Welcome to Am I Normal? where writer and mental health advocate Jill Stark challenges our notions of ‘normal’ and celebrates our differences in this myth-busting series offering hope, comfort and practical advice to anyone who’s ever wondered "Is it just me?".
You’re a fraud.
Why are you even here?
It’s only a matter of time before they find out you have no idea what you’re doing.
These were the thoughts that raced through my mind on my first day on the job at Beyond Blue. Actually, it wasn’t just the first day – it was more like the first few weeks.
A never-ending audio track of self-doubt played on a loop as I perfected my ‘everything’s fine’ face, while secretly waiting for the tap on the shoulder that would see me escorted from the building for impersonating a functional human.
That’s right, dear reader, the writer they’d hired to pen insightful words about living with anxiety was quietly freaking out about her ability to adequately document her anxiety.
This feeling of being a fraud is one I’ve carried with me since I walked in the door at my very first job as a junior reporter on a regional newspaper. Twenty-something years later, and despite enjoying a successful career free from any major calamities, I still wrestle with the fear that perhaps it was all a fluke and I’m about to be found out.
I’ve since learned that there’s a term for this: imposter syndrome.
It’s not a diagnosable condition but it is an acknowledged psychological pattern of behaviour and if you recognise it in yourself, rest assured you’re far from alone.
Dr Sarah Edelman, clinical psychologist and author of the books, Change Your Thinking and No Worries, said imposter syndrome can be particularly acute in the early stages of a career, but is also not uncommon among experienced people in senior positions.
“In any job, particularly in a job where your performance is seen by others, where your work is public, it’s very common, and also in working cultures where there are very high levels of expectations,” she said.
“For instance, in legal firms where the stakes are high and mistakes can be very costly and there’s a huge amount of pressure to perform, people are more likely to feel inadequate.”
But she explained that imposter syndrome can afflict people in any line of work, and personality type can often be the determining factor.
“People with anxiety tend to focus on threat and if they perceive that other people are succeeding or doing things in a very competent way, they’re more likely to compare themselves and worry that they’re not good enough,” Dr Edelman said.
“It may also be an issue for those who struggle with self-doubt and low self-esteem because that feeling of not being good enough may be already hard-wired from events that have happened in the past.”
If, like me, you’re a perfectionist who has unrealistic expectations of success, that can also heighten feelings of being a fraud. Dr Edelman said that childhood experiences can give rise to perfectionism, particularly if there is instability in the home environment or if the child is only praised when they succeed.
“It can set a precedent if children have done well in their initial schooling years and teachers and parents expect them to keep performing, and that makes them feel compelled to keep living up to the expectation of others,” she said.
“The problem with perfectionism is the higher your standards, the more likely you are to under-perform in your own mind because you’ve set the bar so high and that can perpetuate those feelings of not being good enough.”
And while imposter syndrome is most common in the workplace, it can also rear its head in relationships or friendships.
“Someone who feels inadequate might meet someone in a social situation and they don’t want to spend too much time with them because they fear will get found out.
“It’s that feeling of, ‘if you get to know me, you will see that I’m a failure.’ That can often lead to the urge to disappear or to reject the other person because they worry that ‘if you get to know the real me, you’ll realise I’m not who you think I am’.”
If you’re tussling with that recurring feeling of being found out – in your job or in your relationships – Dr Edelman advises not suffering in silence.
“First of all, you need to recognise that this is quite normal, and most people have gone through it at some stage. Sometimes it’s useful to have open and honest conversations with your colleagues and friends about how you’re feeling, and often you’ll find that they’ve been there too.”
And she cautioned against only focusing on your perceived failures, and instead taking time to celebrate the wins.
“When people have low self-esteem or have a fixed view of themselves, they will notice or take on board any criticism, but they ignore any positive feedback, they just don’t hear it,” she said. “It’s about training yourself to acknowledge your accomplishments, and sometimes that can mean actually keeping a record of the positive feedback.”
So, there you have it – it’s time for us ‘imposters’ to drop the mask and admit that despite what our mischievous brains might be telling us, we actually do deserve to be where we are. It might take time to believe it but with practice, we can banish the fraud and embrace the fearless.
Tips for managing imposter syndrome:
- Reach out – tell a trusted colleague or friend how you’re feeling.
- Have realistic expectations – you don’t have to do everything perfectly.
- Acknowledge your successes – keep a record of every small win.
You can also join in the conversation on the Beyond Blue forums thread Talking to your inner critic and share your own tips and strategies for coping with imposter syndrome.