Feel Like a Fraud Lately? Yeah, It’s Going Around

Imposter syndrome is heightened by the stress of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean you have to listen to it

Photo: Kelvin Murray/Getty Images

Curled up on the bed at a hotel in Las Vegas, I texted a colleague to cancel the meeting we’d scheduled for later that day. I just couldn’t bring myself to show up. I was at the Consumer Electronics Show, an annual trade show where I was supposed to be working on business development, something I felt completely unqualified to do. As an executive at a midsize media company, I’d been struggling with an inner voice demanding to know who I thought I was to imagine I’d be able to handle this work — and the anxiety of feeling like a fraud had finally become too overwhelming.

That text was the beginning of the end. I found myself doubting my abilities more than ever, procrastinating on projects and even freezing up on tasks that seemed beyond my abilities, and ultimately I got booted out of the C-suite.

I had no clue then that I was dealing with a classic case of imposter syndrome, a very common manifestation of self-doubt. Imposterism, as it’s otherwise known, is characterized by the stressful self-perception that you’re not deserving of the success you’ve obtained, or that you’re unqualified for a task you’ve been given, despite the outside world thinking you’re capable. In response, you strive for perfection, which can lead to procrastination, anxiety, and exhaustion.

Nobody is immune. The actor Emma Watson has said she suffers from it. Arianna Huffington has said it dogs her. Research finds it’s common among CEOs. In fact, it affects about half of us, daily or regularly, and men and women in roughly equal numbers, according to Clare Josa, author of the book Ditching Imposter Syndrome. And experts say it’s going around more than ever amid the stress of the pandemic.

“Imposter syndrome is context-dependent,” Josa says. “This means you might feel great giving a public presentation, but really struggle if you have to write an article. You might have been confident at work, but suddenly find imposter syndrome comes up if you become a parent.”

Your feelings of inadequacy will likely manifest in negative self-talk. You might ask yourself: “Who am I to be doing this?” or “What if they find me out?” or “What if they realize I’m not good enough?”

“If this is coming up for you, take heart — you are not alone,” Josa says. “It’s incredibly common. And far from being incurable, there is plenty you can do to set yourself free from it.”

Talk it out

Researchers have found that men and women deal with these feelings of inadequacy in entirely different ways: Women talk about it, men hide it.

Holly Hutchins, PhD, a professor of human resource development at the University of Houston, is in the middle of an ongoing research project to better understand imposterism and help people overcome it.

In her research focus groups, Hutchins often asks people if their colleagues experience imposter tendencies. Often, their answers break down along gender lines: Men tend to say, “Oh, yes, and the women talk about it all the time,” Hutchins says. Women usually say, “Yeah, but the men will never talk about it.”

But talking about it — discussing your imposterism with friends or colleagues, identifying common triggers and where you get stuck — is the more effective way to cope, Hutchins and Josa agree. Simply denying your feelings, or trying to work harder to cover them up, can lead to negative ruminations with devastating consequences: procrastination that causes even more stress, leading to exhaustion and job burnout. (It’s a phenomenon that’s all too familiar to me; listening to Hutchins was the first time I fully realized the root cause of my mental paralysis that day in Las Vegas.)

But once people realize that their imposterism is common, and question the supposed facts upon which their feelings are based, they can use reframing strategies to work through their anxiety, a skill Hutchins’ workshops help participants to learn.

“This intervention really did make a difference based on the data we collected, first in normalizing it and then in reducing the intensity of their imposter tendencies,” Hutchins says. “When they’re in a room talking about these things often for the very first time in front of other people, it’s incredibly powerful. They now have language to recognize it for what it is. It’s just a story. Thoughts and feelings, while powerful, aren’t factual.”

Ease your stress, ease your imposter syndrome

As with other problems at work, people often bring the stress of their perceived incompetence home, says Lisa Sublett, PhD, a colleague of Hutchins’ and an assistant professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Houston, Clear Lake.

In her research, Sublett says, she’s found that “dealing with that pressure of increased personal expectations and burnout makes it increasingly difficult to perform in roles at home — as a partner or spouse, a parent, and a friend.” The Covid-19 pandemic has had a compounding effect, she says. “People are spending even more time and energy than usual in managing work and family, so the additional pressures from imposter phenomenon could certainly intensify burnout in an already turbulent time.”

And for many, the new logistics of work — spending days exposed on Zoom yet robbed of personal contact with supportive colleagues — can turn otherwise mundane interactions into stressful ones, like wondering if that sideways comment by the boss portends something ominous.“There are fewer opportunities for employees to have those valuable personal conversations among co-workers and mentors,” Sublett says. “We know from research that those open and honest conversations are crucial for diminishing imposter concerns.”

Josa’s latest research — not yet published, because “with three kids to homeschool over lockdown, something had to give” — finds the pandemic has indeed made things worse. “With the rise in stress levels and the sudden change to remote working over lockdown,” she says, “imposter syndrome rates increased significantly.” When we’re stressed, we become hypervigilant, which in turn makes us more susceptible to the triggers of imposter syndrome, along with the lack of comforting support of a friendly face at the water cooler.

Managing impostor syndrome, then, is in part a matter of managing work-related stress more broadly. Josa offers a few suggestions: “We need to reduce the number of meetings, which have been far too easy to schedule, now that people no longer need to travel or book a room. And we need to pay attention to people’s emotional well-being, rather than assuming they’re okay just because they were smiling on the last Zoom call.”

My imposter syndrome still flares up when, for example, I interview real experts about topics that are new to me, and I wonder, “Who am I to convey this important information and advice to thousands of readers?” But now when I feel that self-doubt, my inner voice reminds me that I’ve been writing about new topics my whole career, and nobody’s called me out as a fraud yet, so maybe, just maybe, I can handle it.

Independent health and science journalist, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience, writing about how we age and how to optimize your mind and body through time.