Impostor Syndrome: Why Success Makes You Feel Like A Fraud

Dog with impostor syndrome

I’m just some guy writing this. I was certainly not an English major, and can count the number of papers I wrote in college on one hand. Nor am I a positive psychologist, or a psychologist of any kind for that matter. I’m not a doctor, nutritionist, or otherwise accredited as a health expert. I haven’t had some crazy unique life experience that has provided me with a universal insight into happiness, life, health, etc. I’m just some dude who happens to be fascinated by these subjects.

So why the hell are you people even listening to me? Somehow, this little site has managed to snag over 800,000 page views in its lifetime, and will cross a million just a few months into 2016. My writing has even been featured in a book, for Christ’s sake! While I can certainly recognize that this is impressive, it often feels to me more like I am a fraud. What have I done to trick Google into sending me all of you people?

As it turns out, this kind of insecurity is so common and pervasive that it has been given a name: impostor syndrome, or the impostor phenomenon. Impostor syndrome happens among those (typically high-achieving individuals, but not exclusively) who have difficulty accepting and internalizing their own success. The result is a fear or anxiety about being “found out” as a fraud. In the minds of the “impostor”, their accomplishments are due to luck or external factors, rather than their own abilities and efforts.

Many people feel this way. And most of those whom suffer from the impostor syndrome have no idea how common it is. In fact, it appears to be endemic among young professors and teachers, librarians (for some reason), women in leadership positions or in scientific/computing fields, high-achievers in general, and minorities (due in part to affirmative action). Quite a few famous and rather successful individuals have suffered from impostor syndrome, including Emma Watson, Sonia Sotomayor, Tina Fey, Maya Angelou, Tom Hanks, Don Cheadle, Sheryl Sandberg, and Kate Winslet. In fact, some researchers believe that upwards of 70% of people have experienced it.

 

What Is Impostor Syndrome?

Let me begin by saying that impostor syndrome is not a “mental illness.” More accurately, the term “impostor syndrome” describes a set of common behaviors, traits, or reactions to certain types of situations. In other words, it is more of a coping strategy than anything else….and a poor one, at that. To better understand the impostor phenomenon, let’s take a look at a literature review by Sakulku and Alexander (2011).

One of the more interesting concepts is the Impostor Cycle. Read this over and see if you can relate:

“The Impostor Cycle starts when an achievement-related task, such as school work or vocational task is assigned. Individuals with trait impostor fears are bothered by anxiety-related symptoms (e.g., Chrisman et al., 1995; Clance & Imes, 1978; Thompson et al., 2000). They may react to this anxiety either by extreme overpreparation, or initial procrastination followed by frenzied preparation (Thompson et al., 2000). Following task completion, there is an initial sense of relief and accomplishment, but those good feelings do not persist. Although Impostors may receive positive feedback about their successful accomplishment of the task, Impostors deny their success is related to their own ability. They reject positive messages about their personal contribution because those messages are incongruent with their perception of their mechanics of success (Casselman, 1991). If Impostors have over-prepared, they believe that their success is due to hard work. Those who initially procrastinate, likely attribute their success to luck. Impostors also hold fixed beliefs that accomplishment through hard work does not reflect true or real ability (Clance, 1985). The combination of Impostors‟ beliefs about the mechanics of success and their perceptions of the key contribution of effort or luck influencing their success on a particular task reinforces the Impostor Cycle. When facing a new achievement-related task, self-doubt creates a high level of anxiety, and the Impostor Cycle is repeated.”

From that description, we can already see that the impostor syndrome comes in a few different flavors. There are the “I just got lucky” and the “I’m not smart/talented, I just work hard” varieties. There’s also the “I’m a fake/fraud” variety. In each of these cases, those with impostor syndrome will downplay or be very uncomfortable accepting compliments. Comedian Amy Schumer captures this perfectly (foul language warning).

Those with impostor syndrome hold incredibly high standards for themselves, and expect that everything they do will be done flawlessly. They realize that, while perhaps talented themselves, there are many exceptional people and their own talents or skills do not set them apart from the rest. Because of this, those with impostor syndrome will often simply dismiss their own talents and consider themselves a failure when they are merely not the best.

