The secret to confidence: We all feel like imposters at times.

An insider’s guide to feeling more confident

Interview with Ellen Bard, expert on ‘Imposter Syndrome’ by Shauna McVeigh, Partner at HCubed.


Ellen, why should we be talking to you about Imposter Syndrome?

I have recently researched and written an article on Imposter Syndrome:


As a Psychologist, I have reviewed all the literature to understand the science and coupled it with knowledge about my clients and myself, to come up with something that finds the balance of being practical but grounded.


Ellen, how would you summarise Imposter Syndrome for someone who knows nothing about it?

It is a disconnect or break between what you think about yourself, sometimes called your mental talk, and what everyone else is saying about you. The individual might feel like they are faking it, making it up, going to be found out, but everyone else is quite happy.


How common is it?

It appears to be a lot more common than you may think, partly because people keep it inside. There can often be a big shame factor associated with it and so people don’t want confess it as it triggers being found out (which is one of the manifestations of the syndrome). It tends to resonate with high achieving professionals.


Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes who labelled it, did their research around women but certainly now there are a lot of men who resonate with it too. More can be found here:


I have found men suffering from Imposter syndrome as well as women – what are your views?

There might be a hypothesis that it might be more common in men than thought, but the sense of shame with men might be a confounding factor and so they are less likely to confess to it.


Is it just a western phenomena?

I have seen it in a number of cultures, but these cultures, that I have personally worked in, have tended to be more influenced by western cultures and already working in business English, for example, Singapore. So the answer is I don’t fully know.


Imposter Syndrome – can you get over it?

It is more about acceptance of it. As we know, there are some parts of the brain that are emotional and that cling onto unhealthy beliefs and thoughts. One is always going to have that little ‘gremlin’ voice and the more an individual can understand that it is there and that everyone else has it, then it can help reframe by understanding that others are feeling it.


There is also a lot of the work around mindfulness and Kristin Neff’s work around self compassion which can help individuals with imposter syndrome learn to be more aware of themselves and also more forgiving. One of the aspects is being able to understand you have your vulnerabilities in common with others. Understanding that others have it is a key factor in helping to understand. Understanding that I am not alone – it is normal.


If an individual did notice that they had a gremlin that was making a person feel like an imposter, what should they do?

  1. Gather evidence:
    1. Stop, distance yourself and gather evidence. What do your colleagues, qualifications and others say about you?
    2. Create a positive feedback file – electronic or physical. Our brains are built to detect negativity and are not as sensitised for positive. For example, one piece of research showed that it takes 5 times the amount of positive feedback to resonate versus one piece of negative.
  2. Read it:
    1. Read the file once per week.
    2. Identify strengths.
    3. Understand that we all have areas we want to improve – that is life.
  3. Get a buddy
    1. A mentor is good if one can find one. If not, get an imposter syndrome buddy.
    2. I have one and we make time for each other to give some positives and to help remind you of the positives.


What is the link between Imposter Syndrome and Perfectionism?

Imposter Syndrome can also be associated with high control needs or perfectionism. But these standards set by people might be impossible and so they are damning themselves from the start. People with Imposter Syndrome/perfectionism can also often stop themselves from getting feedback as they are afraid they will only receive negative feedback. So to help, initially just start by asking people what they like about you (and not dismissing it or looking for the negative in the comment, which can also happen).


Then start to look at perfectionism. If you do suffer from it, then you need to be easier on yourself. With perfectionism, do some safe to fail experiments, eg, leaving a typo in an email. The world will not end if we make mistakes and for most of us it’s not that big of a deal. Gather opinions. Doing this a few times, is starting to build the brain in a different way. Research shows it gives you a healthier attitude. Here is a link to an article I have written on Perfectionism too that others might find useful



What can be the impact on a team if a manager has Imposter Syndrome?

One of my team said to me, you never make mistakes, and so they felt they couldn’t live up to it and so I had to share what I got right and wrong. It’s really hard in the workplace as you don’t want to lose credibility and face, but creating trust is important.

This also chimes with the work of Patrick Lencioni and his Five Dysfunctions of a Team, whereby building trust, ie, trust to the point of vulnerability, is the foundation of a good team, and it is the leader that needs to go first in doing this.


That’s right, if you have a leader who suffers from Imposter Syndrome, or showing vulnerability, then the team will not be high performing. They will become stifled.


Obviously, this will also depend on the environment you are working in and who you can show vulnerability to, but as a leader you need to live up to your own values and be the balance beam in your own organisation.


What happens when you get a knock –what should you do?

Imposter Syndrome is an internalised process and it can undermine confidence. If we think of our basic responses to threat, it turns into fight, flight or freeze. As individuals we need to understand those triggers and our own responses. We also have to learn how not to globalise a mistake. What I mean by this is if something goes wrong, we don’t then turn that into ‘everything I have ever done is wrong’ or ‘anytime I do this particular type of thing it is always bad’. It’s about getting perspective.


How do you gain perspective, especially if your buddy isn’t there?

There are a couple of techniques that can help.


  1. 10 year test:
    1. Ask yourself how big a deal will this be in 10 years. In most cases if we answer this honestly we can say that it won’t be such a big deal.


  1. Learning Test
    1. Reflect back on a piece of work you have done and ask would you make changes if doing it now? The answer will probably be yes as imposter syndrome can often be looking for better so there is no perfect. We can only get better.




About Ellen Bard

Ellen is an HPC Registered and Chartered Occupational/Organisational Psychologist working with Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 companies. She has published papers and spoken on topics including values in the workplace, engagement, candidate experience in recruitment, psychometric tools, generation Y, and employer branding.  She has been featured in the Financial Times and has appeared on Woman’s Hour on Radio 4, as well as contributing guest posts to the hugely successful website Tiny Buddha.


For more detail on her specific consultancy experience, please see her profile at LinkedIn.


More on Ellen can be found here and her twitter feed


About Shauna McVeigh

Shauna is a chartered HPC registered Occupational Psychologist with 20 years in the field. She is a partner in HCubed and specialises in developing leaders and teams.


Shauna finds that she has a sweet spot in working with individuals who might be feeling less confident and helps them feel and understand that they have a right to be at the table, a voice to be heard and listened to and skills that are invaluable. She has proven success in helping people feel and see the strengths that others already know.


Both Ellen and Shauna are not perfect and are dealing with their own gremlins. And that is the point. None of us are perfect. We all have our own issues and the important point is recognising them, and learning how to manage them. They will never go away. They are part of us. Let’s embrace, deal with and enjoy work and life.

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