Imposter Syndrome : At last I’ve found the link between me and Emma Watson!

I’ve badly neglected this blog recently. I could offer any number of platitudinous reasons seeking to explain why this has been the case. I’ve been busy in work; evenings have been taken up with family and other commitments; I’ve stepped up my refereeing commitments at weekends to make up for the long period between December and March when the weather made football impossible… All are true to a greater or lesser extent, but in fact none of them (individually or collectively) really explains why I’ve found it difficult to get back to writing contributions to post here. And then, quite by chance, I attended a workplace seminar delivered by Hugh Kearns from the University of Flinders, Australia, that probably explains much more precisely the reasons for my sudden cessation of activity here

The title of the seminar was The Imposter Syndrome, and it draws on an area of workplace psychology that Kearns has been researching for a number of years. In essence, Imposter Syndrome describes the feeling experienced by significant numbers of very successful people in all walks of life, that they are just one step away from being exposed as a complete fraud. Kearns quotes from an interview given by Emma Watson in which she describes the anxiety at the heart of the Imposter Syndrome : “It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going : ‘Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved’.”

You can see the full seminar that Kearns has been delivering to academics and Faculty professional services staff at Universities all over the world on this Oregon State University recording ( It’s important to grasp from the outset that the Imposter Syndrome is not about people who are actual frauds – who have lied on their CVs or made up qualifications in order to achieve positions that would otherwise have been denied to them. Rather, all of us are liable to experience occasions when we feel that what we have been asked to do in our lives – whether professionally, personally, or socially – is beyond us, that we simply aren’t equipped to meet the challenge, and that failure will expose us as not only being incompetent in that task, but also in everything else that we claim to be able to do

The Imposter Syndrome is what happens when our unconscious feelings (our Automatic Negative Thoughts – ANTs) overwhelm the rational, thinking parts of our being; in a professional context, it might be when we are asked to take on a new project, or in the early days of a new job following  a promotion. Typical ANTs in this context might take the form of statements such as : who do you think you are to be taking on this challenge; what qualifies you to do this; you’re going to look really silly when this all comes crashing down around you. Rationally, we know that we have been asked to take on the project, or were successful in securing the promotion, because of our track record in successfully managing similar projects before, or because we have demonstrated the necessary competence to meet the person specification and job description. However, the Imposter Syndrome leads us to ignore or distort the evidence as we allow our feelings to overcome our reason. Thus, we seek to downplay the significance of previous success by attributing it to luck, or the contribution of other people, or to the fact that we worked so hard to achieve it (“if I was really qualified to do this job, I wouldn’t have to work so hard to be good at it”)

There are typically two responses to the Imposter Syndrome -neither of which is especially helpful. The first is simply to work even harder at the task/project/activity in order to compensate for the negative feelings. “It’ll be ok if I can just make it to the next milestone, deadline, submission date, examination etc…”. The problem with this, of course, is that the feelings of relief associated with successful achievement of the short-term goal are (by definition) short-term – and Imposter anxiety soon returns. Thus, undergraduate students feel that they’ll be ok once they’ve achieved their Bachelors degree, and then their Masters, and then their Doctorate, and then their first grant programme, and so on. For professional services staff, the track might focus on successful completion of probation, and then the first promotion, and then being asked to lead a multi-team project, and so on. The problem with ‘success’ inspired by the Imposter Syndrome is that it is driven by fear of failure, and consequently, even though goals may be achieved, the emotional cost is significant, and the individual never really has an opportunity to enjoy her/his achievements

Alternatively, the Imposter Syndrome can lead to all sorts of actions that serve simply to ‘protect’ the individual from being exposed as a fraud. Thus, we might seek to self-sabotage our performance – to create reasons why we might fail, or might fall short of expectations. So – we prevaricate and procrastinate, delaying completion of tasks until we have analysed every possible alternative, and collected all possible pieces of supporting evidence, such that by the time we come to actually do something, time is so short that it’s hardly surprising that we didn’t complete it very well. Alternatively, we hide behind ‘busy-ness’, taking on far more than we can ever hope to successfully manage, never saying no, and filling the diary with meetings, briefings, updates and visits, such that the time available to actually DO anything is reduced to a vanishingly small window. Kearns claims (with some justification) that ‘being busy’ is one of the very few acceptable reasons for poor performance in western society (“I know it’s rubbish – but I’ve been so busy recently!”)

Kearns suggests two more positive and productive ways of responding to Imposter Syndrome. The first – relevant to those for whom the Syndrome is less chronic, and who are able to manage its expression in their day-to-day lives – is simply to keep on doing what you’re doing. Whilst occasionally the ANTs may prompt feelings of discomfort or anxiety, most of us will be able to recognise them for what they are, set them to one side, and carry on with our lives more or less successfully, without allowing temporary crises of confidence to significantly impact on what we can achieve

However, if you find that feelings of inadequacy, or being an imposter, are seriously impacting on your ability to function at the level that you are capable of, then you may need to engage in a more structured approach to dealing with the ANTs. It’s crucial to recognise at this stage that Feelings are not Facts. To exemplify this, how many of us have left an exam hall FEELING that it was the worst paper that we have ever sat, that we are bound to have failed, that our whole lives will be scarred by the appalling experience, only to subsequently find that in FACT, we had passed it. All those feelings of shock, pain, failure, catastrophe are part of the Automatic Negative Thoughts that tumble into our consciousness unbidden and unlooked for. We can help to manage them through the application of conscious reason – by defining the More Accurate Thoughts (MAThs) that are the logical counterpoint to ANTs. It’s highly unlikely that any individual event in our personal, professional or social lives will go so catastrophically wrong that it will erase all of the successes that preceded it. When we find ourselves being over-run by ANTs, then coolly recalling the facts and concentrating on the More Accurate Thoughts that they inform, can help us keep from responding manically (working ever harder to prove our worth), or like rabbits in the headlights (stunned into inactivity as disaster looms)

So – that’s it. My prevarication and procrastination over what to write here has been a result of fears that sooner or later I’d be exposed as a fraud, with nothing of interest to say and nothing that anybody else would want to read. My ANTs were getting in the way, but (thanks to Kearns) MAThs has saved the day!



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