, what is it?

If you’ve ever felt you’re a fraud, that you don’t deserve your position in work or life because you’re not clever, talented or interesting enough – accompanied by an intense fear you might be ‘found out’ – that’s imposter syndrome. First identified in 1978 by psychologists Dr Pauline Rose Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes, it was thought to only affect women. But anyone can fall prey. More and more of my clients are saying they’re struggling with the feeling they’ve faked their way into something and it’s simply luck that’s got them there – possibly because people’s jobs and lives have become more pressurised.

How do I recognise it?

It shows in a number of ways. For instance, your inner critic might stop you seizing opportunities you’re actually ready for. When you get feedback, you could fixate on anything that may be construed as negative, because it reinforces your thoughts about yourself. You don’t share ideas and skills, because you don’t feel worthy of attention. You’re not able to internalise the experience of success – you think you’ve just been lucky and haven’t earned what you’ve achieved. Imposter syndrome needs to be taken seriously, though: if it takes root, it can shatter your self-confidence and destroy your belief in your abilities.

Ways to tackle it

Fortunately, there are easy strategies you can adopt to help you move on from these thoughts:

1. Voice your fears, as this can help normalise your feelings

If you chat to friends and peers, you’ll be amazed by how many people feel the same. By putting your feelings into context and seeing how common they are among those who are successful, it can help you move past them.

2. Think about one of your biggest achievements…

… and write a list of all the steps you took to make this happen. Prove to yourself that it wasn’t just luck; it was hard work and skill that prevailed. If you’ve succeeded in the past, there’s no reason why you can’t do it again.

3. Compare yourself with yourself, not others

Everyone’s journey is unique, so comparison is pointless. But looking back at your younger self and seeing how you’ve grown and matured can help empower you to see ways to continue to develop and progress.

4. Consider yourself a work in progress – no one knows everything!

We all need to keep growing and thriving. So, when you come to something tricky, take the pressure off yourself and see it as a chance to learn rather than a stumbling block that highlights what you’re lacking.

5. Establish a strong support network

Identify the people who believe in you and your potential, and only talk to them about your dreams. Surrounding yourself with positivity can help make anything more possible.

If your thoughts are spiralling out of control and you feel excessively anxious or depressed, see your GP. Or contact SANEline, a mental health helpline, on 0300 304 7000.