Nowadays, many of us have heard of Imposter Syndrome. We may even recognise in ourselves the feelings of inadequacy — the sense that we don't really deserve the job, qualifications or status we have acquired.
But imposter syndrome doesn't just affect our careers. That feeling of being a 'fake', the belief that our inner reality doesn't measure up to other people's opinions of us, can be just as pervasive in other parts of our lives, and just as damaging to mental health and self-esteem.
Imposter syndrome is on the rise. Working as a psychologist in Manchester, I see more and more people suffering with it — and I have discovered there are many kinds of imposter.
There's the kind person who doesn't believe their good deeds are truly good; the popular girl who never feels she has enough friends; the one who appears to have it all but is secretly unhappy.
More and more I meet imposter parents who do their best for their children but are sure they are failing. There are even religious imposters who think they are not as spiritual or sin-free as others consider them to be.
The first step in tackling all these manifestations is to recognise and understand the feelings. Here, I set out the most common kinds of imposter syndrome, what lies behind them and how you can tackle them.
THE POPULAR IMPOSTER
I have a friend who is constantly entertaining, invited to everything and known in our circle as Miss Popular. Yet she recently confessed that she's not as popular as everyone makes out, feels lonely and has few 'real' friends. Her reputation makes her uncomfortable because it isn't true — she's an imposter.
I often see Popular Imposters in my clinic; people (usually women) who seem to have lots of friends, but claim it's all fake and no one likes them.
As with all imposters, it comes down to insecurity and values. We are most insecure about the things we place most value on, and popularity is crucial for some people.
WHAT CAUSES IT? The Popular Imposter's problem is wanting to be liked by as many people as possible — some collect friends — when it's hard to maintain close relationships. Most will be casual rather than 'proper' friendships, leaving them feeling they have no real friends.
The average person has an inner circle of about five close friends and maybe 50 acquaintances, but the Popular Imposter overpopulates their visible outer circles. So they may have 100 acquaintances but a small inner circle, and feel a fraud.
The Popular Imposter believes others have an inflated view of their popularity, fear being found out as someone not liked or likeable, and attribute their success (at having friends) to external factors, such as the effort they make in entertaining or contacting people.
HOW TO TACKLE IT: Write down the names of people in your inner and outer circles of friends. Those in the centre, who you can rely on and talk to, are most important. Focus on cherishing them.
THE DO-GOODER IMPOSTER
We all know the type: they are first to volunteer for everything and spend their spare time taking home-cooked meals to the sick and running marathons for good causes.
Yet I have rarely met a do-gooder who thinks they do good work. If you praise their kind heart, they brush it off ('oh, it's nothing'). And for many, that's not false modesty: they actually believe they are an imposter, masquerading as the angel everyone else sees. They may even think they are doing good for selfish reasons.
They also believe others have an inflated view of their kindness and fear being found out and exposed as someone who is not really good. They attribute their success at being kind to external factors, such as luck ('I was in the right place at the right time').
To back up their belief of being a phoney, the Do-Gooder Imposter amasses evidence to prove they're not as kind as people think. They note kindnesses not done, such as walking past a homeless person. Then, because they 'know' that deep down they are bad, they do even more good deeds to make amends.
WHAT CAUSES IT? The Do-Gooder Imposter's Achilles heel is the value they put on being kind. To them, it's everything. Perhaps they were brought up in a home where helping others was valued more than success or status, so they internalised that value as one that must be maintained.
Or they may have been labelled 'selfish', which makes them feel bad about themselves, so they work hard to prove they are good.
But imposters are perfectionists, so however many kind acts they do, more still need doing.
Another difficulty is the idea that a truly good person does kind things without reward. In fact, any nice feeling derived from doing something kind doesn't cancel out its goodness. But for the Do-Gooder Imposter, praise and gratitude leave them feeling a fraud.
HOW TO TACKLE IT: Acknowledge any acts of kindness you perform, however small, by writing them in a 'good deed' journal. Consider each one carefully and ask whether you would rate these if someone else did them. Chances are you would. This helps you see you are not an imposter.
THE CHARMED LIFE IMPOSTER
Another imposter I see regularly is the person who appears to have a perfect life but feels their reality is very different. On paper, this person has it all: wealth, a lovely home, exotic trips, perfect children, a good career (or happy home existence).
The problem is, they feel like an imposter because they are still unhappy or unfulfilled. The more perfect their life appears, the more fake they feel inside.
But because they think they have no right to be miserable, this imposter keeps up the façade, being smiley and upbeat around others.
This can cause depression, making them feel even more of a fraud.
WHAT CAUSES IT? Success can make people more prone to depression. CEOs are often more depressed than the general public and rich kids can be more anxious than their lower-income peers. Depression is more common in wealthy countries.
One reason for this is lack of meaning: people who have it all are more prone to question what life means than those striving to survive. Many wonder if there is more to life than wealth and success. If so, they have not attained it.
Goals also give life meaning, and the successful have nothing to aim for.
HOW TO TACKLE IT: Recognise that depression does not discriminate — low moods are part of being human — and try to be more open about your true feelings. Set yourself new challenges or take on extra projects, if not for yourself then to help others.
THE PARENT IMPOSTER
A new form of Imposter Syndrome is the rise of good mums and dads who secretly feel they are bad parents.
To others they seem loving, attentive and hardworking, but to themselves they are woefully inadequate.
In our child-centred age, people are no longer happy to be 'good enough' parents; the new mothering ideal is time-consuming, emotionally demanding and focused on endless stimulating activities. Studies repeatedly find that most parents feel pressure to be perfect — yet perfection is impossible.
WHAT CAUSES IT? The root cause is insecurity. Yet insecurities are inevitable nowadays. Earlier generations knew that if their kids were alive and flourishing, they were successful parents; today, parents focus on less tangible concepts such as building psychological resilience and proving their love.
An absence of immediate results (you won't know if you've produced well-adjusted adults for 18 years) makes parents look to small stuff for reassurance, so suddenly their parenting skill depends on creating amazing rockets out of loo rolls. Worse, we project that insecurity onto our children, so our success as parents becomes dependent on theirs; if they don't achieve highly enough, we feel we've failed and must be fakes.
Parents today are less likely to have an extended family near by, meaning less support, while endless information online breeds confusion and social media rose-tints others' experiences.
HOW TO TACKLE IT: Accept there's no such thing as a perfect parent. Don't judge your ability by small stuff, and remember your child's successes (or failures) do not simply reflect your parenting skills — they are individuals, just like you.
Adapted by Laura Topham from Why Do I Feel Like An Imposter? by Dr Sandi Mann (£12.99, Watkins). © Dr Sandi Mann 2019. To order a copy for £10.30 (offer valid to October 31, 2019; p&p free), visit mailshop.co.uk or call 01603 648155.