What Is Imposter Syndrome, Anyway?

Photo: Tijana Kafadar / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm

For most of my life, I’ve been a “try-hard.” In high school, I was a varsity student-athlete with a 4.0 GPA and held various jobs in between studying and training. It was overkill, and I knew it — still, I told myself the stress would be worth it to get into university. Once I arrived on campus, though, the anxiety remained. I was able to somewhat keep up in classes, but despite having fewer commitments, I was getting less sleep, staying in the resident lounge until 4 a.m. working on essays and subsisting on bagels and burnt dining-hall coffee. Everyone around me came off cooler, smarter, and better at working than me. It seemed like any day the registrar would call to tell me it had all been a mistake.

Not until I graduated did it occur to me that I had been experiencing imposter syndrome for years, and that I’m far from the only one who’s ever felt this way. Indeed, imposter syndrome affects lots of people, including CEOs and celebrities. Left unchecked, however, it can be a detriment to professional development and mental health. We spoke with Melody Wilding, an executive coach and licensed social worker, to discuss the many ways imposter syndrome manifests and some of the best ways to fight it.

What is imposter syndrome?

The term imposter phenomenon was introduced in a 1978 study by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes to describe high-achieving women who believed themselves to be incompetent and unaccomplished — despite having quantifiable achievements and accolades. Today, imposter syndrome is understood to be more pervasive, as 70 percent of people will experience at least one instance of imposter feelings in their lifetime.

“It’s really a self-belief that you don’t deserve or couldn’t replicate your success,” Wilding says. “So despite very obvious evidence that you are competent and capable, like getting your job in the first place, you still don’t believe you’re good enough. And specifically you think you’re going to be exposed and found out as a fraud or a fake.”

According to Wilding, those experiencing imposter feelings might:

  • Feel like their successes were achieved by luck rather than their own competence or work.
  • Find it difficult to internalize their past successes and achievements.
  • Have an acute fear of failure.
  • Fear that their peers will expose them as a fraud.
  • Avoid feedback or always seek out negative feedback even if you’re performing well.
  • Will overcompensate by overworking to avoid being “found out” as a fraud.
  • Have trouble accepting praise.

While imposter syndrome affects nearly everyone, certain people might experience these feelings more acutely. Wilding says that gender stereotypes can make women more susceptible to imposter syndrome, especially in fields like STEM, where women are often outnumbered by men. Race can also be a factor: Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin found that imposter feelings in students of color can act in tandem with perceived racial discrimination, leading them to more acutely feel like they don’t belong when they are in a minority.

Wilding says that highly competitive work environments or work transitions can also breed imposter feelings. When the stakes feel high or you’re new, you’re more vulnerable to comparing yourself to others or feeling unqualified to lead. She says many of her clients seek her help after receiving promotions. “Moving up into more responsibility or a leadership role triggers a lot of those fraudy feelings of Who am I to do this, can I do this, am I smart enough, what if they figure out that I have no idea what I’m talking about?

Imposter feelings are normal, but if they persist, they can hurt you in the long run. Wilding says that one of the most important negative side effects is low self-confidence, which can lead to depression, anxiety, and exhaustion. “A lot of times with imposter syndrome, people will overcompensate with overperforming to the point where they really almost hurt themselves, damage themselves physically. Because they’re trying to compensate for that or kind of keep up with this image that they think they have to project.”

Imposter syndrome is very common. Photo: Fanatic Studio/Gary Waters/Getty Images/Science Photo Library

Thankfully, there are many accessible tips and strategies you can use to overcome imposter syndrome. Wilding shared some of her favorites with us below.

How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Make a Brag File
Wilding recommends keeping a file to remind yourself of your accomplishments and successes. It can be a folder of projects you’ve worked on, an in-box folder of emails from satisfied clients, or a journal for jotting down the high points of each day. “It’s good for a few reasons. No. 1, because it starts to rewire your brain to focus on what is working, and not so much on what isn’t working. And No. 2 is that it actually comes in handy for performance reviews and meetings with your boss.”

You can also use this when crafting your cover letter and résumé. It’ll be easier to choose projects and work to highlight when you have a readily available list of them.

Practice Saying Thank You

When someone compliments your work, say thank you! Wilding says her clients will often explain away their achievements or successes, which can feed into feelings that they’re only in their role due to luck instead of their own work and talent. She recommends practicing saying thanks in several succinct variations like, “Thank you, that means so much to me,” and “Thank you, I’m glad you noticed.”

Talk About It

Part of what makes imposter syndrome so isolating is that it makes you feel like you’re the only one that feels this way. When I was in school, it felt like everyone around me had it all together and that I was the only one struggling. Looking back, my friends and I laugh because we all felt like we were drowning, even if our Instagram accounts or GPAs indicated otherwise. Learning to talk about imposter syndrome with friends, peers, or mentors can help you remember that most people will experience imposter feelings in their lifetime. Wilding suggests finding someone you trust to help make these vulnerable conversations more comfortable and assuring.

“It’s very cathartic for people and it’s very normalizing that everyone goes through this,” she says. “Nothing is broken about you if you’re experiencing this.”

Reframe Your Self-Talk

When you experience imposter feelings, it can be easy to fall into a pattern of negative self-talk or overgeneralizing. “I made a mistake in this presentation” turns into “I can’t do anything right” rather than something constructive. “If you can start to catch and start to familiarize yourself with some of the most common patterns are, you can catch yourself and pull yourself out of them much faster,” Wilding says. “Reframing is all about telling yourself a more helpful story.”

If something doesn’t pan out the way you planned, Wilding suggests thinking of what you can learn from the experience instead of focusing on what went wrong. “When have I handled something like this before? And how did I respond in a constructive way? What thought would move me closer to my goals?”

Mentor Others

If your job or school has opportunities for you to mentor someone junior than you, it may help combat feelings of inadequacy and imposter phenomenon. Teaching someone else not only reinforces the fact that you know what you’re doing, but also gives you the opportunity to help someone who might be struggling with imposter feelings of their own.

“You also start to realize that there are other people earlier in their journey who are experiencing this exact same thing as well,” Wilding says.

What Is Imposter Syndrome, Anyway?