Katarina Johnson-Thompson winning gold shows anyone can defeat imposter syndrome
Countless famous faces, from Michelle Obama to Kate Winslet to Emma Watson, have admitted to feelings of inadequacy. Sam Hancock learns the truth about imposter phenomenon, from the people who know
Minutes after Katarina Johnson-Thompson won gold in the heptathlon at the World Athletics Championships on Friday, Twitter descended into a frenzy. Not only had the Liverpool-born star just secured her place among the likes of Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill and Denise Lewis, but she had done so after a long battle with imposter syndrome. “It seems even world champions can get, and overcome, imposter syndrome,” one user tweeted. “Dunno what’s more impressive, the fact Katarina Johnson-Thompson just won gold or that she did it while overcoming imposter syndrome!” another wrote. Johnson-Thompson spoke about her self-diagnosed struggle with feelings of insufficiency back in May: “I was reading up on imposter syndrome the other day,” she said. “I don’t know what it’ll take not to feel like that – maybe I’ll just know when it happens.”
Imposter syndrome, also known as imposter phenomenon, imposterism, fraud syndrome or the imposter experience, is the “persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills”. These feelings of inadequacy are more common in women, but happen to men too, in any and every walk of life, and can drive people to feel insecure and make ill-informed decisions – and yet the “experience” tends to stay under the radar, away from prying eyes. It’s no wonder, then, that the NHS refers to imposterism as the voice within.
Days before Johnson-Thompson’s victory, a new study from Brigham Young University (BYU) was published which explores imposter syndrome in students: specifically the best, and worst, ways it can be dealt with. The study, carried out by Jeff Bednar, Bryan Stewart and James Oldroyd, reveals that a fifth of university students suffer from the “psychological pattern”, and that the most effective way of dealing with it is to seek help from a network of people removed from your academic course or immediate social group.
“We wanted to sample and test a group of students, all from the same high pressure, highly ranked academic programme,” Bednar says. “We did a Twitter poll that garnered over 3,000 responses from students at BYU – it showed that 88 per cent of students were experiencing feelings of imposterism. It was a bit of a wakeup call to realise that so many of my students were currently struggling with deeply seeded feelings of imposterism!”
“What is initially shocking about the study is its results. What we found most interesting is that students who described ‘reaching in’ to peers within their academic programme for help and support often failed to find relief from their feelings of imposterism,” he tells me. “Whereas students who described ‘reaching out’ to family, friends, professors, or mentors often found relief from these feelings. So we explored this more deeply in a second study and found a similar pattern of results.”
But is it really so surprising that a group of students would find solace away from the context of their anxiety and self-doubts?
Ilaria Grasso Macola, who is from Milan but completed both her under and post-graduate degrees in London, first realised that she was experiencing imposter phenomenon when she began studying for her master’s. “I had this constant, overwhelming feeling that I didn’t have enough experience to be on the course, especially compared with some of my classmates,” Grasso Macola recalls. “And then when I left London and began an internship at an Italian news website, those feelings resurfaced and intensified: I felt as though I’d been hired for all the wrong reasons … I really struggled because I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there.”
Having read the new study, Grasso Macola agrees with Bednar and his co-authors’ discoveries. “I never talked about how I felt with immediate friends or if I did, I didn’t phrase it as imposter syndrome. I probably just said I felt more stupid compared to other people on my course … I got a lot of support from my family, though, especially my parents,” she says. “It makes sense because people in the same context as you, without malice or intention, can actually heighten the emotions you’re having – especially of not feeling good or clever enough because they might not either. Whereas if you talk to family, rather than immediate friends, or you talk to friends that are not in the same academic environment as you, they can help you downsize the problem and put your feelings into perspective.”
While she admits she hasn’t yet “dealt with the issue properly”, Grasso Macola has found a useful coping mechanism that she wants to share. “Whenever I get those feelings or thoughts, it comes down to measuring what I have accomplished with where I am at that particular moment in time,” she says. “Ultimately, you come to realise that life isn’t about sheer luck – you’re where you are because you have earned the right to be there… and you do deserve it.”
Left untreated, like any debilitating illness, imposter syndrome has the potential to embed itself within a person, fester and continue to be a problem well into adult life. Last year, a UK survey of 3,000 women, commissioned by Access Commercial Finance (ACF), found that two-thirds of women suffer from imposter syndrome at work. Amanda Cookson, who is now 50, has suffered with imposter syndrome since she was at school but says when she entered the world of work, things got much worse. “I used over preparation and perfectionism to help me cope with imposter feelings. I would work hours more than I needed, staying up late and over-delivering so I could be 100 per cent sure that what I was doing was going to be good enough,” she explains.
Cookson, who moved from teaching into e-learning a few years ago and has spent “a lot of time working with very male-dominated teams”, says it’s important to remember that imposter syndrome doesn’t impact on every aspect of your life, instead it bubbles up in specific situations. “I felt my highest level of imposterism when I was promoted up into the senior management team and suddenly had to attend board meetings,” she says. “The room wasn’t necessarily dominated by men at that point, but it was dominated by people whose approach to people and leadership was very different to mine. Because I felt like such an imposter, I didn’t use my voice to share my values or express how I felt things could be. As a result I didn’t deliver to my full potential, I always felt very vulnerable and stayed very distant from others at work.”
Looking back, Cookson, who is a self-proclaimed “recovered imposter”, says the difference between her state of mind now and when she herself was a student is her ability, now, to challenge what both she and others think about herself. “In the past, I just took other people’s opinions about me as fact. For example, I didn’t bother applying to art school and accepted that my art wasn’t good enough, yet I went on to study art and film with qualified teacher status and got a first for my final year art degree show.” Perhaps, I suggest to her, one of the biggest differences between now and then is having the confidence and knowledge, as an adult, to seek support from whoever it is you feel most comfortable with – and not allowing academic stress to cloud your judgement. She agrees.
