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A PERFORMANCE PSYCHOLOGIST SHINES A LIGHT ON IMPOSTOR SYNDROME: THE CONDITION THAT CAN CAUSE EVEN THE HIGHEST OF ACHIEVERS TO BE OVERCOME BY SELF-DOUBT.

BY DR JOSEPHINE PERRY

Albert Einstein thought of himself as a swindler. Will Smith says he doubts himself every single day. Tom Hanks fears being outed as a fraud.

These guys may have won Nobel prizes, Grammys and Oscars, but, like 70 percent of us, they feel like impostors. Impostor syndrome is when you have a deeply felt belief that you just don’t have what it takes, no matter your achievements. You fail to internalise your successes and live in fear of being exposed as a fraud. Instead of connecting your achievements to your abilities or efforts, you feel any accomplishments are undeserved; you keep expecting to be unmasked. Irrefutable evidence of success is put down to luck. Compliments get discounted as people being polite. A personal best becomes a fluke. A win gets attributed to better athletes not showing up that day.

Ironically, the more you feel it, the less of an impostor you are likely to be. This is the ‘Dunning-Kruger effect’. When you first start doing something, you have so little experience that you don’t realise how bad you are at it. In fact, you think you’re pretty good. However, once you’ve done lots of practice and training, you become more of an expert, and that expertise simply helps you to see how big the subject is – and how much more there is still to know. It is this space between where you are and where you believe true expertise lies that makes you feel like you don’t fit in or deserve the position you have. You may have officially ‘made it’, but you can see there is further to go – and more to lose.

Performance-wise, if you’ve joined a team or club and you don’t feel like you deserve to be there, you will do everything you can to eradicate your self-doubt: extensively preparing, maximising motivation, working hard on your skills and focusing on boosting your fitness. Clearly, doing all that is going to positively affect your performance. You’ll also be radiating humility and displaying a lack of arrogance. But the pressure and extra work that comes from trying to fit in stops you feeling comfortable, prevents enjoyment and, if you don’t believe you deserve your successes, you won’t celebrate them. You put in a shed-load of work and come out with nothing but a shed-load of guilt, impacting your wellbeing and making you susceptible to anxiety, depression, burnout or emotional exhaustion.

When achieving isn’t believing

Stuart Travis is one of the fastest cyclists in the UK. He holds the national record for 30 miles (48km), having covered the distance in 53 minutes and 44 seconds (that’s cycling at 54.07km/h for almost an hour). He’s achieved times most amateur riders could only dream of, yet his impostor syndrome means he doesn’t even feel confident labelling himself a cyclist. “I only started riding competitively in 2014, but to get to where I have in a short space of time means I must have fluked it,” he says. “I know even when I’ve set national records that someone else would do better if they were there on the day.” This mindset means he doesn’t celebrate success. Not even after setting the national record. “I had just come off a stag-do, which cemented my belief that I’m not that good, because I only did it off the back of a bender.”

As well as reduced wellbeing and bypassing celebrations, feeling like an impostor means you self-restrict the opportunities you go for, taking chances only when you feel 100 percent ready, giving away fantastic opportunities to others who ironically may be less well skilled, qualified or fit than you. If you feel completely out of place in the weights section at the gym, for example, you’ll stick to the cardio machines – limiting performance success. If you feel you don’t deserve to be up front at parkrun, you’ll start too far back and run slower as you have to weave through others for the first few kilometres.

Travis was one such self-restrictor. “After I broke the records, I went through a period of wondering, ‘How do I top that?’ I didn’t think I could, so I didn’t ride for three months and I only got back into proper training after six months. That meant if I got beaten, I had a good excuse.” 

High levels of confidence give us a degree of certainty that we can achieve our goals and help us feel we deserve our place.

Faint praise

With impostor syndrome impacting so many of us, understanding what causes it can help to overcome it. Like so many conditions, studying your childhood is a good place to start. Growing up with parents or teachers who place a huge focus on achievement can taint our self-worth. Growing up in a family where you are labelled “the clever one” or “the sporty one” can also cause issues when you start doing something outside of that role. And being praised inappropriately can be just as harmful: undeserved praise can be pretty transparent, so we learn to distrust any praise at all. But not getting that praise means we feel unworthy and inadequate, and the cycle starts anew. Regular, deserved praise that focuses on effort and behaviours is what we need to help protect against impostor syndrome.

Simon Mundie is an international sports reporter. He presents the podcast Don’t tell me the Score on BBC Radio 4 and loves playing both rugby and tennis. In the studio, he sounds relaxed and completely in control. On the tennis court, he looks at home. And yet he struggled with impostor syndrome for a long time. He puts that down to the way his approach is different to other reporters. “I like football, but I don’t support a specific team,” he says, “and that’s very unusual for a sports reporter. It’s always one of the first questions you’re asked in the newsroom. At first, I assumed a team because it’s the ‘done thing’ and it fitted in with my perception of how a sports reporter should sound, but that wasn’t me being authentically me.”

Mundie realised that to feel more comfortable and less of an impostor, he needed to embrace his different approach.

“I see sport as fun and something not to be taken too seriously. This gave me a distinctive style and I now embrace the fact that I don’t support a football team. The things that previously led to my impostor syndrome, I now own and embrace. The fears I’ve had about being found out no longer hold water.”

Confidence is key

Mundie cracked the code to overcoming the worst elements of his impostor syndrome; he owned his fears and worked hard to grow his confidence. High levels of confidence give us a degree of certainty that we can achieve our goals and help us feel we deserve our place. Boosting our levels of resilience and mental toughness, it is a lens through which we think and feel about everything that happens to us. The higher our confidence, the more rose tinted our glasses become. It means we focus on what is needed to be successful, rather than on what is necessary to avoid failure. Once we’re more confident, we will care less about being judged. Once we accept recognition, we can enjoy the fruits of our successes, rather than worrying that they are simply a fluke, or that we just got lucky. n ■