What Is Impostor Syndrome?

Can’t take a compliment?  Feel like a fake? Convinced you’ll be unmasked at any moment? Welcome to the secret circle of high achievers suffering from Impostor Syndrome. Psychologist  Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explains how to recognize it, where it comes from, and how to combat it.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
September 17, 2013

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A bestselling author thinks, “I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out sooner or later.”  An actress thinks, “Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? Why am I doing this?” A novelist wonders if he has really has anything else to say.

Each of these 3 people sometimes thinks he or she is a big fake.  Someday, they reason, they will be found, exposed, and melt into a puddle of public shame.  

Who are these big frauds?  Respectively, Maya Angelou, Meryl Streep, and Stephen King—not exactly the bottom of the barrel when it comes to accomplishment.  What do they have in common?  A widespread dirty secret called Impostor Syndrome.

What Is Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor Syndrome is a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  It strikes smart, successful individuals.  It often rears its head after an especially notable accomplishment, like admission to a prestigious university, public acclaim, winning an award, or earning a promotion.  Impostor Syndrome doesn’t discriminate: people of every demographic suffer from feeling like a fraud, though minorities and women are hardest-hit.   

Impostor syndrome comes in 3 flavors:

Type #1: “I’m a fake.”

The fundamental fear is being discovered or unmasked.  Achievers often feel like they’ve made it thus far under wraps, but the day will come when their cover is blown and they will be revealed as a fake.

For example, Adelaide is a tenured professor at a prestigious university.  She is regarded as one of the leading researchers in her field and frequently travels to conferences and workshops, often in a leadership role.  Recently, Adelaide attended a high-powered meeting.  She remembers feeling intimidated as introductions took place in the book-lined, richly-paneled, high-ceilinged room.   Someone was introduced as an “esteemed professor.” Adelaide looked around and realized, with a start, they meant her.  “Internally, I was terrified,” she remembers.  “I just knew that everyone at that table knew what they were doing, had earned their place, and that a giant mistake had been made in inviting me.  I felt like any minute a spotlight would shine on me and I would be asked to leave.”

Not only accomplished professionals feel the sting.  18-year-old Don graduated high school at the top of his class and is headed off to college in the fall.  He was accepted at an Ivy League university and he’s terrified.  “I’m convinced the admissions department made a mistake.  That place is for geniuses, not for people like me.  I don’t belong there.”

Type #2: “I got lucky.” 

The second flavor of Impostor Syndrome attributes achievements to luck.  A twist on this is “I’m not smart/talented/gifted. I just work hard.”

Take Gerald as an example. He is an investigative reporter for one of the last-standing well-regarded city newspapers.  He has cracked several national stories and numerous awards hang on the wall of his office.  Yet he says, “Every time a feature story goes to print, I’m convinced it will be the end of my career.  I got my other stories—and these honors—through sheer luck.  I was just in the right place at the right time.”

The “I just work hard” variation is especially common among women.  For example, Inez is a software engineer at a well-known tech company.  Her reviews are stellar and she’s been promoted twice since she started.  She arrives earlier than anyone in her otherwise all-male group and stays until the janitor goes home.   “I haven’t been programming since I was 14 like these other guys,” she says.  “I’m not a born engineer.  I put in the hours just to stay afloat.”


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