“Impostors disregard their success if there is any gap between their actual performance and their ideal standard, which contributes to discounting of positive feedback. Since Impostors are high achievers who also “make unreasonably low assessments of their performance” (Want & Kleitman, 2006, p. 969), the repetitions of success emphasise [sic] the discrepancy between their actual and ideal standards of success as well as strengthening the feeling of being a fraud or an impostor.”

“They not only discount positive feedback and objective evidence of success but also focus on evidence or develop arguments to prove that they do not deserve praise or credit for particular achievements (Clance, 1985). The Impostor Phenomenon is not a display of false modesty.”

Unsurprisingly, this results in feelings of fear and inadequacy.

“For Impostors, success does not mean happiness. Impostors often experience fear, stress, self-doubt, and feel uncomfortable with their achievements. Impostor fears interfere with a person’s ability to accept and enjoy their abilities and achievements, and have a negative impact on their psychological well-being. When facing an achievement-related task, Impostors often experience uncontrollable anxiety due to their fear of failure. Burnout, emotional exhaustion, loss of intrinsic motivation, poor achievement, including guilt and shame about success are reinforced by repetitions of the Impostor Cycle (Chrisman et al., 1995; Clance, 1985; Clance & Imes, 1978). The perfectionistic expectations of Impostors also contribute to the feeling of inadequacy, increasing levels of distress, and depression when Impostors perceive that they are unable to meet the standards they set for themselves or expectations from family and people around them. Clinical observations by Clance (1985) revealed that high levels of anxiety, depression, and general dissatisfaction with life are common concerns that motivate Impostors to seek professional help.”

It is quite likely that your family life and how you grew up would impact the likelihood of you suffering from impostor syndrome. While the empirical evidence backing up the following assertions about family life is unclear, they seem plausible.

“Clance (1985) suggested four general characteristics of the family that contribute to the perpetuation of the Impostor Phenomenon from many of her patients‟ developmental histories: (1) the perception of Impostors that their talents are atypical compared with family members, (2) family messages that convey the importance of intellectual abilities and that success requires little effort, (3) discrepancy between feedback about Impostors’ abilities and success derived from family and other sources, and (4) lack of positive reinforcement.”

I also suspect that many of those who suffer from impostor syndrome have been high achievers their whole lives, and are very used to the process of comparing themselves with others. But when you compare yourself to the wrong people, you then start to feel inferior. And as you reach a higher and higher level (graduate school, promotions, etc.), your additional success only further “proves” how much of an impostor you are. Each step up puts you in contact with people who you might further struggle to compare yourself with.

“Fear and guilt about success in Impostors is related to the negative consequences of their success. For example, when their successes are unusual in their family or their peers, Impostors often feel less connected and more distant. They are overwhelmed by guilt about being different (Clance, 1985) and worry about being rejected by others. Apart from having a fear of atypical success leading to rejection, Impostors are also frightened that their success may lead to higher demands and greater expectations from people around them. Impostors feel uncertain about their ability to maintain their current level of performance and are reluctant to accept additional responsibility (Clance, 1985). They worry that higher demands or expectations may reveal their intellectual phoniness.”

As you can imagine, the impostor syndrome could be particularly nefarious in professional settings. Vergauwe et al (2014) set out to explore this impact further. They found that those with impostor syndrome are less likely to engage in useful tasks outside of their job description, such as helping someone else out with their work. These kind of tasks fall into what the researchers call organizational citizenship behavior, or OCB.

“…it can be argued that due to the fear of being exposed, impostors can become so engaged in their own tasks and performance that there remains less energy for tasks that are not part of their job description. Presuming that high personal achievement is the ultimate cover for their self-perceived fraudulence, and that personal resources are restricted, we expect impostors to be less inclined to engage in OCB.”

Those with impostor syndrome also tend to be less satisfied with their jobs – but due to feelings of incompetence, they are less likely to seek out other work.

“…employees with strong IP [impostor phenomenon] tendencies (i) are rather dissatisfied with their jobs, (ii) report less OCB, and (iii) express a stronger intention to stay in the organization because the monetary, social, and psychological costs associated with leaving the organization are perceived as too high. Consistent with our expectations, we found that the constant fear of being exposed as incompetent along with the reoccurring feelings of anxiety and self-doubt are also reflected in lower levels of overall job satisfaction.”

