Imposter syndrome: why do I feel like a fraud at work?

Written by: Dr Catherine Sykes
Edited by: Nicholas Howley

Have you ever felt like you’ve been promoted beyond your level, or given too much responsibility? Do you worry that you might be “found out” one day? Imposter syndrome can affect even the most high-achieving people – and there are even suggestions that it’s more likely when you experience success in your life. We spoke to coaching psychologist Dr Catherine Sykes, who frequently sees CEOs and partners at law firms with imposter syndrome.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome (IS) is persistent and intense self-doubts about your achievements. You feel like you don’t deserve your accomplishments. It is a nagging belief that you lack the competence to do your job despite evidence that you are good at your job. I work with CEOs and Partners at Law firms who are internationally renowned but deep down feel like fraudsters.

At its worst, people live in daily fear of being found out. It puts them on edge constantly. Some people resort to taking beta-blockers on a daily basis to manage the anxiety and fear.

Quite often people feel that they are ‘winging it’ or that they just got lucky. It is not just people who are starting off their career. Actually the more accomplished in a career, the more moderate self-doubts can creep into full-blown imposter syndrome and gradually sabotage a career.

What kind of things would someone with imposter syndrome tell themselves?

These are some of the most common things someone with imposter syndrome might say:

“I just got lucky.”

“One day, everyone will find out that I’m incompetent."

“It's because my boss likes me.”

“It’s because I work hard.”

“I’m just winging it”

“I’m a phoney.”

“I’m just fooling everyone.”

“If I do X then I will be exposed, so better not to do X'

…the list goes on.

Why do people experience imposter syndrome?

People who experience imposter syndrome are stuck in a cycle of persistent untreated anxiety and self-doubts that lead to procrastination or over-working to the point of burn out – which ultimately at some point impacts on performance.

Unfortunately, it is common for people to use self-doubting as a motivator to improve and succeed. This method of motivation will only take you to a certain point. Then it reaches a point in which self-doubting grows and becomes destructive.

Not celebrating successes is another factor in imposter syndrome. Some people think that it is boastful to acknowledge and celebrate success when in fact, celebrating your success cements your success. You psychologically start to own your success and believe in yourself.

People who have a perfectionist mind-set are particularly prone to imposter syndrome. They often set unrealistic high standards and feel incompetent when they don’t meet their own unrealistic goals.

Who suffers from imposter syndrome?

Surprisingly, it is men and women in all careers at all levels – in particular people at the top suffer from imposter syndrome.

However there are also certain unsupportive work environments or organisational cultures that can foster imposter syndrome. It is particularly evident in organisations that do not actively embrace diversity and expect a certain fixed way of working in order to ‘fit in.’

How can it impact someone’s life?

Imposter syndrome can impact on all areas of life. The most obvious is career and professional development but it also impacts on quality of life, personal relationships and health and well-being.

At work, it can lead to avoidance of challenges which results in people getting stuck in the middle of their profession. This can be frustrating and ultimately lead to depression. I meet a lot of middle managers who come to see me for depression. When we get to the bottom of the cause of their depression, quite often it is a feeling of inadequacy in their career that has resulted in avoiding going for promotion. They now feel stuck and forgotten and feel more and more vulnerable in their jobs.

Because people with imposter syndrome live in constant fear of being found out, it can impact on your mood – which then affects your relationships and how you live your life .

What coping mechanisms can help?

Firstly, it is important to address your self-doubts and anxiety. A coaching psychologist can help you to overcome your work related self-doubts and anxieties. I offer face-to-face coaching sessions to put a stop to imposter syndrome and help people to take the next step in their career. I have also developed a remote coaching package to overcome imposter syndrome in 30 days. It is made up of online consultations, e-mail or text support, and tailored psychological techniques.

Secondly, if your work culture is causing you to feel like an imposter, spend two weeks observing your organisational culture and list the practices and expectations that make you feel that you don’t fit in.Take the list, scrunch it into a ball, throw it into an office bin and say: ‘this is not about me, it’s the culture in which I work.’ Choose one of the practices and expectations and ask yourself how you could make a small step towards change.

Finally, start to celebrate your successes. This can be a difficult habit to get into, and might even feel big-headed or boastful – but it’s about adopting a healthier attitude towards your self-worth, and that can make all the difference.

By Dr Catherine Sykes

Dr Catherine Sykes is a chartered psychologist based in central London. She is an expert in cognitive behavioural therapies and is accredited by the British Association For Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP). She is a member of the Health and Care Professionals Council (HCPC) and the Associate Fellow (AFBPsS) of British Psychological Society (BPS). Dr Sykes specialises in anxiety and panic disorder, depression including postpartum depression, Body Dysmorphic Disorder and bulimia. 

Furthermore, Dr Sykes is a coaching psychologist. She is on the BPS register of Coaching Psychologists. She explores the enhancement of well-being and performance in both personal and professional settings. When coaching, Dr Sykes uses evidence-based psychological theories and personalised techniques which enables people to understand what blocks them from reaching their full potential and move on to achieving the life they want.

Dr Sykes is extremely committed to practising psychology, but she is also very involved in research and has authored many peer-reviewed research articles, co-written a textbook on health psychology and authored her own book too. She often speaks at international conferences about her research and has been interviewed by several magazines and newspapers. Dr Sykes is passionate about psychology and works hard to help her clients achieve their goals.

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