Talking to Cookson and Bednar, it’s clear that “shame” is an overriding feeling attached to imposter syndrome, which makes it hard for a sufferer to seek help. Both go on, separately, to tell me that support given to someone experiencing feelings of imposterism should be from a “trustworthy and non-judgemental” person. “Our qualitative data suggests that speaking with someone who is perceived as an equal, someone who is non-judgmental, and someone whose care and affirmation is not perceived as dependent on performance is critical to receiving the right support to relieve feelings of imposterism,” Bednar says. “These mentors, family members and friends, who are detached from any academic programme, seemed to be able to help the individual struggling to restore a sense of confidence and self-efficacy by prompting them to think more holistically about their self-concept, their performance and their goals.”
Cookson stresses that it is through talking to people, “regardless of their relationship to you”, that “we can tackle this issue by breaking the secrecy and isolation that surrounds it”.
“I think whomever you talk to in this situation should be someone you trust, who is positive and supportive,” she says. “Perhaps the students in this study are all struggling with the same things and lack the perspective or social experience to help each other. imposter syndrome has a lot of shame wrapped around it and it can be very uncomfortable to be the first one to say, ‘I’m afraid’ and find out that no one has all the answers.”
Clearly, Cookson isn’t alone. Mari Craig, a mum of two who lives in Hertfordshire and runs a small health business through Instagram, has dealt with imposter syndrome since she was at university. “When I got my first bad grade, I wasn’t used to not being top of the class and I hadn’t been taught how to deal with that,” she recalls. “I didn’t let that define me completely then, but it certainly left an impact, which never went away and came to pose real problems later in life.”
Craig found herself firmly within the two-thirds of professional women that the ACF’s study identified last year. “In my first career, all those feelings came flooding back – I felt like people would eventually see through me and realise I wasn’t cut out for the job… despite passing my training with an ‘outstanding’ grade, I never felt as though I was actually any good,” she says. “Even after finding a new passion and career within the nutrition field, which I enjoy learning about and exploring every day, when it comes to giving advice to others, I can’t help but start a sentence by saying: ‘I know I’m not an expert or anything, but…’”
She pauses, then adds: “I’m always told by friends and clients how much I know, and they’re right, yet every time someone says that to me I still feel surprised. I guess if I sat down and wrote out a list of what I’ve learnt and what I can offer in terms of advice on how to eat better, it would be pretty long, but for some reason there’s still a voice in the back of my head telling me that no one should listen to me.” I notice Craig’s use of the word “guess” – it’s as though, even when she tries to give herself a compliment or reassure herself, her mind doesn’t seem to let her be 100 per cent sure she deserves it.
Having “needlessly lived with negative feelings for decades”, both Craig and Cookson have developed their own ways to deal with imposterism. Craig advises that an imposter sufferer should “find a colleague, preferably a woman, to talk to – then you’ll quickly realise you’re not alone”. Cookson, who says she has tried and tested many techniques and approaches, suggests a few hacks: “Noting down your thoughts and reframing the negative stuff, spending time with positive people, keeping a list of your successes, learning to understand how your brain works and finally, doing stuff: start with where you are and take one small action every day towards thinking, feeling and being where you want to be.”
For Bednar, who says talking couldn’t be more important when it comes to these feelings of isolation and inadequacy, even conducting this study has been a kind of therapy. “I’ve had my own struggles with perceived imposterism as both a doctoral student and a professor,” he says. “And there’s something very comforting and liberating for me knowing that I’m not alone in dealing with these feelings, and developing a better understanding of how to deal with it (and how not to deal with it) has been both therapeutic for me and highly rewarding.”
There are of course licensed professionals too, who are trained in helping people that suffer with setbacks like imposter syndrome. Tracy James, a life coach based in Berkshire who runs the Bright Yellow Coaching service, says the real glitch with imposter syndrome, which she tells me 70 per cent of people experience in their lifetime, is the harsh cycle it can cause. “The trouble with it is because we feel immense self-doubt like we are ‘not good enough’ and somehow fraudulently got to where we have, we often work harder to make up for our perceived ‘ineptness’,” she says. “This, in turn, often leads to further success which triggers even more feelings of being an imposter and that at some point we will ‘get found out’, and so the cycle continues.”
Luckily, James says, there are numerous ways people can break this cycle and begin tackling feels of self-doubt and worth: “What I like to say is: ‘It’s normal, not terminal’ and sometimes just sharing and making a connection with a fellow sufferer can be incredibly empowering.” From reading self-appreciation lists out loud to someone, through to seeking therapy or a life coach, James says there really are options for everyone when it comes to combatting these feelings and experiences.
Imposter syndrome is complicated to understand and by no means one-dimensional. In this age of mental health awareness, the soundest advice seems to be the same that is given in pretty much all dealings with our thoughts, feelings and emotions: talk to someone. And while this is an issue that knows no gender boundaries, it must be acknowledged that at a time when working women are still being paid less for performing the same roles as men and continue to be discriminated against in their own offices, it’s no surprise that feelings of shame, inadequacy and incompetence are common in women all around the world.
Stories like Johnson-Thompson’s, though, at least show that imposterism can be beaten – and not just on an international playing field. “I was fed up of this constant feeling,” she told reporters shortly after her win, tears falling down her face. “And now I’m in a great position... possibly the best position I’ve ever been in: gold medal, injury-free and a national record.”
If you are experiencing feelings of imposterism, contact Tracy James who runs private life-coaching sessions or call Caba on 01788 556 336 which operates a 24-hour helpline for those struggling at work