Imposter Syndrome: the internal struggle of high achievers

Imposter syndrome is the sneaking suspicion that you’re a fake or fraud, despite evidence that you are competent and accomplished. You may doubt your capabilities, undermine your expertise, and attribute your success to luck. «If I can do it, anyone can and I give the impression that I’m smarter than I really am» — are just a few examples of thoughts related to imposter syndrome. Let's see how can we deal with it.

It was defined as «Inability to internally accept your achievements» by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who discovered this phenomenon in 1978 while working with businesswomen. Despite their success, many of them displayed a typical set of symptoms:
  • Doubting their professional suitability;
  • Believing they are undeserving of their status;
  • Thinking their success is due to luck rather than talent and hard work;
  • Feeling like frauds who might be exposed if they make a mistake.
Initially, it was believed that Impostor Syndrome was characteristic only of women and members of social groups subjected to direct or indirect discrimination. But it turned out that the problem is much broader. Successful men like efficiency guru Tim Ferriss and well-known entrepreneur Seth Godin are also familiar with it. Hollywood star Tom Hanks has most accurately nailed the essence of the problem: «No matter what you achieve, there comes a moment when you start thinking: someday everyone will surely realize that you’ve just been fooling them, and they will take everything away from you." And even Steve Jobs admitted: «You pretend you know what you're doing, but you're always afraid you'll be exposed».

Why is Impostor Syndrome Dangerous?

The syndrome manifests cyclically: you take on a task and immediately start doubting that you can’t complete it —> you fear exposure —> you work yourself to exhaustion to avoid failure —> whether you succeed or not. The result changes nothing because the next time the entire sequence repeats, causing harm at each stage of the cycle. During the anxiety phase you may have psychosomatic symptoms, sleep disorders, panic attacks. During the workload phase — burnout, physical, and mental fatigue. In the end — the risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders, low self-esteem. Research shows that in the long term, Impostor Syndrome hinders career growth and leadership qualities, creating a sense of incapability for creativity and innovation.

Why Does Impostor Syndrome Arise?

I am not a real writer; I am just deceiving myself and others," wrote in his diary Pulitzer and Nobel laureate, and classic of American literature John Steinbeck. Harsh competition, discrimination, an unhealthy work environment — these are just external reasons for Impostor Syndrome. More important are the internal ones. According to one version, it is primarily childhood experience and upbringing. If your parents were too demanding of you, and your siblings outperformed you in achievements, you internalize the stereotype: to be loved, I need to constantly prove my worth. But many who suffer from Impostor Syndrome, like Steinbeck, had a happy childhood.
There is another theory: Impostor Syndrome might just be a specific mental state to which we are all inclined. This idea is supported by a scientific fact noted by social psychologist Amy Cuddy. The brain simply lacks the resources to combine self-monitoring with full concentration on a difficult task. Normally, performing a task should be engaging, ideally causing a state of flow, but if you turn on self-criticism too early, it slows down the creative process, and you start feeling incapable of anything.
Melody Wilding, author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work, says the group that may be impacted the most by IS are those she calls “sensitive strivers,” empathetic, driven individuals who often put a lot of career pressure on themselves. Sensitive Strivers are high achievers who are also more attuned to their emotions, the world, and the behavior of those around them. Many are former star students who bring that same dedication, reliability, and ambition into the workplace. But while many Sensitive Strivers rise quickly in their careers, they often face a daily battle with stress, anxiety, and self-doubt.

How to Stop Feeling Like an Impostor?

Although Impostor Syndrome sounds like a medical term, it is not officially recognized as a mental disorder. It is a specific perception pattern that requires not treatment but correction. Here are six universal strategies that allow what Impostor Syndrome expert Valerie Young calls a "reframing of self-perception."

1) Reframe your thinking

Tim Ferriss, an efficiency guru and author of "The 4-Hour Workweek," recommends reframing how you approach tasks and challenges. Instead of seeing them as tests of your worth or competence, view them as opportunities to learn and grow. Rather than viewing your lack of knowledge as a reflection of your incompetence, you see it as an opportunity for growth. You remind yourself that every expert was once a beginner and that mastery comes through experience and learning. With this mindset, you approach the project with curiosity and a willingness to learn. You break down the task into smaller, manageable steps and seek out resources to help you understand the new technology. You enlist the support of your team members, leveraging their expertise and collaborating to overcome challenges. Along the way, you celebrate small victories and milestones, recognizing each step forward as progress.

2) Embrace your inner beginner

Neil Gaiman, a celebrated author known for works like "American Gods," suggests thinking of yourself not as an impostor but as a beginner, even if you have a wealth of experience. Every task presents an opportunity to learn something new. By adopting this mindset, you can embrace challenges with a sense of curiosity and growth.
Imagine that you're asked to speak at a conference on a topic outside your usual expertise. Initially, you feel anxious about your lack of familiarity with the subject matter. However, inspired by Neil Gaiman's advice, you approach the opportunity with the mindset of a beginner. You dive into research, immersing yourself in books, articles, and online resources to gain a basic understanding of the topic. Along the way, you remind yourself that it's okay not to have all the answers and that learning is a continuous process. As you prepare for the conference, you focus on sharing what you've learned and engaging with the audience, rather than dwelling on your perceived shortcomings.

3) Treat Impostor syndrome as a sign of success

Kate Housy, a coach specializing in personal development, offers a unique perspective on Impostor Syndrome. She advises people to view it as a positive indicator of their achievements. Feeling like an impostor may signify that your accomplishments are significant and worthy of recognition. By reframing Impostor Syndrome in this way, you can cultivate a healthier relationship with success. If you're offered a promotion at work, but instead of feeling excited, you're plagued by self-doubt. Despite your years of experience and accomplishments, you can't shake the feeling that you're not qualified for the role. However, remembering Kate Housy's advice, you recognize these feelings as a sign of your success.
You acknowledge that it's natural to feel apprehensive when stepping into a new role or taking on greater responsibilities. Rather than letting Impostor Syndrome hold you back, you use it as motivation to continue challenging yourself and striving for excellence. With this mindset, you accept the promotion with confidence, knowing that your achievements have prepared you for success.

4) Mind how you talk to yourself

Melody Wilding, author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work, says that how you talk to yourself matters, and imposter syndrome—feeling like you’re incompetent, or a fake and a fraud—can be one of the biggest blockers to pursuing what’s right for you. You can start changing your inner dialogue and how you speak to yourself this very minute.
Imposter syndrome —> Giving yourself permission sounds like sounds like:
I have no idea what I’m doing —> I’ll go for it and see what happens.
I need to do things correctly —> I I can find a way that works for me.
I have to wait for the perfect timing —> I know I’ll never be 100 percent ready, and I have to act anyway.
I have to make sure it’s okay before proceeding —> I’ll move ahead with my plan unless otherwise specified.
I’ll look like I don’t know what I’m doing —> I won’t know everything, so it’s wise to ask for help when I need it.
I have to work hard at all times to prove I’m good enough —> I value that the things that come easy to me are my strengths.
I always need to be doing more —> I can do less, but better»

5) Remember: real impostors don’t suffer from impostor syndrome.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff, founder of Ness Labs and a PhD researcher investigating the Neuroscience of Education at King's College London, points out that people who don’t have imposter syndrome might have reason to question their competence. This is due to the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias in which people mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. It’s basically being ignorant of your own ignorance. She quotes Jessica Collett, Professor of Sociology: «If people don’t feel at all like frauds and they feel they know exactly what they’re doing, it turns out, they don’t know enough to know how little they know.” There is evidence suggesting that imposter syndrome correlates with success and that high levels of self-confidence may not correlate with actual abilities.