Overcoming imposter syndrome

How to stop feeling like a fraud.

By Andrea Robinson, PhD

Ever feel like you somehow lucked into your job, or you aren’t as smart as your colleagues? Well you might be struggling with an issue known as imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity and incompetence despite evidence that you are skilled and successful. The term was first coined by the clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in the 1970s1. Clance and Imes observed that many high-achieving women tended to believe they were inadequate or not competent despite academic and professional accomplishments. Those exhibiting the syndrome were convinced they were frauds, not nearly as bright as others thought they were, and attributed their successes to luck. Impostor syndrome was first observed in successful career women, but it has since been shown to occur in both women and men. I’m sure this is not a surprise to anyone reading this article, but imposter syndrome is especially common among academics and graduate students.

Unfortunately, research is beginning to show how harmful the imposter syndrome can be to our careers. Researchers at the University of Salzburg surveyed over 200 professionals and found those experiencing the syndrome tended to be paid less, were less likely to be promoted and felt less committed and satisfied at work2. Another study involving hundreds of European undergrads found that these imposter feelings can have long-lasting, harmful effects on our careers by undermining career development, including the ability to seek out new job openings and promotions3.

So, what can we do about it? Below are five ways to combat imposter syndrome:

  1. Look at the evidence. We are scientists after all. What sort of goals have you set for yourself? Are you meeting them? Exceeding them? If the evidence suggests that you are doing a great job at work, why can’t you believe it? Put aside the self-doubt and look at the data.
  2. Celebrate your successes. Confident people own their accomplishments. Individuals that suffer from imposter syndrome often think their successes are the result of getting lucky, slipping by, or having outside help. Even if you “got lucky” or had outside help, it was still your success. Own it. Stop feeling guilty or not worthy of your success and celebrate your victories.
  3. Remember, lots of people feel this way. Feeling like a fraud is normal. Imposter syndrome is widespread, but rarely talked about; each person feels like they are keeping a secret. Psychological research done in the early 1980s estimated that 70 percent of all people feel like fakes at one time or another4. In reality, the same people that you fear will expose you as a fraud are probably feeling like an imposter themselves.
  4. Fake it ‘til you make it. Sometimes faking it is okay. If you don’t feel confident, pretend you do; by imitating confidence, competence and an optimistic mindset, you can realize those qualities in your real life.
  5. Stay humble. Suffering from a little bit of impostor syndrome is okay. It keeps you motivated to keep learning and working hard. Just don’t let your self-doubt prevent you from going after a big promotion or enjoying your successes.

1 Clance, P.R., & Imes, S.A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241.

2 Neureiter, M., & Traut-Mattausch, E. (2016). Inspecting the dangers of feeling like a fake: An empirical investigation of the impostor phenomenon in the world of work. Frontiers in psychology, 7.

3 Neureiter, M., & Traut-Mattausch, E. (2017). Two sides of the career resources coin: Career adaptability resources and the impostor phenomenon. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 98, 56-69.

4 Gólman, D. (1984). Therapists Find Many Achievers Feel They're Fakes. New York Times, 11, C1.