Sally is a successful Senior Designer, well-respected and high-achieving — she outperforms her counterparts numerous times, and yet, she is constantly waiting to be found out. She lives in terror of the day when someone is going to walk into her office and ask what on earth she thinks she is doing in such a high-powered job.

And it’s not just those in senior positions who suffer from these kind of feelings. Research shows that around 70 percent of us feel we aren’t worthy of the job we are doing at some point in our careers. Academic research by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes reveals that an estimated two out of every five successful people consider themselves frauds.

Why is this and, why are women, in particular, more vulnerable to something commonly known as impostor syndrome?

This term was coined following an academic study in the 1980s that was centred on women who were able to break the glass ceiling. It revealed that they believed they were only promoted because they were lucky or judged to be better than they actually were. This telltale sign of a disconnect between actual and perceived performance is key — despite lots of proof that they are doing well those with impostor syndrome believe they are “faking” it and even praise can make them feel uncomfortable, compounding their feelings of incompetence.

How to beat it

If you recognise that you suffer from impostor syndrome and can see how it holds you back don’t despair — there are things you can do to minimise and eventually remove the feelings completely:

Realise where this insecurity stems from and understand it. Learning to accept that you feel this way is a big step forward, and making a conscious decision that you are not going to let these feelings stop you doing what you want to do or from being successful. This is, of course, easier said than done, but you can begin by controlling how you react to emotional stimuli.

For example, next time you’re at a networking event where you feel everyone else is more knowledgeable or more important than you, your stomach is whirling, your palms are sweaty and your ‘flight or fight’ mode of survival is kicking in making you want to make your excuses and leave — don’t. Think about a “broaden and build” strategy instead where you can use the opportunity to learn and grow instead. Give yourself a goal of talking to five new people and learning something about their business/job — people love talking about themselves so a few prompt questions are all you need.

Notice when you are allowing the negative thoughts which erode your confidence “airtime” and counteract them with positive thoughts, such as, “I am skilled and experienced, and good at my job.” Retraining yourself not to listen to these negative thoughts will take conscious effort and hard work but in time will become more natural.

Know that at times of pressure or stress you may be more susceptible to feelings associated with impostor syndrome, so develop a strategy to make time for the things that make you feel good, and plan in advance how you might deal with the “wobbles” when they appear.

Allow yourself to be human — the fear of being “found out” can often make those with impostor syndrome play it safe at work but making mistakes are part of becoming successful — by taking a risk and trying different approaches we can learn much more than we would from just following the tried and trusted path.

Keep an achievements journal to build confidence and remind yourself why you are in the job you are in. When the doubts creep in you can instantly access lots of ‘evidence’ of when you have performed well.

Use your support network — chances are they suffer from it too — and develop a buddy relationship where you can provide mutual support for each other when you’re feeling unsure of yourself.

Pauline Clance, one of the original researchers urges people with impostor feelings to stop focusing on perfection. “Do a task ‘well enough,’” she says, and take time to appreciate the product of your hard work by celebrating and rewarding yourself.

Speak up — often those with impostor syndrome don’t want the spotlight on them as it can feel exposing and so don’t always voice their ideas or challenge their boss or team. Starting with a “safe” meeting experiment with being authentic and allowing your voice to be heard — notice what happens when you do , enjoy the feeling and keep experimenting with it until it feels natural.

If feeling like an impostor can sometimes make you sabotage your career check out this article for tips to move forward rather than backwards and get what you want from your career, and if a career change is on the cards then tips on understanding how to make what could be a life-changing decision can be found here.

And finally, be grateful for what you have achieved despite all these negative feelings, and celebrate how being “you” has made you successful.

Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.

Oscar Wilde

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The impostor phenomenon in high-achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.

Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne A.

Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, Vol 15(3), 1978, 241-247.

Originally published at


  • Sarah Archer

    Career Coach

    I specialise in career success through re-energising your career, changing it and building confidence. I'm passionate about helping women, in particular, discover purposeful work that they love. I've helped hundreds of people change career or re-engage with their existing career. I love what I do and I want as many people as possible to discover a career they can love too.