Wellness
Impostor Syndrome is an unfounded fear of being found out. Do YOU suffer from it?
“I’m not good enough. They’ve made a mistake"

Many years ago, back before children, when I still had time to over-think everything, I was asked to take on a particular role at work.

It would mean more responsibility and a new team, in an area in which I’d never worked before. My then-boss said he knew it was a lot to ask, and that it would be a challenge, but he was sure I could do it.

When the meeting ended, my first thought was “Wow, that’s great news!” immediately followed by “I really don’t think I can do this job – they’ve made a huge mistake. I’m not the right person.”

Distractions in the shape of wedding-planning and house-buying took my mind off the new role for a while, but there was a persistent nagging thought at the back of my mind in the run-up to the move: “I’m not good enough. They’ve made a mistake. I was just in the right place at the right time, and they’re going to find me out.”

Impostor Syndrome, as it is known, is an unfounded fear of being found out. It mostly affects women (although men do experience it too). It’s not just regular anxiety about work – it’s quite specifically a sense of having achieved success via luck, or through fooling people. And a huge fear of being discovered to be a fraud. Waiting for that hand-on-shoulder moment, and the “Sorry, but you’re not the right person after all” announcement.

Some signs that you might have Impostor Syndrome include the following:

  • You feel like you don’t deserve the success you’ve achieved at work.
  • When you are promoted or otherwise rewarded at work, you feel it’s unwarranted.
  • When colleagues or bosses sing your praises, you think they are overestimating you.
  • You suspect that sooner or later, people will realise that you’re not as competent as they think you are.
  • You think your successes are down to luck rather than ability.

But the good news is, the most widely accepted antidote is to read up on Impostor Syndrome and to understand that it exists. You’re doing that right now – so if you have it, you’re already on the way to fixing it.

Another tip is to write down your achievements – keep a record of all your successes, big and small, as a reminder that you are good at what you do. A friend who works in HR once suggested to me to make a “HAIG” folder (“Hey, aren’t I great”) – an electronic or hard-copy file, in which to keep track of positive feedback and messages. Like lots of people, I tend to focus on criticism, real and perceived, and completely overlook the good stuff – the HAIG folder forces me to take a more balanced view.

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A wider-reaching solution is for people who are clearly high-achievers in any given organization to speak openly about their own experiences of Impostor Syndrome. Employees who are still climbing the ladder then see that very successful people have self-doubt too, and as a result have a more realistic view of their own achievements.

In my own case, my new job was tough at the beginning, but over time, I figured it out. A few months later, everything was going unexpectedly smoothly. It was starting to feel pretty manageable really. So did I finally realise that I wasn’t a fraud – that I was capable? No, I decided that the job was not as challenging as my employer expected. It couldn’t possibly be that I had mastered it.

But one of the cute little ironies is that many sufferers think, “Yes I know Impostor Syndrome exists – I know that’s what all those other self-doubters are suffering from, but in my case, it’s real – I am a fraud.”

So if you have it, write down what you’re good at, focus on the positives, and read up on Impostor Syndrome. Chances are, if you were truly terrible at your job, you’d have been told by now. So stop waiting for the hand-on-shoulder moment – if it comes, it’ll probably be a pat on the back.

Andrea Mara is a shoe-obsessed, coffee-loving mother of three from Dublin. When she’s not working in financial services, or looking after the kids, Elissa, 7, Nia, 5 and Matthew, 3, she’s simultaneously making tomorrow’s school lunches, eating Toblerone and letting off steam on her blog.

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Diary of an Office Mum