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Imposter syndrome

Understanding and taming feelings of self-doubt


Have you ever questioned who you are and whether you really have anything to offer? Feeling “like a fraud” is a surprisingly common phenomenon we call Imposter Syndrome.

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What is imposter syndrome?

It is estimated that 70 percent of people from all walks of life experience this type of self-doubt at some point in their lives1. And the evidence suggests that even very talented and successful people can be haunted by the sense of beinga fraud. First responders aren’t immune to this self-doubt, and these feelings can occur at various times in your career.

self image

So where does this feeling come from?
Imposter syndrome is linked to shame. Shame is a social emotion. It evolved to prevent us from damaging our social relationships, and also motivate us to repair them. These powerful feelings contribute to the fabric of values and order that hold our society together. But when they go rogue, or develop a “mind of their own”, they can be seriously handicapping. It’s important to recognise shame and the fear of having your inadequacy uncovered, because they guide ways to manage your imposter feelings. This resource helps you to recognise those feelings, and provides tools to help you manage them.

How does imposter syndrome show up for first responders?
Imposter syndrome is likely to show up during particularly challenging jobs, when facing high levels of scrutiny, when seeking a promotion, or starting in a new role. But there are also characteristics of first responder organisations that may amplify normal feelings of self-doubt.

First response is an exacting profession with little room for error. You’re not allowed to have a bad day as a first responder, and making a mistake can have heavy consequences. Carrying this huge responsibility trains first responders to ask more of themselves than people in most civilian professions.

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How does imposter syndrome show up for first responders?

Living with imposter syndrome is not fun! You can feel like you’re not worthy and don’t belong. It’s like you’re just waiting to be kicked off the island when everyone else discovers what a fraud you are.

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Common imposter syndrome experiences

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What does imposter syndrome look like?

Because imposter syndrome is based in shame, these are some of the behaviours people employ to try and ward off what feels like inevitable rejection:

  • Procrastination, over-preparation and perfectionism
  • Discounting success and praise
  • Being guarded
  • Preferring to do tasks on your own
  • Working longer and harder than you need to
  • Devaluing or apologising for the work you produce for fear of someone else
    finding insufficiency first
  • Needing external validation
  • Self-sabotaging before attempting new task

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What can you do?

A moderate amount of imposter syndrome is common and can even be a source of motivation. If, however, imposter syndrome is something that is impacting your enjoyment or performance and creating significant stress, try these:

Name it to tame it
Most of us hide our shame. Often the best thing to do with shame is name it. Even better, if this can be done with someone who is safe (non-judgemental), understanding and supportive, it can really take the sting out of imposter feelings.

Support person tip

If someone shares imposter feelings with you, don’t jump to dismissing it
(e.g. “you don’t need to feel that way!”)
Validate: “That sounds pretty crappy!”

Normalise: “I feel like that sometimes too” or “A lot of people struggle with those feelings.”

Then, encourage: remind them of the qualities and skills that you and others value in them. The
more genuine, real and specific your examples, the harder it will be for them to dismiss them.
Remember though, the imposter feelings may deflect your attempts, so repetition is helpful here.

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Self-compassion: Try to replace self-criticism with kindness and understanding

There is compelling evidence that applying self-compassion can significantly reduce discomfort in the form of shame and anxiety. This is as simple as reminding yourself: “I’m human.” And not only that; other people are human too. Remember, seven out of 10 of the people that you’re worried will judge you, are worried about being judged, too!

Take a step back and listen to your inner critic for a moment. Notice the language and tone it uses. Would you use this same language and tone with a close friend? How would you respond to that friend if they were in a similar situation?

Try to be more conscious of the language your inner critic uses when you’re worried or stressed. If it’s overly harsh, try to adopt a kinder, more understanding way of talking to yourself. “How can I be kind to myself?” This doesn’t mean allowing yourself to avoid things that are important. It just means making self compassion and authentic self-care part of the equation, rather than self criticism.

Support person tip

You can ask:

“Are you being unkind or unfair to yourself?”

“What do you need to feel more supported?”

“If I was saying those things about myself, what would you say to me?”

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Remember it’s ok not to be perfect.

Research shows that the more real we are, the more likable we are to others. Give yourself permission to make mistakes and own them with others (remembering you have enough to offer). This will clear some space for your true strengths, skills, knowledge, creativity, and passion to show. It is possible, even preferable, to be both competent and goofy. It makes you more relatable when others are reminded you’re human too

Support person tip

Remind your loved one that none of us are perfect; and none of us have to be! Model self-acceptance: share your own imperfections without apologising for them.

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Transform self-doubt into gratitude

If you are feeling like an imposter, this usually means you have achieved a degree of success in your life that your self-doubt says was luck. You can start to transform that self-doubt into gratitude. Look at what you have done in your life and be grateful for your achievements. Research shows how fostering gratitude can reduce your sense of threat (including shame) and increase feelings of safety and connection.

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For more information on who can access our services, visit the Who we serve page on our website.

To speak with a professional at Fortem Australia, please contact us by email or phone.


1300 33 95 94

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