On the plus side, the perception of social support does help mediate these negative work-related outcomes.

“Our results indicated that, to a certain extent, social support can indeed act as a buffering variable in these relationships. We specifically found that, when social support is high, the negative relationships between impostor tendencies and satisfaction and OCB disappear. This suggests that perceptions of strong workplace social support could be the key to temper some of the negative effects of impostorism. We support Whitman and Shanine’s (2012) proposition that this buffering effect could be due to the more adaptive coping mechanisms impostors use in case of a high social support perception.”

This result will be instructive when attempting to rid yourself of impostor syndrome in your personal life.

 

How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome

While there may not be an effective self-help video called “Get Confident, Stupid” that will work here, the suggestions in this section ought to help. One thing to keep in mind is that, while it is certainly important that you stop feeling like a fraud, it is arguably much more important whether or not you will allow that feeling to prevent you from taking an action that you otherwise would and should have taken. Carl Richards, writing for the New York Times, summed this up nicely (hat tip to my friend Dan for pointing me to this article):

“We know what the feeling is called. We know others suffer from it. We know a little bit about why we feel this way. And we now know how to handle it: Invite it in and remind ourselves why it’s here and what it means.

For me, even after six years of sharing these simple sketches with the world and speaking all over the world, you think I’d be used to it. In fact, the impostor syndrome has not gone away, but I’ve learned to think of it as a friend. So now when I start to hear that voice in my head, I take a deep breath, pause for a minute, put a smile on my face and say, “Welcome back old friend. I’m glad you’re here. Now, let’s get to work.””

If you’ve made it this far in the post, you’ve already done what is by far the best thing you can do to reign in your impostor syndrome: recognize that it is ridiculously common, and you are not alone. You can probably benefit from having a mentor (at work, school, or just in general). Chances are they’ve gone through something similar and can provide both guidance and reassurance.

Prove Your Impostor Syndrome Wrong

In addition to recognizing how common it is to feel what you feel, it helps to deliberately prove yourself wrong. Unfortunately, due to the impostor cycle, simply getting promoted or experiencing certain successes will not provide evidence that you are legitimately qualified, even though it would for someone with a healthier mindset.

But you can at least accept that you had some role in your success. Even if you were lucky to have the opportunities that you did, you also had to take some action that led to your success. Unless that action involved deliberately lying or misrepresenting yourself, it is clear that your action does not make you a fraud. There are plenty of people who have every opportunity that you do, but still fail to achieve things despite these advantages. Luck or not, they didn’t do what you did.

Next, I would encourage you to make a realistic assessment of your abilities. Many high achievers are smart people and sort of wish they were geniuses, but the majority of us are not – rather, we have some areas that we are quite smart, and some areas where we struggle. This is true in areas besides intelligence as well. Write down a list of things you’re truly good at as well as areas where you might need work. There are areas where you are doing well, but there are others where there is legitimate room for improvement.

When doing this assessment, don’t compare yourself with the A-listers and phenoms in your domain. You don’t need to be the best in order to be quite good and provide value to others. And we often compare our weaknesses with other peoples’ strengths, which is totally unfair. You only have access to your own self-doubt, so it is easy to make a very negative comparison with everyone else. You can’t know how they feel. For more on this, see my post Social Comparisons, Biases, and Self-Image.

You should also keep some sort of record of when people say nice things to or about you. You might take positive feedback the wrong way in real-time, but having a page full of positive things people have said can be helpful to look through when you are feeling like a fraud. For instance, I save all of the positive feedback I receive about this blog in a separate folder. Keep in mind that when you deny positive feedback from someone, you are also making a negative claim about that person’s judgment. Rude.

Another great way to prove your impostor syndrome wrong is to teach others or share your expertise. Taking on this kind of role will help you realize that you do in fact have much to offer.

Reframe Your Thoughts

Impostor Syndrome Heart

Besides gathering evidence to prove your impostor syndrome wrong, you should also learn to reframe your thoughts of inadequacy and self-doubt. The impostor syndrome will have you thinking as though you are being “inauthentic.” But what does it even mean to be acting like your “true self”? We all act in different ways to different people in different contexts, and this is not incongruent with acting “authentically.”

