Women at work – Are you faking it?

Imposter SyndromeA closer look at Imposter Syndrome

In my final post for International Women’s Day, I am going to consider the issue of Imposter Syndrome. This can have a dramatic impact on a woman’s ambition. It used to be thought of as the domain of the high woman achiever. However, it is a syndrome also experienced by men.

Amy Cuddy in her book ‘Presence’ talks about it being a female rather than a male issue. She says men are far less likely to talk about it. They fear social punishment for failing to conform to social stereotypes, i.e. that men are assertive and confident. Two psychologists Clance and Imes originally termed the condition from their clinical experience. They found it occurs much less frequently in men and when it does occur, it is far less intense. However, more recent research published by the International Journal of Behavioural Science in 2011, shows that 70% of men and women have experienced it at some point in their lives. Millennial’s may suffer from Imposter Syndrome even more. They have commenced their careers at a time of extreme technological pace, where there are constant comparisons on social media between peer group members.

So what is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a major psychological phenomenon that correlates with success and is extremely prevalent in successful people. It is characterised by people feeling like frauds and being anxious that they will be ‘found out’. Often sufferers will accredit their success to luck, or someone helping them at the right moment and they have an inability to internalise their own success. Clance and Imes noted the clinical symptoms as generalised anxiety, lack of self-confidence, fear of failure, depression and frustration related to their inability to meet the self-imposed standards of achievement. Many people suffering from this syndrome grew up in families where there is a big onus on achievement, particularly with parents who send mixed messages alternating between over-praise and criticism. Societal pressures to achieve and deliver can then compound this.

The Imposter Cycle

The Imposter Cycle

Sakulku & Alexander (2011)

Imposter Syndrome often kicks in when women are new to role and therefore recognising and being comfortable in the position of being a novice and new to that position or field is critical in order to be able to ask questions and approach problems in a different way. There are some real benefits to being a novice and recognising these and acknowledging them can be so powerful. Being able to try new ideas, be creative, approach situations differently and bring a questioning mindset to what has gone before can be so innovative and inspiring. Again it is the coach or mentor supporting taking away some of the angst of the situation that is so helpful here. Not by offering tea and sympathy but providing the reflective space and challenge to support an appropriate reality check. This also provides perspective for the woman going forward.

Coping strategies for dealing with Imposter Syndrome

In my last two posts for International Women’s Day I have considered some of the barriers to women’s ambition. However, I think Imposter Syndrome warrants its own blog as it is such a widespread issue amongst successful women. Here are some useful ideas to help women in working through feelings of being an imposter or not being good enough, which can be used with or without a coach or mentor.

  1. Developing a ‘Growth Mindset’ – Working with Carol Dweck’s concept of a ‘Growth Mindset’ is enormously useful to reduce feelings of inadequacy or fear of making mistakes. Understanding that by putting in an appropriate amount of effort individuals will improve and that by making mistakes and learning from them will help them develop further provides a more comfortable way of growing into a new job or situation and creates a love of learning and resilience.
  2. Stop trying to be perfect – something a lot of women suffer from.
  3. Remind yourself of all your achievements – make a list and look at it regularly!
  4. Remind yourself that the people who got you into your current position are incredibly competent and they did not make a mistake.
  5. Ask questions such as: What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Can you take a risk?
  6. Improve your language; be more assertive in what you are saying.
  7. Reframe your personal story. Tell it in a more positive way. Regular journalling activities can really support reframing how you regard your life.
  8. Get a coach or mentor!

If you would like to discuss more ideas about Imposter Syndrome or women’s ambition in general (see earlier articles) and how coaching and mentoring can support these issues, then please do get in touch!


Cuddy, A, Presence Orion Publishing Group 2016

Clance, P.r. & Imes, S. The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, Volume 15 no3. 1978

Dweck, C. Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential Robinson 2012

Sakulku, J. Alexander, J. The Imposter Phenomenon, International Journal of Behavioral Science, Behavioral Science Research Institute 2011, Vol. 6, No.1, 73-92

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