I'm not smart enough for this job.
I can't possibly do this project.
I'm going to fail and everyone at work will hate me.
Sound familiar? While it's normal to have the occasional worry about whether or not you're doing your best at your job, some people take this self-doubt to an extreme.
They suffer from imposter phenomenon (IP), and truly don't believe they can do the job at hand, regardless of the title they've earned, the years they've been on the job or the number of degrees hanging on their office walls. Also referred to as fraud syndrome or impostor syndrome, IP was coined back in the 1970s to describe an accomplished person who is plagued with chronic self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy.
Belgian researchers wanted to look more closely at the traits associated with IP and how it might affect work attitudes, so they asked 201 white-collar workers to fill out questionnaires about their job satisfaction, social support in the workplace and their "organizational citizenship behavior," such as going above and beyond the job requirements.
The employees who displayed IP tendencies usually had the highest scores for neuroticism and unhealthy perfectionism and the lowest scores for self-efficacy, organizational citizenship and conscientiousness, according to the October 2015 study published in the Journal of Business Psychology.
These self-perceived "fakers" also viewed themselves in a fairly negative light overall, which the researchers think is the result of not reaching the incredibly high standards the employees had set for themselves.
Are You a Perfectionist or a Pretender?
"I think the imposture syndrome… is absolutely rampant," says Jacqueline Hornor Plumez, PhD, psychologist and career counselor based in New York.
Dr. Plumez says she has a perfectionist friend who thinks he's a pretender: "He was a person who never got anything less than an A on exams, but he would go to bed sick the night before a test, thinking he was going to fail — literally, fail," she says. "So there are people like him, who believe that everybody else knows more than they do, and that they're going to be unmasked and found out. These people are doing it to themselves."
She adds that there's another group of individuals who may be feeling less than adequate on the job… and their feelings may be legit.
"[For example,] the people who are in a field that changes so rapidly, like IT, where it's almost impossible to keep up," she says. "And there may come a time when they get promoted and start supervising people who have fresher knowledge and actually know more than they do."
So are both types on the neurotic side? Not exactly, says Plumez.
"When given something new, many people may think, 'I don't know if I can do it,'" she explains. "But as they get into it, they feel their way and get more comfortable in their new role, as well as asking for help. The people who don't become comfortable with it over time are the ones who are having a problem."
Plumez suggests that people who identify with IP traits seek therapy, and the study researchers note that getting more social support at work may also be useful. But if you're one of the many how-am-I going-to-do-this people, you're not alone — in fact, you're in good company.
In the words of the late Maya Angelou: "Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great. I have written 11 books, but each time I think, 'Uh oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody and they're going to find me out.'"