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.  The Savvy Psychologist explains how to recognize it, where it comes from, and has 9 tips on how to combat it.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #25

What Is Impostor Syndrome?

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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. Take 18-year-old Don for example. He graduated high school at the top of his class and is headed off to an Ivy League university in the fall.  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.”

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:

Source #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.

Source #2: One of these things is not like the others.

Women, racial minorities, or LGBT individuals may feel like they're 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.

Source #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 colleges, 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.

9 Ways to Combat Impostor Syndrome

So what's a phony-feeling high achiever to do?  Here are 9 ways to combat 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.

So there we have it: 9 things you can do to things you can do to mitigate the effects of Impostor Syndrome.  And of course, you’re not alone.   Simply remember the words of Tina Fey, a self-described impostor:  “Everyone else is an impostor, too.” ;

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.