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When can I stop feeling like a fake?

Date

Sylvia Pennington

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Doubting your own ability can undo all the good work you've done.

Doubting your own ability can undo all the good work you've done. Photo: Tamara Voninski

Do you go to work every day secretly waiting for someone to rumble you for the fraud that you feel like?

Even though you're well qualified and good at your job, you're convinced deep down that the promotion you just got handed was due to luck, affirmative action or a mistake in the HR department.

Welcome to Imposter Syndrome – that nagging feeling your success is unearned, you don't really know what you're doing and sooner or later the genuinely competent folk are going to find out and call you on it.

Warrick Arblaster: work with an external mentor.

Warrick Arblaster: work with an external mentor.

First described by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, the condition was initially associated with high-achieving women who struggled to internalise their successes and accomplishments.

It's a psychological phenomenon that rears its head for many people at different moments as they rise through the ranks. If unchecked, the persistent self-doubt can be crippling, personally and professionally.

Speaker and consultant Suzanne Mercier says it put the kybosh on her rise in the advertising world, two decades ago.

Karen James: had to quash her inner doubts.

Karen James: had to quash her inner doubts.

The first woman to be promoted to the board of George Patterson Advertising in 1990, just two years after joining the company, Mercier says she headed up to the executive suite expecting to be fired rather than promoted.

“I was totally gobsmacked, I didn't feel it was earned, I didn't feel I had the skills or the capability,” she says.

The appointment saw her promoted two levels above her existing position, leapfrogging a number of longer-serving colleagues in the process.

After privately deciding her elevation was the result of an affirmative action gesture, Mercier says she struggled in the role, afraid to ask for help and crippled by the thought of being found out and kicked out.

“I might have come across as a confident businesswoman – that wasn't what was going on in my head,” Mercier says.

“If you don't recognise your skills and capabilities, you can't own your successes … we dismiss our talents and successes as anything but the fact that we've done something well.”

After two years of hiding her doubts from friends and colleagues – “there was no mentoring in those days” – she left to start her own agency, convinced she didn't have what it took to play in the premier league. “My take-out was that I wasn't good enough,” she says.

Edwin Trevor-Roberts, the CEO of career management consultancy Trevor-Roberts Associates, says Imposter Syndrome often strikes when people step up to their first executive role.

'Are you sure they picked the right person?' is a common thought, he says. Few are keen to vocalise it, in particular men who are programmed to feel they must appear the master of every situation.

Some avoid the problem by holding back from applying for higher roles for fear of drawing further attention to themselves and their shortcomings, Psychology Melbourne counselling psychologist Warrick Arblaster says.

It's a similar dilemma to that faced by game show contestants – take the money and run, or play on and potentially lose everything, he says.

“People think, 'I've got this far as a fraud, I'll just tread water now',” Arblaster says.

Working with an external mentor or executive coach can ensure self-doubt doesn't hamper the corporate climb, as can making a list of personal accomplishments.

“It can be useful to see your achievements in writing, versus going, 'God, I was lucky, will I be found out'?” Arblaster says.

“It's a continuum. You probably can't get rid of it, but you can stay on top of it.”

The Commonwealth Bank's general manager of affiliate business banking and its Women in Focus program, American-born Karen James, has worked in executive roles in Australia and abroad and is in demand nationally as a speaker.

As a graduate electrical engineer, she held her own in the male-dominated world of information technology in the 1980s and 90s.

Career achievements notwithstanding, she's loathe to describe herself as a high flier and has had to work to quash her inner doubts as she has risen through the ranks.

Before speaking engagements, she sometimes still asks herself, 'why would this group want to hear from me?'.

“There are two conversations – the one that's happening externally and the one that's going on in your head,” James says.

“Your childhood and how you're raised makes a difference – your experience, education and exposure culminates in your 'self talk'. 'I'm just a girl from New Jersey' – I had to get rid of that.”

James believes cultivating a circle of supportive colleagues and friends early in your career is the best way to ensure self doubt doesn't run rampant.

“You have to work on it at a personal level – surround yourself with the right people,” she says.

“Having the full support of a good mentor, people around you who truly believe in you, strong positive influences, can help cull the self talk.”

36 comments

  • This is just so true. Fantastic article.