The reality is that nobody knows what they are doing. I like to think about this with respect to my parents. We tend to assume that our parents know exactly what they are doing and that, therefore, their behavior in some situation was out of line. But my/your parents are just normal people trying to get by, just like everyone else (unless, of course, they aren’t). You aren’t a fraud, you are just doing your best. Instead of looking at your actions as a life-or-death, out-of-your-league attempt at success, they are just experiments. And instead of relying on your own flawed thoughts about how much or little you deserve the successes you achieve, you can allow the market to determine whether your contribution was valuable to others or not. In other words, if your boss tells you that you did a good job on a project, your experiment succeeded. You might be a perfectionist and think it is unsatisfactory, but “good enough” is often precisely what’s needed.

Remember that when you choose to hold back due to feeling like a fraud, you deny the world the genuine value of what you do. And you probably underestimate what that value is. This quote from Carl Richards can help make it easier to reframe your ideas of how much value you provide:

“When we have a skill or talent that has come naturally we tend to discount its value.

Why is that? Well, we often hesitate to believe that what’s natural, maybe even easy for us, can offer any value to the world. In fact, the very act of being really good at something can lead us to discount its value. But after spending a lot of time fine-tuning our ability, isn’t it sort of the point for our skill to look and feel natural?”

The scenario that you are envisioning as a sign that you are not valuable (or that other people will soon figure out that you aren’t valuable) could be interpreted – probably more accurately – in a different and more useful way. For instance, I often will consider my introversion to be a weakness and a sign that I am not that good, but it is more realistically one of my strengths. It helps give me an attention to detail that perhaps a more extroverted me would not have.

So instead of fighting it, wear your impostor syndrome like a badge of honor. The feeling of being an impostor is a signal that you are doing things right. People who are lazy or truly incompetent don’t worry about feeling like an impostor so much. As philosopher Bertrand Russel said, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

You can allow yourself to enjoy the feeling of being an “impostor.” If people are going to find you out eventually, then why not enjoy your time experimenting with new possibilities people may not have tried? Or just take advantage of the time to learn as much as you possibly can?

 

Conclusion

Accept that there will be times in your life where you are not competent and will need to learn new skills, such as when starting a new job. This is normal and happens to everyone. You aren’t an impostor, you just need to get up to speed.

Some feelings of self-doubt are normal, but you are not a fraud. Nor are you alone.

“But I am very poorly today and feel very stupid and hate everybody and everything. One lives only to make blunders.” – Charles Darwin to Charles Lyell in 1861, one year after “On the Origin of Species”

“I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty to it… If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity…” John Steinbeck, June 18th, 1938, while writing “The Grapes of Wrath”

Comments

  1. Hi Mike

    another great article!
    It’s only 8 am here and thanks to your email, I have just learned something new today.
    I didn’t know that it had even a name: “Impostor Syndrome”.
    I have to admit that I have suffered from this Syndrome in the past. To me it is was just mainly a lack of confidence and insecurity with a good portion of negativity which, with time, I managed to overcome.
    Keep it up the good work!
    Duccio

  2. Absolutely Mikey D- people often say to me about my ‘talents’ with special ed kids, but I am just like, I am just doing my thing- nothing special! Thankyou as always for your insight! lol imposter or not!

  3. Wow…I see the “Imposter Syndrome” in my upper level executive personal training clients quite a bit. And, I have to admit, it described me at one time as well. Awareness and acceptance is needed without a doubt-nobody should live with this type of constant anxiety.

    • Conveniently, simple awareness of the problem is immensely beneficial. It seems to me like this is a low-hanging fruit, one of the easier personal development “fixes” that can be applied.

  4. Absolutely true, I just needed to see that I was stuck in a Loop. action: 🗑, result : not my problem!
    Seriously, I was about starve to death because I couldn’t decide which burger to eat… it can be a seductive ride..

    “this statement is not true” (not actual problem)

    Now I’m starting to feel like I’m at a Mcferrin show… here’s a thought that brings a smile to my face.. UM doing the cover 😎✌

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