Imposter Syndrome woman: Yellow Eve illustration with labels

How do you know if you have imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is self-doubt, feeling like a fraud and that you don’t belong, despite being highly successful. But how do you know if you have imposter syndrome?

There are certain behaviours that could give you a clue, and they often appear as a group rather than just one at a time. These are;

  • Perfectionism
  • Deflection
  • Comparing
  • Secrecy
  • Lying
  • Hiding
  • Avoiding
  • Over-preparing
  • Procrastinating
  • Having enough

The combinations of behaviours are different for everyone.

Perfectionism

Perfectionism is the need to be flawless in appearance, words, actions or knowledge.

You may call it ‘high standards’ and consider it a virtue. but perfectionism is the need to be flawless and you get anxious if things go wrong.

One pattern of perfectionism is to change jobs or employers regularly, even every 1-3 years. In starting a new job, you have a perfect record because you have no history in the job. As time goes by, mistakes inevitably creep in and you worry about that mistake being found out. You feel haunted by your errors and anxious you could be discovered at any moment. As your anxiety builds, you feel increasingly uncomfortable at work until you move jobs.

Jumping from one position to another is not necessarily a problem. Indeed it’s a well-established careerprogression for high-achievers, who are expected to gain broad experience in many roles. The difference with imposter syndrome is the mounting discomfort you feels the longer you stay in one position.

Deflecting Praise

Many people feel uncomfortable being praised, and the imposter experience is a combination of not thinking you deserve it, and feeling a pressure to repeat the success in the future. As a result you discount and deflect praise.

You may say;

‘Oh anyone could have done it’

‘It was nothing really’

‘I just got lucky’

‘I had plenty of help’

‘It was just good timing’

Usually such comments get taken as modesty. It’s not the words that are said but the feelings and beliefs that underlie them.

For someone feeling like a fraud, the deflecting phrases have a different meaning. You’re trying to explain away your success, and really believe that you were not the cause.

You minimise the skill, time or effort involved and genuinely think that anyone else could have done the same.

Comparing

Imposter sufferers compare themselves with others, just as most people do. However your comparison is distorted; you compare how other people look on the outside to how you feel on the inside.

You unwittingly simplify other people’s emotions and assume other’s inner feelings match their outer appearance. When your colleagues are high-achievers then the differences seem even greater. You may find it hard to imagine that your brilliant colleagues are feeling anywhere near the doubt and conflict that you are. Because your colleagues look like they’re doing so well, and most people keep their imposter syndnrome feelings a secret.

Secrecy

Secrecy is the hallmark of imposter syndrome. The fear of being found out means that you don’t tell people about it. Unfortunately this perpetuates the issue; nobody talks about it so when someone does feel like a fraud then they think it’s just them. And they don’t talk about it either.

This leads to feeling isolated, which reinforces the sense that you don’t belong, and that you are a fraud.

The truth is that 70% of high achievers experience imposter syndrome at some point in their careers, men and women equally.

Lying

Children are told that it’s bad to lie, but actions prove to them that they can often get away with less punishment or disapproval if they do lie. By our actions, parents teach our children to lie.

Lying protects us from disapproval. We lie about our mistakes, hiding them, blaming others, being evasive or not mentioning the mistake.

When we fear people finding out about our mistakes, we will tend to lie and hide them. When feeling like a fraud, you dread having your mistakes discovered. It would prove to others that you’re not good enough. So you conceal mistakes rather than bring them out into the open.

The first strategy is not to make mistakes in the first place by aiming for perfection. Research has shown imposter syndrome sufferers are highly conscientious about their work. When you do eventually make a mistake, however, your fear of being discovered can take over. You know you should be honest, but your fear of being found to be a fraud is greater. Lying is a response to fear.

Hiding the mistake increases anxiety too. You may lie awake at night worrying and berate themselves for your error, or for not being honest about it.

Hiding

You might hide your skills or opinions when you fear being found to be a fraud. You suspect that you are out of your depth and retreat.

You have not suddenly become incapable; you have reached the limit of your belief in being good enough to do the job. Hiding can be a normal response. This can look like:

  • not speaking up in meetings and discussions
  • not revealing their actual thoughts and ideas
  • putting forward what you think others want to hear or expect
Avoiding

For high-achievers, continued career success means that you are required to take on more responsibility and expand the range of your activities. When this bumps up against a task or role which makes you feel vulnerable if not performed perfectly – then Imposter Syndrome develops and the stress increases.

People avoid this by not applying for promotion or refusing promotion. This is not because you are naturally shy or have low self-esteem. You are highly successful, capable and confident where you are, but think that next step is too much of a risk.

Or you may stay in one company despite feeling uncomfortable. Here you’d believe that you got into their job by mistake or good fortune or accident. You are convinced that no-one else would hire you if you tried to make a change.

Over-preparing

Over-preparing is putting more time and effort into a project than it requires.

Imposter Syndrome sufferers often deny that over-preparing is a problem. You would consider yourself to be thorough and to have a good work ethic.

However over-preparing comes at a heavy price of spending unnecessary time working. There is a difference between appropriate effort for the task and working yourself into the ground to achieve a result. This effort is unsustainable and leads to burnout or stress-related illness; it’s not a long-term, balanced or healthy strategy.

Over-preparing is driven by anxiety and an overwhelming sense of anxiety that I must prepare so well.

Procrastinating

If you put off a project until the last minute and then work late into the night to complete it, quite possibly over-preparing too, then this work will be stressful and driven by a fear of failure.

As a high-achieving and competent person, the presentation will often go well. When it does go well, you won’tfeel pleased about your work, however. You will think that you have fooled everyone again and got lucky. So instead of feeling satisfied at a job well done, you will hold on to anxiety and still feel like a fraud.

If the presentation goes badly and you are criticised, then it does not feel so bad. You have the internal excuse that it was a rushed job and so not really a criticism of your true abilities. This is the protective aspect of procrastinating.

It’s likely that you are unaware of these thoughts, and you are confused or frustrated that you procrastinate in the first place.

Having enough

One less visible judgment is never having enough, for example, not having enough qualifications, money, companies or material possessions.

You believe that more of what you think is missing will cure your feeling like a fraud. More will finally make you feel successful. However, when you do get more, you’re still emotionally uncomfortable.

The common thread in these imposter syndrome behaviours is the underlying thought that ‘I’m a fraud’ or that ‘I’m not worthy’ and if others found out then things would go badly for me.

All of these behaviour patterns are a symptom of imposter syndrome, not the cause itself. Imposter syndrome is not you; it’s not a weakness, flaw or part of your personality.

Imposter syndrome is an underlying belief, usually unconscious, triggered by a combination of high challenge and low support. Resolving imposter syndrome involves calming the stress it causes, getting more support to reduce the trigger, and changing the underlying belief.

When you do these three things, then the imposter syndrome feelings and these behaviour patterns seem to disappear. You feel effortlessly confident and forget to doubt yourself. You become resilient and authentic, enjoying and celebrating your success.

Tara Halliday

Tara Halliday

Tara Halliday is an Imposter Syndrome Specialist with 20 years of experience as a holistic therapist and coach. She is the author of ‘Unmasking: The Coach’s Guide to Imposter Syndrome,’ an Amazon #1 bestseller in coaching and mentoring category in 2018.

Tara is also the creator of Inner Success, an 8-week 1-2-1 training and coaching programme for executives to get rid of imposter syndrome for good.

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