Impostor syndrome

Spring 2011, sitting in Copenhagen airport, sipping a €7 cappuccino and eating a Danish pastry (of course), I browsed through my copy of Marie-Claire, stopping on an article about “Impostor Syndrome”

Just the week before, I had been explaining the term to a friend who hadn’t heard of it. Many people haven’t – it’s essentially the fear of being found out.

Worrying that you’re in the wrong job, that you’ve been promoted above your abilities, that you’re a fraud, and that sooner or later, an authoritative hand will land on your shoulder, and a voice will say “We’ve just realised, you have no idea what you’re doing”

I suffer from Impostor Syndrome. So does the friend to whom I explained it. So do many others with whom I’ve had this conversation since then. My husband doesn’t however. I suspect it’s largely the domain of the female of the species.

(image credit
(image credit

On that day in Copenhagen, I was on my way back to Dublin after a nerve-wrecking but ultimately successful two day presentation. I had put huge work into it during the weeks leading up to the trip. I had pored over my presentation in the airport on the way to the workshop. I had stayed up late in my hotel room reading my notes, over and over. It had gone very well.
I had been successful at hiding my nerves and sounded far more confident than I’d dared to hope when answering the follow-up questions. The client was happy. My boss was very happy. So on my return trip, I was rewarding myself with an expensive coffee, an amazing pastry and some time-out reading Marie-Claire instead of e-mail.

A good moment in my career, one to savour.

Yet half way through that magazine article, I was thinking
“I get that this writer is saying that Impostor Syndrome is all in my mind, but what if she’s wrong and I really am crap at my job?”

That kind of self-belief dearth is hard to combat.

The rational part of me knows that working in and progressing in a typical private sector meritocracy for the last fifteen years means that I am probably not, in fact, crap at my job. But that doesn’t stop the irrational self-doubt creeping in every now and then.

I’m not sure what the solution is, and I’m not sure I even need a solution, but it did help me to know that this is a real “thing”, an experience shared by many others. Sometimes that’s enough.

Some signs indicating that you have Impostor Syndrome*:

  • Do you put your success down to luck or timing, for example thinking “well yes I was promoted, but it’s probably because there were no other candidates”?
  • Do you worry about even small imperfections in your work?
  • Do you find it difficult to listen to criticism even when it’s constructive, sometimes analysing and over-analysing comments to decipher if criticism was intended?
  • When you are successful with a project or deliverable at work, do you feel like you “got away with it” or got lucky?
  • Do you feel like it’s only a matter of time before that metaphorical hand lands on your shoulder and you’re “found out”?

If you have Impostor Syndrome, don’t worry! This just means that you now have a name to put on a particular lack of confidence that you experience from time to time. If it’s creeping in a little too often, check out some tips in the links below to help combat it, or the summary I’ve included here:

The short version is to learn to accept compliments, to write down your achievements and to be aware of Impostor Syndrome as a first step – talk about it and read about it – see, you’ve started already by reading this article. So stop under-valuing your ability – you’re great! Now I just need to convince myself of same….

*adapted from

One final note: Impostor can be Imposter but the former is more correct. This bothered me so I had to check. Now you don’t have to!

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14 thoughts on “Impostor syndrome”

  1. I wasn’t too concerned until I got to the list of questions and answered a big yes to every one of them! Thanks for highlighting this. Step one for me will be to learn to take a compliment… usually within 20 minutes of receiving one I have managed to convince myself that it was actually meant as a criticism!
    Naomi Lavelle recently posted…Why is snot green?My Profile

    1. Do you find you wonder why someone paid the compliment – I do that – look for hidden meanings, because it couldn’t just be meant at face value. Isn’t it awful!

  2. Stop undervaluing your ability, Office Mum, you’re great! Oh wait, maybe I’m not qualified to say that!!!!!! Ha ha. But seriously I most definitely have Impostor Syndrome. I had never heard of it before reading this post. Enlightening and thoroughly disturbing all at once. Thanks! (I think).

    1. Yes it’s a bit disturbing to have a new syndrome, but on the other hand, it’s really just a syndrome that loads of us already have and now we have a name for it. Which is good (I think…)

  3. I’m pretty sure this is exactly what almost every new parent suffers from as they walk out of the hospital carrying their brand new baby. But just like every other situation this applies to, you fake it till you make it, and gradually the inside matches the outside. Just like growing up, come to think of it.
    Christine recently posted…DebunkingMy Profile

    1. I love “the inside matches the outside” – I’ve never heard that before. I’m a big fan of fake till you make it – useful for work, parenting and every new social situation 🙂

  4. Oh I can relate to this. And I dread the “after maternity leave” bash to the confidence. I remember going back after my first pregnancy and thinking I knew absolutely less than nothing. Confidence is so tricky. Luckily we are the best parents ever so we have confidence for that 🙂

    1. Back to work after maternity leave is such a difficult time in terms of confidence, and definitely a time for fake it till you make it. But you’re right, sure we’re all brilliant parents!

    1. Spell check has destroyed us all I think. And of course we’re all working with auto-spell-check that uses American spellings so it’s doubly-difficult (or maybe it’s a simple settings change that I haven’t looked for 😉 )

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