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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Type #3: “Oh, this old thing?”

In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey offers bombshell Violet a compliment. “Hey, you look good.  That’s some dress you got on there.”  Violet knows she’s rocking it.  She twirls her hair.  “Oh, this old thing?  Why, I only wear it when I don’t care how I look,” she says, and sashays off, stopping traffic.

Violet is being falsely modest, but in Impostor Syndrome, sufferers truly can’t take a compliment.  In the last variation of Impostor Syndrome, the receiver of an award or recognition discounts or downplays the honor.  “I only got an A because the class was easy.”  “That race I won wasn’t really important.”  “I must have been the only one who applied.”  “I’m not pretty; he’s just saying that.”

How Does Impostor Syndrome Happen?

Impostor Syndrome develops in a variety of ways.  Here are 3 of the most common:

1)   You’re so smart!

The work of Dr. Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford, sheds light on a common parenting mistake.  Well-meaning parents often praise kids with labels like ‘You’re so smart!” or “You’re so pretty!” These labels, while meant to be complimentary, actually hinder kids.  How? They imply that there’s nowhere left to grow.  “You’re smart” implies that “smart” is a you’ve-got-it-or-you-don’t characteristic.  Either you’re smart or you’re not, and there’s nothing you can do to alter it.  Therefore, whenever kids make a mistake, they question the “smart” label.  “If I got a C this once, then maybe I’m not smart after all?  Mom must be wrong.”   As a result, it stifles kids’ willingness to try new things, for fear they might prove their label wrong.  This lays fertile ground for Impostor Syndrome.

2)   One of these things is not like the others.

Women, racial minorities, or LGBT individuals may feel like they are living a high-achiever's version of the Sesame Street song, “One of These Things is Not Like the Others.”  Indeed, individuals who don’t “match” the larger, majority culture of their school or company often struggle to feel legitimate. They may feel like they don’t belong, despite qualifications and accomplishments.

Navigating unfamiliar waters without a role model or mentor can exacerbate this kind of Impostor Syndrome.  For instance, being the first in the family to attend college or have a white-collar career is a pioneering achievement, but can feel like a floundering imitation without an experienced guide.  First-generation achievers may feel out of step both at home and in their new environment.

3)   The side effects of meritocracy.

High achievers are only high achievers when compared to others.  Such folks have been compared to others their whole lives—when earning grades, winning honors, being selected into college, landing jobs.  They often come out on top, which does two things.  First, they value the process of comparison because they have done well by it.  Second, they are extra alert to the process.  Awareness of being evaluated and caring deeply about the outcome is an important mindset for success, but when it backfires, it lays a foundation for feeling like a phony.

10 Ways to Combat Impostor Syndrome

If you are feeling the detrimental effects of Impostor Syndrome, you are in great company. But you don't have to suffer self-doubt in silence. Here are 10 things you can do to mitigate the effects of Impostor Syndrome: 

1) Know that feeling like a fraud is normal

Impostor Syndrome is widespread.  It is rampant in any exclusive circle, from high school honor societies to Nobel Prize winners.   It is rarely discussed because each person feels they are keeping a secret.  There is an element of shame and the fear of being discovered, so sufferers keep silent.  However, whenever someone pipes up, hundreds more breathe a sigh of relief.

2) Remind yourself of what you’ve accomplished

Stay humble, my friends.  A balancing point exists between Impostor Syndrome and slick, grinning egomania.  Authentic modesty keeps you real.

Academics keep a curriculum vitae, roughly translated as “life’s work.”  More than a resume, it is a list of everything they have accomplished.  Do the same and read it over from time to time.  Read your old letters of recommendation.  If you’ve been given an award, read the inscription. You don’t just look good on paper; you accomplished each and every achievement on that paper. 

3) Tell a fan

Disclose your feelings to a trusted friend, your favorite teacher, or close colleague.  Hopefully, you’ll come away with a pep talk to bolster your spirits.  Warning: change the subject if your fan simply tells you to stop feeling insecure.  If you could stop, you would have already!

4) Seek out a mentor

Ask a senior colleague, teacher, or coach for guidance navigating work or school.  If possible, seek out a mentor who matches your gender or ethnicity. Get-It-Done Guy has a wonderful article on Choosing a Mentor.

5) Teach

Or become a mentor.  You’ll be surprised how much you know.  We often forget what it’s like not to know something.  Furthermore, as we become experts in a field or rise to the top of the class, we are conscious enough to realize how much we have yet to learn, which amplifies the sense of fraudulence.  Only when we contrast ourselves with true newbies do we gain perspective.  Remind yourself how far you’ve come by nurturing the next generation.

6) Sometimes it’s Ok not to know what you’re doing

After experiencing any big life event, like starting at a new school or a new job, there is a steep learning curve of adjustment.  Rather than hiding, think of yourself as a “public amateur” or a “purposeful impostor” - someone who is learning and gaining expertise in the public eye.  It’s Ok to come to the table with nothing to offer, as long as you’re enthusiastic about learning. 

7) For kids, praise effort

To counteract the mistake of praising traits, as in “You’re so smart!,” praise effort instead.  Compliment kids with, “You worked so hard on that!” or  “You kept at it even when it didn’t work out.” 

8) Build in an expectation of initial failure

The author Anne Lamott titles every new work “Sh*tty First Draft.”  My neighbor told her child, “Here’s your new scooter.  You have to fall off at least 10 times before you get good.”  Allow yourself similar leeway to stink it up at any new beginning.

9) Keep a little Impostor Syndrome in your pocket

Stay humble, my friends.  A balancing point exists between Impostor Syndrome and slick, grinning egomania.  Authentic modesty keeps you real.

10) Remember: You’re not alone

Simply remember the words of Tina Fey, another self-described impostor:  “Everyone else is an impostor, too.” 


Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine.  Ellen graduated from Brown University, earned her Ph.D. at UCLA, and completed her training at Harvard Medical School.  In her clinic, she treats everything from depression to trauma to panic, but she has a special place in her heart for anxiety disorders.  Ellen is also an active research scientist and develops therapy programs for individuals and families living with chronic illness.  She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two sons, ages 5 and 2. 


Disclaimer: All content is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions.  

Four leaf clover and fake images courtesy of Shutterstock.


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