Imposter Syndrome: Why You Feel Like a Fraud and How to Fix itAug 02, 2021
As jubilant applause fills your ears, you realize your name was called to the stage. You’ve received the company’s award as this year’s top seller and it’s time to make your speech. No big deal, you’re good at this. Smiling and exuding confidence, you graciously accept your award and say something nice about each member of your team. But as you take your seat it hits you - the feeling that you are a fraud. Sure you had the top sales numbers, but wasn’t it just luck? After all, your biggest sale probably wouldn’t have happened if the sales manager before you hadn’t built up the relationship with the customer. You think, I surely can’t keep this up next year and then everyone will know that I’m not very talented. I’ll be exposed as a loser and I’ll probably get demoted or lose my job. While colleagues pat you on the back celebrating your success, your negative self talk bubbles below your confident facade.
Feeling unworthy of your success could mean you’re experiencing Imposter Syndrome. If this is the case, it doesn’t matter how well you’ve done for yourself or what others say about you, you still feel like a phony.
The term Imposter Syndrome is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s really not a syndrome at all. More correctly called The Imposter Phenomenon, there is no official diagnosis since it’s not a true mental health disorder. The feelings and internal experience of Imposter Syndrome can, however, lead to deeper issues like anxiety and depression.
If you’re a guy reading this, it’s possible you’ve never even heard of Imposter syndrome before, but this phenomenon is commonly talked about among women. While it’s thought that both men and women experience Imposter Syndrome equally, the underlying causes often differ as do the frequency with which they talk about it. Women are much more likely to share their fears about being inadequate, while men are far less apt to talk about it with others. However, both men and women chalk their success up to good luck.
What are the common characteristics of Imposter Syndrome?
According to this article, some of the common signs of imposter syndrome include:
• An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills
• Attributing your success to external factors
• Berating your performance
• Fear that you won't live up to expectations
• Sabotaging your own success
• Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short.
If these characteristics look familiar ask yourself the following questions:
• Do you agonize over even the smallest mistakes or flaws in your work?
• Do you attribute your success to luck or outside factors?
• Are you very sensitive to even constructive criticism?
• Do you feel like you will inevitably be found out as a phony?
• Do you downplay your own expertise, even in areas where you are genuinely more skilled than others?
Feeling some amount of self-doubt is natural when learning something new or struggling with a task, however, Imposter Syndrome makes it difficult to assess when you’re getting it right.
There are multiple contributing factors that can lead to Imposter Syndrome.
Family and Society
From the time we are children, how we are treated socially, (or how we perceive we are treated socially), can have a lasting impact on how we perceive ourselves and our abilities.
If your self-esteem was damaged early on, you may not believe you are capable of reaching your goals and disregard your achievements as a fluke. Another response to a low belief in your abilities is to work extra hard to compensate for perceived ineptitude. If you are a perfectionist, this could be the root cause.
Conversely, if you’ve always been highly esteemed highly by your parents, paraded around like a perfect show dog, you might grow up to feel undeserving of such constant praise.
Criticism and Stereotyping
Negative societal stereotypes, whether based on age, race, gender or socioeconomic status can influence one’s opinion about themselves and what they believe they can achieve. If you belong to a social group that has been historically marginalized, feelings of inferiority can be deeply entrenched into your self-esteem - even if you are perfectly competent and intelligent.
One constant in life is nothing ever stays the same. Big life transitions, such as a promotion at work or a new leadership position can lead you to question whether you have what it takes to fulfill your new role successfully. Self-doubt and fear that you’ll be “found out” as being a fraud are signs that the life transition has triggered Imposter Syndrome.
Seeing how we stack up by comparing ourselves to others can be a valuable tool in business. For example, it’s helpful to know what part of the market share you take up and how well your customers are rating their experience. However, when it goes unchecked, comparison can wreak havoc on a person’s psyche. Look anywhere on social media or television and it can appear like everyone in the world is smarter, richer, happier, more physically fit and better looking than you are. This type of comparison is demoralizing and can make a guy feel like he’s “missed the memo” about how to be a successful man. To make matters worse, society often measures the merit of a man by the size of his bank account. So if you’re experiencing financial struggle, you may also feel emasculated.
Men and Competition
Men have a unique relationship with competition. For a lot of men, there is a strong motivation to adopt a competitive behavior because there is an external benefit. Think of the various experiences or things that you might strive for, such as a university degree, a promotion at work, or beating your buddies in a game of pool.
