Impostor Syndrome is the low, constant rumbling of insecurity, fraudulence, or self-doubt that strikes successful individuals. Even when there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, the feeling persists. Ironically, it most frequently rears its head after an especially notable achievement like winning an award, passing an important exam, or earning a promotion.
But Impostor Syndrome isn’t just one monolithic feeling. Instead, there are three flavors; which one is yours?
Type #1: “I’m a fraud.”
The root fear here is that you will be revealed or unmasked. You often feel as if this is the day your true self will be dug up and exposed.
For example, Adelaide is a tenured professor at a prestigious university. She is often handed leadership roles and has a reputation as a leading researcher in the field. Recently, Adelaide attended a meeting with many high-powered officials. As introductions began in the book-lined, richly-paneled, high-ceilinged room, she felt intimidated and unsure of herself. Someone was introduced as a “highly acclaimed professor.” After looking around the room, Adelaide realized they were speaking about her. “I was terrified,” she remembers. “In my head, everyone else at that table had earned their place except me. I felt my cover would be blown at any minute and they would ask me to leave.”
But this isn’t only a problem for accomplished professionals; it can strike early in life, too. For example, 18-year-old Don graduated high school at the top of his class and is headed to an Ivy League university in the fall. But he’s scared. “The admissions office made a mistake,” he thinks. “That place isn’t for people like me. I don’t belong there.”
Type #2: “It’s just luck.”
The second type of Impostor Syndrome credits achievements to luck. A close cousin to “It’s just luck,” is “I’m not really smart (or talented, or qualified), I just work hard.”
Take Gerald as an example. He is an investigative reporter for one of the last highly distinguished newspapers. Many of his stories have made national headlines and he’s won many awards for his work. Even with all of this success, he still believes that after every story goes to print, his career will end, and that the stories he stumbles upon are from pure luck. “I was just in the right place at the right time,” he says.
The “I just work hard” variation is especially common among women. For example, Inez is a software engineer at a well-known tech company. Everyone is impressed by her work and she’s received two promotions since she was hired two years ago. However, she works much longer hours than her (all-male) counterparts. “I haven’t been programming since I was 14 like these other guys,” she says. “I wasn’t born to be an engineer. I put in extra hours just to keep up with them all.”
Type #3: “Oh, this old thing?”
In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey gives bombshell Violet a compliment. “Hey, you look good. That’s some dress you got on there.” Violet knows she’s workin’ 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, literally stopping traffic.
Violet is being falsely modest, but in Impostor Syndrome, sufferers truly can’t take a compliment. In the last example of Impostor Syndrome, the recipient of an award or recognition downplays the honor. “I only got a good grade on the test because it was easy.” “That swim meet I won wasn’t really important.” “No one else must have applied; that’s why I got the job.” “I’m not pretty; he’s just saying that to make me feel better.”
How Does Impostor Syndrome Happen?
Impostor Syndrome can develop in a number of ways. Here are three of the most common:
Source #1: You’re so amazing!
Dr. Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford, sheds light on a common parenting mistake. Well-meaning parents often over-praise their kids by showering them with compliments like, “You’re so smart! You’re so pretty!” While these labels are meant to be flattering, they actually 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 change that. 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 decreases their 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.” Individuals who don’t match the majority of a group or culture often feel illegitimate or fake, despite their qualifications and accomplishments.
An absence of a role model or mentor can exacerbate this kind of Impostor Syndrome. For example, being the first in the family to attend college or have a career is an amazing achievement, but can feel like a floundering imitation without an experienced guide. First-generation achievers may feel like they don’t fit in anywhere—they’re 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 awards, being admitted 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.
Nine Ways to Combat Impostor Syndrome
So what's a phony-feeling high achiever to do? Here are nine ways to combat Impostor Syndrome.
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1) Know that the feeling is normal.
Impostor Syndrome is more common than you think. It infects everyone from high school honor students to Nobel Prize winners. It is rarely discussed because each person feels they are keeping a secret. However, whenever someone speaks up about, hundreds more breathe a sigh of relief. “Whew, it’s not just me.”
2) Remind yourself of all that you’ve accomplished.
Be humble, my friends. Find the balance between Impostor Syndrome and egomania. Authentic modesty keeps you real.
Academics keep a curriculum vitae, roughly translated as “life’s work.” More than a resume, it lists 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; these are actual accomplishments you earned.
3) Tell a fan.
Disclose your feelings to a trusted friend, your favorite teacher, or close colleague. Hopefully, you’ll come away with boosted spirits. Warning: change the subject if your friend 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 intimidating environments. If possible, seek out a mentor who matches your gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.
On the other hand, become a mentor. You’ll be surprised how much you know. 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. It is only when we contrast ourselves with true newbies that we gain perspective on our success. Remind yourself how far you’ve come by helping to nurture the next generation.
6) Remember it’s OK not to know what you’re doing.
After any big life event, like going back to school or earning a promotion, there is a steep learning curve of adjustment. Rather than hiding, think of yourself as a “public amateur” or a “boss-in-training”—someone who is learning and gaining expertise in the public eye. As long as you’re enthusiastic about learning, people will cut you appropriate slack.
7) For children, praise effort.
To counteract the mistake of praising traits, as in “You’re so smart!,” praise kids’ effort instead. Compliment kids by saying, “You worked so hard on that!” or “You didn’t give up even when it wasn’t working out.”
8) Expect initial failure.
The author Anne Lamott titles every new work “Sh*tty First Draft.” My neighbor told her child, “Here’s your new bike. You have to fall off at least 10 times before you get good.” Allow yourself similar leeway to mess up at any new beginning.
9) Keep a little Impostor Syndrome in your pocket.
A balancing point exists between Impostor Syndrome and slick, grinning egomania. Authentic modesty keeps you real.
So there we have it: Nine things you can do to fight the effects of Impostor Syndrome. And always remember, you’re not alone. Simply remember the words of Tina Fey, a self-described impostor: “Everyone else is an impostor, too.”