What is imposter syndrome and how to deal with it

We speak with psychologist Dr Josephine Perry about imposter syndrome, its prevalence in athletes, and useful techniques for coping with the debilitating issue that “most people will experience at some point in their lives”.

What is Imposter syndrome

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is when we deeply feel that we don’t have what it takes, despite all of the evidence to the contrary. A perception or a belief that you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing, even though everything else (your CV, your sporting achievements, the people around you, your coach) are all trying to reassure you that you absolutely should.

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What are the symptoms of imposter syndrome?

If someone suffers from imposter syndrome they will feel like they’re out of their depth, like they haven’t prepared well enough. We call it internalising their successes. They will be constantly worried about being exposed as a fraud in some way. In a triathlon perspective, if your coach gives you a compliment, you will dismiss it as, “oh they say that to everybody”. Or if you get a PB, “it was a fluke”. You put all of your successes down to luck, but you really own all your failures.

How does imposter syndrome impact athletic performance?

One of the things that happens if you have imposter syndrome is that you don’t tend to celebrate your successes as much. You put it down to a fluke or to luck, rather than the fact that you’ve worked really hard. If you don’t celebrate your successes, you don’t imbed them inside yourself very much. That not only holds us back a little bit, it also means if we’re not doing that celebrating of the effort, we’re going to get more anxious, more depressed, and experience higher levels of burn-out or emotional fatigue. We also give away fantastic opportunities because we don’t think we’re the right person, or it might be embarrassing to go for it. That can hold us back.

How do you deal with imposter syndrome? Do you have any specific advice for athletes?

There are lots of short, easy things to do like reframing, self-talk, having positive mantras, really purposefully celebrating successes, learning how to take praise and compliments.

There’s something really useful in sports psychology called reframing. If you catch yourself going “oh well I was just really lucky”. Try and really purposely translate that into something that’s more true, “I worked really hard”, which reinforces the efforts you put in. Proactively reframing short phrases that we catch ourselves saying into something that actually authenticates what we did.

Really celebrate your successes. Find a small way to celebrate yourself so that you’re embedding those successes in your brain. We instantly downplay compliments. Actually, if you just say, “thank you, I really enjoyed it.”  That embeds to us that it is okay to do well and celebrate what we achieve. The more you practice it, the more it feels a bit easier to do it each time.

Talking about this year, do you think the lack of races could increase or decrease instances of imposter syndrome? How should athletes cope with this?

I think it will be really important for people to really look back on the journey they’ve been on the last year or so. Because if somebody’s been furloughed and they don’t have children, they could have been Zwift racing every day, they could have been running a marathon in their back garden. They could be the fittest they’ve ever been and march straight into a race and do brilliantly. But if someone’s been working from home full time, doing full time childcare on top of it, they’ll be utterly exhausted. It really is important not to compare yourself at all.

Often when we’re comparing ourselves to other people in that world, we find ourselves lacking. Because we see the glossy, shiny side of their life. We see the pictures they want us to see on Instagram and then we compare it to how we really are and the fact that we skipped that session because we were exhausted, or we didn’t do our efforts the other day. That constant comparison is really harmful and increases your imposter syndrome. It’s really important you see things like social media, or Strava, as a kind of entertainment and not information.

Read more advice about mental health and wellbeing here

If you are worried about your mental health, or someone else’s, seek medical advice from a doctor or psychologist, or contact mind.org.uk

Dr Josephine Perry is a chartered psychologist specialising in sports performance psychology, and her approach uses a mix of humanistic and cognitive behavioural psychology. Read more on improving sporting performance in high-pressure situations in Perry’s first book, Performing Under Pressure, which offers strategies for the nine most common reasons an athlete comes to see a sport psychologist, helping those using it to develop the right sporting mindset and perform at the highest standards, even under the most pressurised of situations.

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