Personal Development

Are we setting up millennials to feel like frauds?

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With a culture of celebrating all successes and the ease of being able to compare our "˜best' lives on social media, the expectations, learning and experiences of millennials have meant their frame of reference could now be setting them up to feel like a fraud.

The imposter syndrome is something that is felt by successful, talented individuals who cannot accept their success and live in a state of anxiousness because they feel they are "˜faking it' and that they will get "˜found out' because they are a "˜fraud'. Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes first explored the imposter phenomenon in their 1978 paper, The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention(1).

Clance and Imes' research suggests that the imposter phenomenon can start from childhood from two possible scenarios. The first is that you feel compared to another sibling who is considered the "˜intelligent/athletic/social' one. You then work hard to "˜prove' you can achieve the same but you always feel that your parents still think your sibling is "˜better' than you so any of your achievements are not that worthy.

The second is that your parents tell you you can do or be anything you want to in this life. When you then struggle with something you feel that you are obviously not a "˜natural' and feelings of being an imposter creep in. This is where I think we have potentially set millennials up for FOBFO – fear of being found out – as they start and progress in their careers. When you are used to getting a ribbon for showing up, alongside parents being able to fulfil many desires, whether it is buying a product or creating an experience, both generation X and generation Y have grown up believing they can do and be anything. On the surface, this is brilliant and where self belief should come from, but what then happens when you go into the 'real world' and there is competition? Not everyone will get the promotion, or an annual bonus, or a pay rise; you are ranked against your peers and just "˜showing up' will not necessarily mean success. These individuals then risk feeling that everything they have been told about their successes to date have been lies and they may start to question everything that has come before. If they do work hard and achieve success, it hasn't come as easily as they were maybe lead to believe, so they feel like an imposter because of this. They don't see hard work as a useful attribute, because they have been brought up with "˜ease' being the primary factor – so working hard means they are an imposter to having the easy life they thought they would have.

Recent research by Amazing If(2) found that almost one third of millennials in the UK are suffering with FOBFO at work – that equates to 12 million, eighteen to thirty four year olds struggling with their confidence in their careers. With "˜newbies' feeling intimidated by more experienced staff members with their seemingly huge amount of knowledge, the general competitiveness to "˜stand out' and be recognised for doing a great job, the pace of [technological] progress meaning processes and roles are constantly changing, as well as the possible uncertainty as to whether they have even started on the right career path for them yet, it isn't surprising that this generation are having a confidence crisis as they begin their working life journey.

If you are a parent reading this, please don't despair! I personally think letting your children know they can achieve great success is amazing, but balance that with letting them know:

  • that there may be challenges (which can generally be overcome)
  • it may take hard work
  • that they will achieve and succeed if this is what they really want
  • that they need to keep going
  • they are not alone in how they are feeling
  • they are awesome exactly as they are and that you believe in them
  • there may be times that they don't achieve first time – and that's okay

Teaching resilience and flexibility, I think, will lead to true inner confidence in who they are and how they can adapt to their changing environments. I believe we can all do and be anything we want, or need to be. Helping them to understand where they get their energy (for example, spending time with groups of people will energise some people, but deplete others), appreciate what they love doing, learn what they are naturally good at, and think about their purpose in life are all ways to grow self-awareness, which increases inner confidence. From here, you can help them to start to build strategies that support them.

An example of building strategies to support would be if they have been asked to give a presentation at work. They know they find talking in public difficult but they love doing research and are naturally good at writing stories. They can thoroughly prepare for the presentation and feel confident in the content and flow of what they are going to say. They can practice and use visualisation techniques to project themselves into the presentation situation so they can "˜see' how you will handle various scenarios ahead of the time, and "˜hear' how the presentation will sound to the audience. Before they give the presentation, they can block out an hour in their diary to ensure they don't have to rush from another meeting and give themselves time to "˜power pose'(3) and compose themselves with deep breathing in the toilet. After the presentation they can reward themselves with 20 minutes reading time and a hot chocolate as they know this will replenish them so they will have energy to continue with their day.

By having deeper self awareness they can not only prepare for any event, but also learn to prepare their state so they can always be at their best. This will minimise feelings of being an imposter as they are finding ways to accomplish anything they set their minds to, whilst also being true to, honouring and respecting themselves.


(1)The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.



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About the author

Lindsey Hood

Lindsey is a life and executive coach who specialises in working with talented professionals who secretly struggle with imposter syndrome to help them feel genuinely confident in their unique awesomeness and excel in the career they love.