    I've been "lucky" to have risen pretty quickly in my career, been given roles in under 10 years that would have been reserved for decades-long people. With every new role, I felt exactly like this - "I don't feel at all ready for this; what if they find out I'm not actually as good as what they seem to think" was all pretty self-defeating.

    I was very fortunate to have several key mentors who believed in me and a wife who would always encourage with her sensible, logical, rational manner.

    I don't think you ever get 'rid' of it, but the conclusion I have is nor do you want to. I've decided that in a healthy dose, a small amount of doubt will be useful to spur you on to continue learning and growing. Like anything, too much or too little - neither is good.

    I've found much inner freedom in this approach. It doesn't stop the inner-critic popping up, but with each new experience I realise that most people feel like this, and those that don't probably ought to.

    Commenter
    bjs
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    November 04, 2013, 8:50AM
    • Cue the hordes of people 'oh I've got that' which is code for a brazen piece of faux-modesty. You probably don't have it, or it's just the standard human response to being promoted. Or, you're actually not very good at your job and you know it.

      Commenter
      Faniya
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      November 04, 2013, 11:18AM
    • Cue the smarta**se knowalls who think they are a little cleverer than everyone else, but occaisionally wonder why they get overlooked for these 'easy' plum roles. (hint: it's the smarta**e bit).

      Commenter
      markx
      Date and time
      November 04, 2013, 12:01PM
    • Maybe it is because my partner is rich and family are millionaires and we have been together for 10 years now... maybe my mentality is a bit relaxed? See I understand what you are saying but actually believe it or not being more relaxed towards the situation and not stressing yourself out over it actually get's you further. Don't know how it works but for me I just rock up to work do my job and go. I strive for performance and reaching my KPI's as more of a personal challenge I guess above than what the company requires that I do. I have found that being relaxed towards reaching to the next stage in your life actually gets you further as people can sense confidence a mile away. Not sure what it would be like if I didn't have a partner who was rich knowing that what ever happens happens. Maybe I am out of touch of reality? I don't think so because I like to try and remind people above me that not everyone that walks through that door each and every morning is the same as the person next to you. We are all different and we all come from different walks of life. If you are stressing so much, take a step back... think to yourself... how worse could it get? There will always be another opportunity. Hence this is why I don't just count on my relationship for my success... it's a competitive market everywhere... work, family and relationships. I say to my friends.. "Look, you won the race before you were born... you are capable of doing anything. You were meant to be born to succeed" Wish you all the luck and go for it! :)

      Commenter
      The Other Guy1
      Date and time
      November 04, 2013, 12:07PM
    • Faniya, I actually am good at my job. I'm not boasting or being arrogant, but I do do a good job. My response to the article was just to identify that many of us do feel this way at some point. Despite the success, accolades or material rewards, people still feel somewhat like they shouldn't be deserving of said success.

      Commenter
      bjs
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      November 04, 2013, 12:56PM
    • Interesting to see how people try to rationalise success, "I'm here, so therefore I deserve it"

      Commenter
      Asher
      Location
      Black Palm
      Date and time
      November 04, 2013, 1:07PM
    • Once you realise that most people are incompetent in their jobs, the problem goesvaway.

      Commenter
      mark
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      November 05, 2013, 6:18AM
  • I totally relate to his. Just didn't realize there was a 'diagnoses' and a term for it!
    Coincidentally, I am actually in the process of teaming up with a career coach.

    Commenter
    FemIT
    Date and time
    November 04, 2013, 8:56AM
    • Yes - there is a diagnosis for behaviours that require 'ironing out' so to speak. I personally knew of somebody that was simultaneously suffering from Delusional Jobseeker Syndrome, Fake It Till You Make It Syndrome, Serial Positive Thinker Syndrome and Vacuous Victim Syndrome. Thankfully they have now been medicated....

      Commenter
      Dee
      Location
      Brave New World
      Date and time
      November 04, 2013, 3:09PM
  • I can relate to this. But when such a long string of lucky undeserved good things happen in my professional life I start to think people obviously hold me in much higher regard than I do. It's the constant battle between rationality and low self esteem

    Commenter
    Mick
    Date and time
    November 04, 2013, 10:33AM

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