This Is What Imposter Syndrome Feels Like

If you’ve ever felt like a 'fraud' at work, you're not alone. That feeling is known as Imposter Syndrome: a belief that your success is just down to luck, and that pretty soon, everyone’s going to sniff you out as a chancer. It's the real deal, and affects more of us than you probably think.

To prove how common it is, we asked all the women at Refinery29 UK if they had ever experienced Imposter Syndrome. Of those who responded, 90% said yes. Some experienced it just once, for others it has returned again and again, all the way through their career.

The symptoms were different for all these women, but it had the same impact: it weakened their presence. They spoke up a little less, held back from sharing ideas, and shrank away from their genuine talent.

Together with TRESemmé, we're powering our presence in the workplace – starting with facing up to Imposter Syndrome. This feature is just step one in our year-long partnership; expect inspiring stories, career advice from top coaches, The Presence MasterClass®; a free 7-part online Masterclass, and more...

In the meantime, we invited five R29 women to tackle their Imposter Syndrome head-on, once and for all. Writing a letter to these feelings, they describe how it manifests in their mind and share valuable tips for overcoming it.

Illustrated by Erin Aniker
To my Imposter Syndrome,

You feel like a weirdly jealous friend in the corner, shouting 'Omg, you’re going to get caught any minute!' During a presentation or big meeting, this really throws me off.

You first popped up when I reached a mid-level in my career. I had more responsibilities, and there was a pressure to perform. I started to be recognised for achievements, which I didn’t feel that I deserved.

For a long time, I kept you hidden inside. But when I opened up to my friends, I realised that I wasn’t alone. Now, when I’m unsure about my ability, I turn to these 'cheerleaders'. Friends who truly believe in me, and cheer for me. I am their cheerleader in return, when they need it.

I know that you might pop up unexpectedly one day when I’m feeling nervous, but with my cheerleaders close by, I know I can face you down.

From, C
Illustrated by Erin Aniker
To my Imposter Syndrome,

These days I’ve mastered you with prep prep prep. The more preparation I do beforehand for a big pitch or speaking event, the more confident I feel. I can face the challenge in front of me.

But when you do flare up, you’re like a flaming red alarm. It manifests itself physically in my body as heat, and as noise in my mind. I feel like I can’t escape it.

I first had these feelings during my first professional job, and had no clue what was happening in my head. No one talked about Imposter Syndrome then, so that fear was disconcerting and uncomfortable.

That was almost eight years ago now. It took a bit of time to find my groove, but now I know that preparation is the key to overcoming you.

From, K
Illustrated by Erin Aniker
To my Imposter Syndrome,

When you creep over me, like you did after my first promotion, I feel like I’m acting a part in a show. Like I’m just pretending, and I’m going to get caught out at any moment.

It makes me feel very anxious. In my head, everyone else seems to be doing so much better, and I’m just muddling through this pantomime called life.

It took me a while to realise that everyone around me is working it out as they go too. We’re all just trying to do our best. There’s nothing fraudulent about that! There’s no rule book (or script if we’re sticking with the analogy) for life. You can write your own!

Plus, I like to remind myself that people far more experienced than me hired me and promoted me. Even if I (feel I) don’t know what I’m doing, I have to trust their judgment more than my own. Somehow it’s easier to believe in yourself through the eyes of someone else.

From, S
Illustrated by Erin Aniker
To my Imposter Syndrome,

I can’t remember precisely the first time I experienced you, I think you’re something that I’ve become aware of as I progress through my career and become more senior. When my colleagues or peers give me praise for being good at my job, and capable, it has the reverse effect and I’m left feeling like a fraud. That I’m just winging my talent.

If I picture this feeling, it’s like I’m alone on an escalator going down, parallel to everyone else going up. I’m trying to catch up with them, but I never can because I’m headed in the wrong direction.

My lesson from this? Do not compare yourself to others! This is easier said than done, but it’s important to remember we’re not in competition.

It helps to remind myself regularly that I AM good at what I do. I recommend doing a weekly roundup of three things that prove your ability, and note it down. These don’t all have to be work-related! Cooking a banging dinner for your friends counts too.

From, A
Illustrated by Erin Aniker
To my Imposter Syndrome,

You know when it feels like everyone is staring at you? Like you must have cereal stuck to your cheek or mascara smudged up to your eyebrow? That’s what Imposter Syndrome feels like.

Like a thousand eyes, scrutinising every move, waiting for you to inevitably trip up. It makes me hyper aware of myself, and I become more cautious at work because of it.

If I don’t get a handle on these feelings, they can spiral out of control. So first up, breathe.

To calm myself down, I like to look at pictures of my nieces and nephews. I look at them and see endless promise and ability. This has inspired me to keep a photo of myself as a kid on my phone too. When I start to feel those imaginary eyes staring at me, I bring up the photo and it helps me to remember that, like my nieces and nephews, I am learning every day too. I have promise, and am capable.

And then, once my strength and confidence has returned, I go out and smash whatever it was that made me lose my nerve in the first place. If I can face you head-on, Imposter Syndrome, I prove to myself that I can face anything.

From, E

Do you recognise Imposter Syndrome in yourself? TRESemmé is committed to equipping women with the skills to help them succeed in their lives, not just with their hair. Take the TRESemmé Presence Profiler® and stay tuned for more about how you can power your presence.
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