A bit of good-natured competition helps men push themselves to do better, which can improve their overall performance and lead to new levels of innovation and success.
However, these external motivators can lead some men to do what Brene Brown refers to as “puffing up” - meaning that to impress or intimidate other men, they may overestimate their abilities. This negatively impacts them when they commit to pursuits that are ‘above their pay grade’. When maintained over a prolonged period of time, the individual begins to recognize that their ceiling of capability has been reached and they begin to question whether they are potentially frauds.
Imposter Syndrome Cycle and Anxiety
One reaction to not feeling worthy or good enough is to work twice as hard to compensate for what you believe you lack. This doubling-down can fuel feelings of anxiety as you scramble to make sure no one discovers your shortcomings.
The paradox is that while hard work helps to ensure you become successful, the cost to your mental health is great. Because you cannot accurately assess your abilities, you believe the only reason you are only able to achieve anything is that you worked twice as hard as everyone else. Anxiety pushes you to pull the all-nighter, to work weekends, and to stay quiet in meetings when you’re not sure your contributions are welcome.
The fear of looking bad motivates you to work harder, which only produces more anxiety and fear. No matter how hard you work and what you achieve, you still feel like a fraud witch results in the Imposter Syndrome Cycle.
Just on the other side of anxiety is depression, which is also a common feeling experienced with Imposter Syndrome. Thoughts like, “No matter what I do, I’m always going to suck, so why should I even bother?”
Imposter Syndrome Can Impact Men in Very Different Ways.
What I have seen in my work with businesses, particularly when working alongside people in managerial roles is that women tend to admit to imposter syndrome far more than men do.
Though I would bet that men feel it a lot more than they let on. This is because men tend to believe it makes them seem vulnerable, an emotion they dislike as they, wrongly, see it as appearing cowardly, even though we know this is far from true.
While it’s true that the causes and effects of Imposter Syndrome can show up similarly in both men and women, there are key differences that are more frequently expressed.
For example, women are more likely to underestimate their abilities and are more reserved about stepping into positions of power or authority. They might look at a difficult task, even if it’s one they aspire to achieve and are more than capable of doing so, and ask themselves, “Who am I to do that?”
Men, however, frequently overestimate their abilities and take on tasks for which they are not suited or prepared. They often observe a difficult task and assert themselves with confidence, saying, “I can totally do that!” This type of confidence is more likely to win a man a bigger role or opportunity than his skills support. When this happens, he finds himself out of his depth and feeling like a fraud or an imposter. The dissonance caused by the impending failure ahead generates fear of being discovered as an imposter.
Try these exercises (or use these questions to help you shift out of imposter syndrome):
1 - Recognize
Like any concern or issue you experience, taking time to recognize the problem is the first step. Developing awareness enables you to determine what to focus on in terms of change.
Start by benchmarking your experience. What thoughts do you have about yourself? What do you think you bring to the table? How might you be comparing yourself to others? Document how your thoughts influence your behavior, i.e., how does the fear of being ‘caught as a fraud, or an imposter’ lead you to act?
Consider the relationship you had as a child with your parents. Did they treat you like nothing you ever did was good enough? Perhaps they behaved in the polar opposite and always told you how amazing you were, even when you didn’t believe it yourself.
Also, think about the messages you learned about what it takes to be successful as a man. Do you believe your worth is achievement-based?
2 - Seek and Learn.
There’s a lot of great information available on the topic of the imposter phenomenon, however much of it focuses only on women’s experience of the phenomenon. Knowing that both men and women share the same experience, even though they may respond to it differently, the research we do have can be helpful.
For another great resource, I recommend checking out the Ted Talk by Mike Cannon-Brookes, titled; ‘How You Can Use Imposter Syndrome to Use Your Advantage.’
Educating yourself, and reaching out to others – especially men, can help you overcome the thoughts that you’re alone in this experience, which can support you in accepting, and even harnessing your thoughts.
3 - Dispute Your Thoughts.
The main experience that men disclose about their experience of ‘being an imposter’ is the vast amount of intrusive negative self-talk. It’s not uncommon to rate yourself low or discount your achievements or abilities. Here it’s highly valuable to disprove or dispute these thoughts.
I’ve written previously about the impact of the pathological critic (Five Actions to Conquer the Mental Jerk in Your Head) and how when this critic becomes the dominant voice in our heads, it has the power to make us second guess our every move, doubt our own abilities and feel fearful that things are always going to go wrong. Ask yourself these two powerful questions (thanks to my mate, Socrates).
