Imposter Syndrome: When you feel like a fraud

You know the saying “Fake it till you make it”? What if you made it, but still feel like you’re faking it? An estimated 70% of people experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives, but it’s surprisingly common among senior level executives such as managers and CEOs.

The fear that you’ve only succeeded enough to become CEO because of luck or being in the right place at the right time (not because of your talent or qualifications) is known as Imposter syndrome. While the syndrome is more common in women, men also experience imposter feelings.

Whether you’re in a senior executive/CEO role for the first time or experiencing responsibility that you don’t feel ready for, imposter syndrome strikes as a particularly malignant form of self-doubt. Imposter syndrome is particularly difficult to manage if you’re a figurehead and people are looking to you to make decisions.

Signs that you suffer from imposter syndrome:

  • You have the sense you don’t belong
  • You feel like a fraud and like you don’t deserve your position
  • You feel like you’ve fooled everyone and at any moment, you might be exposed as unworthy, inexperienced and/or ill-equipped
  • You worry that others are smarter and more capable than you
  • You tend towards perfectionism and fear making mistakes
  • You don’t like to ask for help because you think others will see you as a failure or a fraud
  • If you struggle to achieve something, this means you aren’t good enough
  • You might push yourself to work harder than anyone around you to ‘prove’ you deserve your position
  • You find it difficult to acknowledge or feel joy at your own achievements
  • You downplay your accomplishments
  • You avoid feedback and second-guess your decisions
  • You struggle to start or finish projects
  • You feel isolated and alone

If you’re still unsure if you suffer from Imposter Syndrome, here’s a test you can do, which also highlights what level of imposter syndrome you might have — low, medium or high.

The imposter cycle

While many people become paralysed by fear caused by imposter syndrome, for many successful people such as senior execs and CEO’s, the imposter cycle drives them to achieve even more. This diagram (click to see larger version) shows how a person can feel like an imposter yet still be very successful.



imposter cycle


According to the Harvard Business Review, we are all imposters playing different roles on the stage of life. This could be the contrast between the public self you present to the world, and the private self you share with your family and close friends. Or the game face you show everybody versus the secret thoughts about yourself you don’t share with anybody.  CEO imposters feel more like a fraud, and more alone, than most.

If you’re fighting imposter syndrome, success can feel meaningless because you’re haunted by the fear of exposure and secretly believe others (even your employees) are smarter and more capable. It’s as if you used a false CV to get to the top. Most people with Imposter Syndrome haven’t done that but it feels the same.

When you’re a senior manager or CEO, you often don’t have access to the support and mentoring you may have enjoyed at lower levels of management. Because you suffer from self-doubt and anxiety you may not find it easy to seek help such as coaching or counselling. Instead,you soldier on, feeling more alone than ever before. Don’t despair! Imposter Syndrome is a life challenge that can be tackled.

How to deal with imposter syndrome


1. Acknowledge your thoughts

Listening to your inner critic makes you feel negative about yourself, your current circumstances and your future. It can be very helpful to simply observe this inner voice, instead of engaging with it.

Notice your expectations of yourself. Are these expectations helping or hindering you?

2. Own your mistakes

Remember that mistakes are an important part of the learning process.

As a high-level executive or CEO, you’re under plenty of  pressure. Own up to the fact that you don’t have all the answers.

By acknowledging that you’re not perfect and owning your mistakes, you’ll actually increase your self-esteem and get more respect from your colleagues.

You’ll also realise that insecurities and failures aren’t a neon sign highlighting your ordinariness, they’re just part of your journey to even more success.

3. Embrace vulnerability

There’s no need to be an all-rounder. You don’t have to be good at everything or have all the answers to be a good leader.

Focus on the things you do well and get better at them, while building a team to support you in other areas. This will free you up to use your strengths to focus on the big picture.

4. Evaluate yourself differently

In my practice, I’ve noticed that many of my clients who struggle with imposter syndrome evaluate themselves on the accomplishments of others.

Stop measuring your abilities and journey based on someone else’s model!

It’s okay to take a different route to get to the same location; some people like to fly, while others prefer to drive. Maybe you like to skateboard, and maybe that’s what makes you special.

5. Open your mind to new ideas

If you’re suffering from imposter syndrome, you might become overly cautious as a leader and even find yourself suppressing innovation.  Feeling like you should be the first or only person to come up with the best solution will keep you drowning under the weight of imposter syndrome.

Instead, encourage your team to bring you new ideas. This creates a culture of self-reliance and gives you more freedom to focus your attention on what’s important.

6. Seek feedback

It’s important to get honest feedback from the right support network, like a trusted mentor or coach. Seeking other perspectives will help you challenge the assumptions that leave you feeling inadequate.

A Stanford University study found that two-thirds of CEOs don’t get the external coaching or leadership advice they need, even though all of them were open to making changes based on constructive feedback.

Having an independent, external sounding board to offer advice, guidance and a (non-judgemental) ear is vital for any business leader.

7. Express gratitude

Most senior level imposters find  it difficult to recognise and enjoy their achievements, often dismissing or minimising them. Keep a journal to highlight your successes and to express gratitude for what you have managed to accomplish and what’s working in your life.

Make sure to celebrate the victories, whether small or large. Preferably with the people who helped you achieve them.

8. Practice self-care

The pressure of being a leader, such as when you’re holding a high level position or you’re a CEO. can lead to high levels of stress, which can result in physical and mental illness. So you need to take good care of yourself, so that you can be your best self.

Take time out of your busy schedule for you – any form of exercise helps, as does massage, hitting the salon, or spending time with friends. You know what recharges and revitalises you. Do that thing.

Most people experience moments of self-doubt or feeling like an imposter, and that’s normal. But if your Imposter syndrome is interfering with your ability to do your job or is beginning to have a negative impact on your relationships, reach out!

As a coach and psychotherapist, I’m here to help you deal with imposter syndrome so that you can overcome the limitations that are holding you back from achieving your potential.

Contact me to schedule an online consultation.

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