Imposter Syndrome 101

 "I have written eleven books, but each time I think, 'uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.' "   

- Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou

The fear Maya Angelou expresses above is one I’ve heard shared by many high achieving people -- that they will at some point be discovered to be a fake or a fraud.  There is a label for this belief pattern: Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome was first identified by researchers Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes as part of their study of high achieving women in the late 1970s. Drs. Clance and Imes described a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” They found that often their subjects would attribute their professional success to factors like luck, or timing, or an ability to deceive others, and that they often feared being found out to be not as competent as others believed.

Many of the people I see in my practice express these beliefs, which is not surprising when you consider that Imposter Syndrome is quite common, particularly among high-achievers.  My former employer, Google, started tracking the phenomenon a number of years ago in their annual employee survey and found that about 40% of Google employees showed signs of Imposter Syndrome beliefs and that 70% of Googlers have them at some point during their careers.

The odds are that you or someone close to you has had Imposter Syndrome fears.

What are some common signs of Imposter Syndrome?

  • Overworking to ensure nothing at all is dropped or missed, leaving no room for potential criticism.

  • Constantly battling anxiety over being compared to others.

  • Purposefully staying out of the spotlight and reaching only for safe successes rather than continuing to seek challenges.

Those afflicted with imposter fears typically work hard to impress or avoid being a target and are never really able to trust feedback from others … or trust their skills … or trust their right to have a learning curve … or trust their place in an organization.  When I initially utter the phrase “Imposter Syndrome” to clients I often get an “aha!” recognition of a lonely, fearful place inside of them that wonders when they’ll be found out.  Many of these clients had never before shared these fears.  

So how can we work to manage or heal Imposter Syndrome?

Talk About It

It turns out that talking about Imposter Syndrome is one of the most effective ways to treat it.  Feelings and fears can get normalized and lose their power when we air them out.  That’s why Google encourages bosses to talk about Imposter Syndrome with their teams.  Tina Fey, Tom Hanks, Sonia Sotomayor and Sheryl Sandberg have all talked publicly about having Imposter Syndrome beliefs.  Imposter Syndrome doesn’t have to limit your success.  Talking about it can help manage the anxiety that accompanies it.

Trust that it’s Not Permanent

It can help to view Imposter Syndrome as situational and not permanent.  When those feelings come up they can even be viewed as a sign that you are doing some hard things -- like working at a high-flying company or in a school program with sharp classmates. Viewed this way, imposter feelings might be a sign that you are on the right track. You may even come to welcome these feelings as part of healthy risk taking and positive growth.  One of the initial researchers, Clance, later said she wished it had been called Imposter “Experience” rather than “Syndrome,” to reflect that such fears are extremely common and often transitory, and reflect the natural vulnerability of finding ourselves in a challenging environment.

Focus on Your Value

If you struggle with these fears, you can also try to focus on the value you bring, rather than on comparing yourself to others or to some mythical perfect standard.  

We too often take credit for our failures.  

We need to take credit for our successes, too.  

Acknowledge and celebrate what you bring -- not on whether you’ve reached perfection or might favorably compare to some other person.

Bottom Line: You don’t have to let doubt dictate your choices.  Tom Hanks discussed doubting his own abilities when he described his imposter fears as “a high wire act we all walk.”  If imposter fears invade your thoughts you can recognize and make peace with these natural, common feelings as you continue to take on new challenges.

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Suggested Exercise: If Imposter Syndrome seems to describe your fears or the fears of someone you care about it can help to talk about them.  How might they be an encouraging reflection of the hard things you or another might be doing (e.g. “leaning in”)?  You can remind yourself that you belong there, and view those feelings as transitory and as the natural accompaniment of doing hard things.  You can congratulate yourself for being on the right track when they surface.  It's hard work but I’ve seen clients with imposter fears learn to manage these natural feelings and invite in more and more challenges.