'The more I accomplish, the more I feel like a fraud'

Award-winning Bethany Holroyd shares her experience of 'impostor syndrome'.

Bethany Holroyd has worked hard for her achievements, but still suffers from
Bethany Holroyd has worked hard for her achievements, but still suffers from 'impostor syndrome'. Image credit: Bethany Holroyd
  • Updated: 28 July, 2021
  • Author: Bethany Holroyd, UK health and safety advisor at WSP

‘She’s not good enough.’

‘She can only talk the talk.’

‘She’s nothing special, anyone could do her job.’

‘She doesn’t know what she’s doing, or anything about her job.’

‘She doesn’t deserve to be there.’

‘She only won her awards because the submissions were well-written.’

If I overheard someone making these comments about a colleague, I would call them out. They’re incredibly hurtful and damaging to someone’s confidence. I would go so far as to say it would be bullying, which is something I absolutely will not tolerate.

Except. The person responsible for saying these horrible things are me – in my mind – about me.

The symptoms of impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome is where an individual doubts their abilities, skills and accomplishments and has a persistent internalised fear of being ‘exposed as a fraud’. Even with external evidence that this isn't the case, individuals will believe that the achievements are down to luck, or by deceit of others believing they’re more intelligent or capable than they are.

It’s common for those suffering to encounter feelings of guilt, which only reinforces the problem. Symptoms of impostor syndrome are:

  • Self doubt
  • An inability to realistically access your skills
  • Accrediting your success to external reasons
  • Criticising your performance
  • Worries that you won’t live up to others' expectations
  • Overachieving
  • Becoming self-destructive and sabotaging your success
  • Setting unrealistic goals, and becoming depressive when you can’t meet them

My thoughts are intrusive, and I can’t control when they happen, or what they are. I know how ridiculous this sounds… surely you change the subject in your mind? But these thoughts are clever, they creep up on me when I least expect it. Sometimes I’m sat quietly answering some emails, other times I’m doing laundry at home. Sometimes my own mind jabbing away at me is exactly what I need to hear, it pushes me to do well to break down my own internalised barriers, but more often than not I feel panicked at the thought of just not being good enough at my job.

A vicious cycle

I have four national award wins, including being named as one of the Top 50 Women in Engineering 2019, two regional wins, and a scholarship. But it’s a vicious cycle, the more I accomplish, the more I feel like a fraud.

This month, I completed my Level 6 NCRQ Diploma in 10 months, a massive achievement that I'm still so proud of.

Two weeks before the final assignment was due in, I had a meltdown. I burst into tears in my kitchen, telling my husband "What the hell am I doing, I can’t do this, I’ve no idea what I’m talking about…"

He, as supportive as ever, told me that I was doing amazing and was setting such a good example to our son. But mentally, I'd hit a brick wall.

I spoke to colleagues who told me to stop being so hard on myself and to take some time out. Panicking with only two weeks left, and only 5,000 words in, I ‘tried’ to relax.

One of my really good friends at work, Hayley, gave me some great advice to just "think logically".

I got the textbooks out to work through them, and I kept reminding myself to apply the logic to all the scenarios in front of me – she also told me off a few times for working into the early hours multiple days in a row, while working and trying to balance a four-year-old. But one of the best things she said was "remember, the master has failed many more times than the apprentice" and this really resonated with me – why was I being so hard on myself for developing my knowledge?

It’s OK to fail, and even if I did get a refer on my final assignment, would it really have been the end of the world?

Fast-forward a couple of weeks, and all my blood, sweat and actual tears gave me a distinction! I couldn’t believe it, I’d worked so hard and it had paid off. I had been worried throughout my study that the information wasn’t sinking in, but 20,000 words later, I had conveyed exactly what I needed to, and the feeling was amazing.

'You're not alone'

I recently wrote a LinkedIn status that ended up with almost 40,000 views talking about impostor syndrome, and so many people reached out to me either commenting on the post, or sending me direct messages.

The thing is, I don’t have a magic answer. Some people find solace though exercise, therapy or mindfulness, but for me I haven’t found anything to make it go away. I try to keep the thoughts at bay and remind myself that this is all through my own hard work and I’m not going to be ‘found out’.

If you’re reading this article and suffer from the same symptoms as me, please know that you’re not alone. I was really surprised when I started to receive messages from both males and females, operations directors, heads of disciplines, early career professionals, engineers – there wasn’t a particular type of person that it affected and people I knew that I thought were super confident and amazing at their jobs were telling me they experienced the same.

I was worried about talking about this because I thought people may just think bad of me, or that I’m not confident enough at what I do – but I got nothing but support and gratitude for speaking about something so many of us brush under the carpet!

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