Verity is in her first year of studying medicine at a top university but she shuffles along the corridors with her head down because she doesn’t feel as if she belongs in such a prestigious institution.
Despite having the highest grades in her exams at school and being in the top five on her course, 19-year-old Verity feels like a fraud and fears that any day now, someone will knock on her door and tell her they’ve found out she isn’t bright enough to become a doctor. She pictures herself having to pack up her things and head home, destined for a 9-to-5 job, her hopes of a career in medicine dashed.
“When I got accepted into med school, I thought maybe they needed an extra girl on the course, because all the other interviewees I saw that day were boys,” says Verity. “When my exam results came through, I thought there must have been a mistake. I half expected to get a phone call or a letter saying there had been a re-mark, and my grades were considerably lower than I’d been told and I’d have to resit them if I wanted to carry on studying.
“I constantly have this fear that I’ll be exposed as a con, as someone who’s pretending to be someone she isn’t. My mum and grandma are always telling me how clever I am – they’ve done this since the day I started school – but I just can’t see it. I think I’ve been lucky in every exam I’ve ever sat, or the questions have been in my favour, and one day I’ll come unstuck and be revealed for the fake that I am.”
Verity is a perfect example of someone suffering from Imposter Syndrome, a phenomenon first described in the 1970s by American psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance, who wrote a paper on people who feel like phoneys, when in reality they are usually just the opposite.
People with Imposter Syndrome think they get a job because the interview panel felt sorry for them, or they’re chosen to lead a charity committee because no one else wanted the job.
Other times, they think another person with the same surname was meant to get their university place and the letter went to the wrong address by mistake.
They disregard their qualifications and effort and instead put their success down to good luck or being in the right place at the right time, or other people performing badly.
Dr Rose Logan, a clinical psychologist at LightHouse Arabia (www.lighthousearabia.com) n Dubai, says Verity is typical of people with Imposter Syndrome and they often put their accomplishments down to luck rather than ability.
“It isn’t a clinically diagnosed syndrome but it is often characterised by chronic low self-esteem and self-doubt, depression, anxiety and perfectionism,” explains Dr Logan.
“These people have their own belief systems in which their success or ability is attributable to luck, chance or error. Unfortunately many people suffer in silence, due to their fear of being found out. Anyone – from doctors and lawyers to psychologists – can be prone to developing this syndrome. It would be unusual to see it in younger children, but by no means impossible.
“It was initially thought that only women suffered from Imposter Syndrome but it’s now recognised that men do too. It can affect anyone in any walk of life, but it’s more likely to impact on someone embarking on something new, such as a graduate training programme or a new job where they are adjusting to new expectations and developing skills.”
According to John Lees, author of The Secrets of Resilient People, a sufferer feels like a pretender who’s acting the part, rather than a person who has real abilities.
The syndrome seems to affect men and women at various stages of their lives, and Lees, who is also a UK-based career strategist, cites the example of the young graduate who feels the men on her training programme have a higher chance of being promoted because they push themselves forward. There’s also the 30-something mother returning to work who believes she will be hired out of sympathy. Equally, the man in his 50s who believes his skills and knowledge are out of date may well suffer from Imposter Syndrome.
But where does this feeling come from? Do we wake up one morning with it, or does it creep up on us gradually? Dr Logan believes it develops over time, although a stressor such as a new job might trigger these beliefs. But, even in these circumstances, she says sufferers would probably already have experienced times of self-doubt or low self-esteem in their lives.
“Being raised in a family where there is a strong emphasis on achievement could be a factor in developing the syndrome,” says Dr Logan. “Parents who alternately offer great praise and harsh criticism could trigger the syndrome.”
Lees sees Imposter Syndrome among people who are isolated and lack peer feedback – high-flying men and women, who work in their own offices away from the banter of their colleagues and miss out on the office social life, often suffer from it.
“People who work closely with other team members don’t feel a fake as much because they receive fairly constant feedback,” he explains. “Those at or close to the top of their organisations often have no one telling them they’re doing a good job, or to steer them towards more constructive behaviour.”
So once we’ve identified the syndrome, what can we do about it?
“Don’t stay silent!” urges Dr Logan. “Speak to mentors, coaches, friends and family, if possible. Try to focus on facts rather than feelings and try to keep a check on perfectionist tendencies and obsessive checking.”
Lees agrees connecting with others is the best way to tackle Imposter Syndrome.
He says: “Recognise that the feeling is perfectly normal and smile at the enormous creativity you put into trashing your own confidence!
“Try to find someone you can openly discuss this problem with. If you believe that disclosing this area of self-doubt makes you appear weak, you haven’t found someone you trust enough.”
He urges us to look upwards, and recognise that our bosses and superiors are especially prone to feeling fraudulent and living in fear they’re about to be found out. “We believe staff above us in organisations are immune from it,” says Lees. “Imposterism is rarely revealed, except to trusted colleagues, while the rest of the world sees a confident, unshakable self, so it’s unlikely that you would notice the syndrome in others.” He adds that it’s helpful to know that many people who appear to have their careers entirely on track worry whether they have any skills worth offering.
Because Imposterism is based on concealing evidence from yourself, Lees recommends we create an ‘evidence locker’ to remind ourselves of the times we’ve been brilliant parents, negotiated a great deal at work, passed exams, averted a financial disaster or come up with a brilliant solution to a problem.
“Give your brain half a chance and it will choose to forget most of the times when you’ve made a difference,” says Lees. “In victim mode, your brain, like radar, looks for enemy objects, not friendly data.
“You have to force-feed your picture of yourself with the right material. This isn’t faking it, but drawing on treasures in your past.
“Revisit work logs, diaries and project summaries to recapture the contribution you made. Ask for recommendations from colleagues and honest feedback from friends to remind you where you excel.”
He stresses that when we take on a new job, we all adopt a slightly glossier image than we feel, and we all have a feeling of risk when we do things for the first time.
“However, if you’ve held down a job for years, delivered against targets, received positive appraisals, helped colleagues, generated new ideas and delighted the odd customer along the way, believe it all. The evidence is overwhelmingly in your favour and you are not a phoney!”
Dr Logan recommends cognitive behavioural therapy to identify distortions in our belief systems and thought processes, which can be restructured. “This would aim to incorporate new information that’s more consistent with facts, rather than just the individual’s biased thinking.”
So once we follow these tips, does that mean we’ve solved the problem? “As with any psychological difficulty, there is a need to maintain well-being,” says Dr Logan. “If you can recognise the early warning signs and use strategies that have worked in the past, there’s no reason why it should come back.”