Q1 - What real evidence do you have, that supports the thought that you are a fraud? Is this evidence absolutely, or even remotely true? Be brutally honest with yourself.
Q2 - What evidence do you have that supports the contrary - that you are competent, and that you’re the ‘real deal’?
4 - Acknowledge That You’re Not Alone
The experience of Imposter Syndrome is oddly a universal one. It occurs regardless of gender, culture and age, lived experiences and intelligence. The knowledge that EVERYONE experiences Imposter Syndrome, either ongoing or at some point in their life, is a huge step in reducing its impact.
5 - Differentiate Yourself.
Differentiating yourself is all about celebrating your uniqueness. As we discussed earlier, a significant problem is that we readily fall into the trap of comparison. Comparison, as many people refer to, is the thief of joy. We rate ourselves against biased, or subjective standards that we impose on ourselves and/or the world about us – or we find ourselves on autopilot, aimlessly accepting all the standards and forms of measure that the world is ready to impose on us.
The result is we never feel like we’re enough, and no matter how significant our accomplishments or achievements are, we believe we don’t measure up to anyone. Doubt and uncertainty are the paths that we travel on if we fail to recognize that we’re comparing ourselves constantly. The antidote to this comparison is to only compare yourself – to your former self. By acknowledging, accepting and honoring all the uniqueness of who you are – warts and all - you are better able to assess your abilities and be content with who you are.
What’s on the other side of Imposter Syndrome?
When we finally recognize that the imposter phenomenon is part of the human condition, we understand that we’re not an outlier or some form of freak and that everyone is struggling with the same experience. There is something incredibly liberating in this knowledge as it helps us accept ourselves, rather than feeling like we don’t measure up.
As we become comfortable with adopting a more expansive mindset, the world opens itself up to us, and we no longer feel paralyzed. We can dive deeper into our personal and professional pursuits with renewed vigor and fulfillment.
We can also experience a greater sense of confidence and agency as we go about our day. We no longer leave the thought of success to others or those we once thought better deserved the rewards or fortunes of life.
We have learned to dispel our irrational thoughts that we were a fraud behind and have dusted ourselves off, ready to take the day on with a more positive and realistic mindset about who we really are and all that we are truly capable of.
Debrief & Digest.
• The term Imposter Syndrome is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s really not a syndrome at all. More correctly called the imposter phenomenon.
• For some men, the dissonance caused by the impending failure because they may have overestimated their abilities generates fear of being discovered as an imposter.
• There is a direct relationship between thoughts of being an imposter and anxiety.
If you are experiencing thoughts about being an imposter and it’s no proving to be problematic – take that important step and contact me to schedule a free 30 minute phone consultation. Protect the most valuable asset that you have - your mental health and your wellbeing.
If you’re not already subscribed, be sure to sign up for MANifest Mondays, my free weekly email designed to offer more tools and tips for improved mental health and quality of life.
Simon G. Niblock, MA, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in men’s mental health and wellness. He provides specialized psychotherapy services and online programs for men and is the author of the Anxiety Workbook for Men, Evidence-based Exercises to Manage Anxiety, Depression, and Worry.
Important Notice: The content in this article is for informational purposes only. It does not replace direct professional mental health, medical treatment, or professional care in any way. Seek the support of a physician or other qualified healthcare provider to diagnose and treat any mental health concern directly. Contact 911 or your local emergency services number if you are experiencing a mental health emergency.
Attard, A. (2021). Imposter Syndrome Defined: 5 Fascinating Research Findings. Accessed: https://positivepsychology.com/imposter-syndrome/
Clance, P.R., & Imes, S.A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241.
Gólman, D. (1984). Therapists Find Many Achievers Feel They're Fakes. New York Times, 11, C1.
de Vries, M. F. R. K. (2005). The dangers of feeling like a fake. Harvard Business Review, 83(9), 108–159.
Neureiter, M., & Traut-Mattausch, E. (2016). Inspecting the dangers of feeling like a fake: An empirical investigation of the impostor phenomenon in the world of work. Frontiers in psychology, 7.
Neureiter, M., & Traut-Mattausch, E. (2017). Two sides of the career resources coin: Career adaptability resources and the impostor phenomenon. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 98, 56-69.
Tang, J. (2006). Competition and innovation behaviour. Research Policy, 35(1), 68–82. https://doi.
Ted Talks. (2021). What is Imposter Syndrome and How Can You Combat It? Accessed: https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_cox_what_is_imposter_syndrome_and_how_can_you_combat_it/transcript