• Imposter syndrome describes the pervasive feeling you could be 'found out' as not being worthy of your achievements in life or position at work

  • Fiona Thomas shares four practical tips towards overcoming imposter syndrome, especially at work

  • If you are struggling with feelings of inadequacy or lack of confidence, therapy can help – find your therapist here

Being a coffee shop manager at just 21 years old made me an easy target. My team rarely took me seriously as a boss and my threats to reprimand them never seemed to land with much weight. During one busy lunch service, we were struggling to get any momentum going and as a result, several customers complained.

“I want to speak to the manager” a greying man barked. I walked over and announced myself. “I’m the manager. How can I help?”

He simply laughed and walked away. He couldn’t imagine picking a fight with someone who was an excuse for a manager. A baby in an apron, playing shop. Of course, I have no idea of knowing what he was truly thinking, but I’m almost certain that was the day that imposter syndrome implanted itself in my brain.

The concept of imposter syndrome was first recognised in the late 70s by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who claimed that it occurred less frequently and less intensely in men, making it a more likely problem for women. The syndrome is defined as a psychological pattern in which you doubt your accomplishments (like being promoted to management at a young age).

For me, it was a constant niggling. A feeling in the pit of my stomach that I was about to be ‘caught out’ as it were, sacked based on a clerical error. I was sure I’d been promoted by accident, or as a cruel joke. The feeling followed me as I moved to new workplaces, and became even more apparent when I started my career as a freelance writer.

I’ve seen my husband experience it too (it’s now generally accepted that both men and women can succumb to feelings of imposterism) and from the outside, it’s hard to convince him that he has the right to all his successes. However, while writing my book Out of Office: Ditch the 9-5 and Be Your Own Boss I challenged myself to take clear action against my inner imposter, and it worked.

1. Update your social media bios

Your social media bios are prime real estate. You need to big yourself up there so that people are compelled to hang around and interact with you, so use it as practice for real-life interactions. I used to struggle to introduce myself as a writer because even though I had been published repeatedly, I didn’t have a degree in English. However, putting the word ‘writer’ in my Twitter bio felt much easier than saying it out loud. After months of seeing it appear in my bio, I gained the confidence to say it in real life. Now I proudly introduce myself as a freelance writer and two-time author!

2. Negative bias

Do you find it impossible to forget the nasty comments about your work even though there are hundreds of positive ones too? This is natural. Our brains are hardwired to highlight the negative things as a survival technique. If you went on a hike and had a scary interaction with a bear then you’d probably remember that part of the day far more vividly than the rest of the trip. It helps you to avoid such a danger in the future. The same is true for negative feedback or difficult experiences at work. While recognising your own negative bias won’t banish imposter syndrome, it’s often the first step to making real changes.

3. Work on savouring the positive 

In the same way that you might let chocolate melt in your mouth to make the most of the experience, you can practice savouring all your successes. At the end of each day, take a few minutes to think back on the things you’ve achieved. It might be something huge like landing your dream client or it could be something small, like finally sending your first newsletter. Remember how it felt to check these things off your list. The satisfaction and sense of confidence it gave you to meet your goals. Doing this act of savouring regularly will remind you of all the skills you help you dampen that underlying feeling of imposter syndrome.

4. Collect evidence 

Whenever you receive comments about your work that reaffirm your confidence, save them for future reference. Make it your mission to screenshot DMs, emails and testimonials then file them away in a folder that you can access whenever you need a boost. Imposter syndrome is good at twisting the narrative so that you feel unqualified, but seeing evidence to the contrary and seeing it written in black in white can help rewire your brain.

If I’d understood what imposter syndrome was when I was a fresh-faced youngster trying to navigate my first management job, I’m almost certain I’d have been a much better boss. Over a decade later, I can say with confidence that even though I only manage a company of one, I’ve kicked imposter syndrome to become my own boss and I’m loving it.

Fiona Thomas is author of Out of Office: Ditch the 9-5 And Be Your Own Boss, published by Trigger, out 1st October 2020

Further reading

Understanding imposter syndrome

How hypnotherapy helped me regain my confidence

The downsides of perfectionism

Banish your inner critic and build your confidence

11 tips for highly sensitive people at work