“Imposter syndrome doesn’t discriminate; it affects everyone from college students to CEOs. People from every demographic who are clever, driven, articulate, creative and successful have difficulty in acknowledging their achievements.” – Dr Jessamy Hibberd, Chartered Clinical Psychologist and author of The Imposter Cure, and How To Overcome Trauma And Find Yourself Again.


What do John Steinbeck, Albert Einstein, Maya Angelou and many other famous people have in common? They have all suffered from the taunting of imposter syndrome.

Psychologists Suzanna Innes and Pauline Rose Clance first used the term imposter syndrome in 1970. It is defined as the psychological experience of feeling like a phony despite any genuine success you have achieved.

They highlighted three experiences:

  • Thinking that people have an exaggerated view of your abilities
  • Fear of being exposed as a fraud
  • The continuous tendency to downplay your achievements

I have to put my hand up at this point having gone through the experience of near panic attacks before attending senior meetings, or presenting to teams of people I knew well. It is difficult to describe. You have to go through the sudden sense of terror before knowing how real imposter syndrome feels. One moment you are doing something you have done very successfully many times before, yet suddenly you feel, “I can‘t go into that meeting, they’ll all find out that I’ve been fooling everyone, that I’m a fraud.” It is a level of insecurity I had never experienced before.

It may seem difficult to imagine Albert Einstein experiencing self-doubt given that he is the poster boy for geniuses, but it is true. It often strikes the most unlikely individuals. Bob Dylan struggled to sing on the iconic “We are the world” celebrity charity single. Stevie Wonder took him to a piano and suggested they sang through some ideas to get things going. Huey Lewis said he found himself shaking while recording his lines. The clash of multiple stars all in the one place highlighted the reality that for some being in amongst talented individuals generates real anxiety and self-doubt. The idea that you’re not quite good enough.

I love a good story, whether it turns out to be true or not and Albert Einstein for me, has one of the best. He said that the smartest man he ever met was his chauffeur who drove him to events and attended each of his speeches in order to take him home afterwards. One day Albert Einstein had a severe throat infection and almost lost his voice. He was going to cancel his speech. The chauffeur said that as he’s attended over 300 events, he could do the speech word for word. They changed suits at the venue and the chauffeur duly stood up and delivered the presentation perfectly. One of the professors attending the event asked a particularly tricky question. The chauffeur laughed and said it was such a ridiculously easy question that his chauffeur sitting in the corner could answer it. Albert Einstein, dressed in the chauffeur’s uniform then stood up and delivered a perfect answer, and sat down leaving everyone in awe. I’ll leave it to you to decide truth or myth. Either way the imposter stole the show.

Dr. Valerie Young, an internationally recognised expert on imposter syndrome and co-founder of the Imposter Syndrome Institute, describes five types of Imposter Syndrome:

  1. The Perfectionist – believing that despite being almost perfect, you could have done better, that you’re not as good as others might think you are.
  2. The Expert – feels like an imposter because their knowledge doesn’t cover every millimetre of the subject or answer every question, so they never regard themselves as an “expert.”
  3. The Natural Genius – you may feel like a fraud because you don’t believe that you are naturally intelligent or competent. That you should just pick things up instantly and taking time to master something makes you feel like an imposter.
  4. The Soloist – asking for help to reach a certain goal means you couldn’t do it on your own, so you question your competence or abilities.
  5. The Superperson – you have to be last to leave the office, the world’s hardest worker, strive to reach for the stars and, if you don’t make it, you are a fraud.

I wonder if like me, you recognise some of the descriptions above. Better still, if your wife or kids read them, look at you and smile that knowing smile.

Do you ever find yourself agonising over the slightest mistake, or feel you are just lucky if things go well? Does criticism, even when designed to be constructive get you mentally curling up into a ball? You are not alone, it’s a well populated club whose membership include stars of stage and screen, business gurus, academics and more. Imposter syndrome is not selective, it is happy to shake up everyone and anyone’s confidence and self-image.

How do you combat this kind of thinking? The answer it seems is to think differently, to reframe or rephrase your response. Dr Young related her favourite example of just such a rephrasing. Daniel Boone, the famous explorer, once said, “I was never lost, but I was bewildered for three days.” Another example is often used by athletes being interviewed just before their event. The interviewer asks, “How are you feeling?” They reply excited. Now they are probably nervous, but they have learned to substitute excited, and for good reason. The physical symptoms of both reactions are remarkably similar. Your heartbeat increases, so does your temperature, you may even sweat a little. But when it comes to your feelings as nervous or excited, you get to choose how you describe it.

So, how do you support staff who may well be experiencing some degree of self-doubt or sudden dip in confidence. We recognise the importance of talking openly and building strong relationships.  We put a lot of effort into looking after our people and picking up on any signs that all is not well. We actively encourage our staff to share their feelings, to get to know each other, and recognise our collective strengths and weaknesses. There are regular team lunches and occasionally team events. Last time we tackled gorge-walking as a test of our physical and mental resilience. It showed how well we support each other and work together as a team. The support we provide to staff, and the level of collaboration and commitment that results is a key measure of success for us.

At some point in life many people will experience self-doubt. They may even question their own abilities despite their achievements. Developing an awareness of any behavioural changes in others, recognising the symptoms of stress, or sudden dips in confidence forms part of our informal but effective health check. This year, who knows what awaits us, but regardless, as a team, we will get through it together. That’s what teams do after all.