On the couch: Keeping it real

You probably do not need any more reasons to thank God you are not an American, but here's a staggering statistic: one-half to two-thirds of US university students feel like fakes (known as Impostor Syndrome), living in fear of being exposed as the frauds they believe themselves to be. While I doubt the problem is as widespread this side of the pond, a proportion of Brits, especially young women, do suffer these fears.

As teenagers, when fake-sufferers get good exam results or do well at sport or art, they do not think of themselves as bright or creative and believe they have simply fooled people. They put subsequent professional success down to luck, contacts or having to work harder than others, rather than to their own mental capacities. They are at heightened risk of depression and generalised anxiety.

Women are more likely to suffer than men.

As children, the ones most at risk felt different from their siblings, and atypical of their race or gender. Parents did not praise their achievements and gave the message that it was essential to be intelligent and successful with minimal effort. Siblings may have mocked them, and there was a gap between how their family and how outsiders (teachers, friends) perceived them.

This is exacerbated when high achievers go into high-flying jobs where they are given considerable responsibilities without much or any experience. Aged 21 or 22, bankers, management consultants and accountants find themselves being taken seriously as advisors to people who know far more than them. Junior doctors or social workers find themselves having to deal with horrendous problems they have never encountered before.

My first serious job entailed advising health-service managers on organising their departments.

I hadn't the foggiest idea. I only felt a bit fake, but with the lesser arrogance and greater emotional intelligence of a woman, it's easy to see how I might have felt utterly fraudulent.

The group of women most at risk are those for whom it was a case of 'Do as I say, not as I do' as they watched their mums perform the childcare yet urge them to become career killer-drillers. Having been prevented from getting the education and jobs they desired, these mothers were determined their daughters would do it for them. The result is that, unconsciously, the daughter does not feel it is she who is achieving when she subsequently succeeds.

More broadly, the problem derives from the shift from collectivist to individualist identity since 1950. Today, identity is achieved through educational and career performance rather than conferred by class, family position or gender.

To an extent, this change has been hijacked by consumerism - my expensive sofa, car or skirt tell you who I am. But, as Erich Fromm said, however flash your possessions, when it comes to feeling real, Having is no substitute for Being.

· Is there anything about why we are as we are that you'd like to ask Oliver James? Email him at oliver.james@observer.co.uk and his answers will be published in a special Ask the Experts edition of OM at the end of July.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.