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Successful but Feel Like a Fraud? How to Deal with Impostor Phenomenon

A businessman is pointing his finger at a man in a suit.

Stephanie Morris is an award-winning public relations professional in New York City, but you won't see her trophies and plaques prominently displayed.

She has hidden them away at home. She doesn't mention them on her LinkedIn profile. She doesn't highlight them in her social media accounts. 

She doesn't think she deserves them.

Morris struggles with impostor phenomenon (IP), also called impostor syndrome. People who experience it discount their success as sheer luck, not the result of their hard work, talent and skill. It has held Morris back in her career because, she said, "I don't feel qualified since I feel like a fraud." 

So does Nance L. Schick, Esq., an attorney, author and business owner in New York City.

"I'm proud of the work I do," Schick said. "I typically get good feedback on my work, and I've been acknowledged by several respectable organizations. Yet I still feel like a failure and a fraud much of the time."

They're not alone. People who feel like impostors run the gamut, from students to CEOs. 

IP is about feeling overvalued, according to Rebecca Badawy, assistant professor of management at Williamson College of Business Administration at Youngstown State University (YSU). She is the lead author on a 2018 study that looked at IP.

People like Morris and Schick feel "woefully misplaced in their role" and are unable to accept credit for their accomplishments and accolades, Badawy and her colleagues wrote. 

They "feel like intellectual fakes, believing they fooled the people around them into thinking they are competent individuals" and are afraid they are going to be found out, the report noted.

The thing is, people who experience IP are not frauds; evidence such as promotions and awards point to the contrary. And while it once was thought to be only something women experienced, IP happens to men, too, the YSU study found. 

"I feel the image I have seems a lot better than how I actually perceive myself," said Mikey Wu, CEO of San Francisco business consultancy WuWuLife. "I do struggle and have a hard time finding what the next breakthrough is. The fear [of being found out] forces me to push myself for more and to work harder in order to achieve greater results."

Dealing with Those Feelings 

Everyone occasionally feels like an impostor, said Diane Rosen, an attorney at Ortoli Rosenstadt in New York City and principal and co-founder of Compass Consultants. An estimated 70 percent of people will experience at least one episode of impostor phenomenon in their lives, according to the International Journal of Behavioral Science.

Rosen recalled her panic when, as a young lawyer, she was assigned to represent her firm at negotiations for a client involving a complicated real estate transaction. She was relieved when the principals negotiated directly.

"The experience taught me an important lesson that has carried through my entire career: Rather than wring my hands and obsess on being called out as an impostor, ask for help. Say, 'I don't know the answer.' "

When you start to feel like an impostor, she advised, remember how you got where you are. 

"It is not all an accident, luck or a mistake. Someone had to see something in you to get you hired in the first place, and, if you really did not know how to do your job, you would have been fired. It is not possible to fool everyone, so there must be something real that supports your work. … Focus on strengths rather than weaknesses."

That's what L'Oreal Thompson Payton tries to do. She is director of communications for OneGoal, an education management company in the Chicago area. 

"In the weeks leading up to the start date in my current position … I experienced severe impostor syndrome and thought for sure the hiring manager would eventually realize I was unqualified for the position."

When those feelings take over, she pulls out her "feel-good folder" of positive e-mails from colleagues and company leaders.

"They remind me that I am qualified and that I do deserve to be there." 

And she's found that serving as a mentor combats feelings of inferiority that may pop up.

"I can more easily see the skills I've acquired and the perspective I've gained. When my proteges tell me they've successfully overcome an obstacle with my guidance, I know my success is reproducible and real."

The YSU study said people with IP can benefit from receiving mentoring, too, as well as skills training and stretch assignments that can teach them to recognize their own value.

The Chronicle of Higher Education offered advice on how to overcome IP in its October 2018 publication. One suggestion: "Create your own board of advisors." 

"These are people who really see you and can honestly tell you things about yourself and your environment," it noted. And it's important to learn to distinguish between honest feedback and hurtful criticism. 

Also, don't confuse humility with feeling like a fraud, and remember to focus on what you have accomplished, not on what you still hope to do. 

Organizations have a role to play by creating a supportive culture where asking for help is rewarded. That's critical, Rosen said, "for developing confident employees and excellent leaders."

It's incumbent on managers at all levels, she added, to check in with employees and inquire whether they know how to complete an assignment and understand the expectations.

"Providing resources within the organization where help is available," she said, "creates an environment where insecurities and actual deficits can be addressed in a proactive manner."


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