Imagine feeling inadequate and incapable of completing a certain task. You could do very well in your classes, have a lot of experience, and maybe even have a degree. But for some reason, you still feel that your success was not a product of your hard work or skills. You feel like a fraud that people are just waiting to expose.
These are typical feelings and thoughts that many people feel as they go through high school and college, and sometimes even beyond. If you have undergone these same thoughts and feelings, then you are not alone. They are typical of someone experiencing imposter syndrome. What is this “imposter syndrome” you may ask? Imposter syndrome, sometimes called the imposter phenomenon, was theorized by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s. It is described to occur “among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success.” These high achievers often believe that their successes occurred as a result of sheer luck, rather than ability (4). They have an innate fear that they are imposters, waiting for somebody to unmask them as the unqualified fraud they believe themselves to be. However, many of these high achievers are actually quite intelligent and successful, contradicting what they believe.
Although this phenomenon is not an official diagnosis, many psychologists recognize it as a real form of self-doubt. In their original paper, The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention, Clance and Imes focused on women and saw how sex-role stereotyping instilled these doubtful thoughts into high-achieving women (1). Many years later, this research has expanded and has found that all genders can experience this phenomenon and those same feelings.
Not only that, but perfectionists seem to be one of the biggest culprits of imposter syndrome. These “imposters” believe that every task they complete needs to be done perfectly in order to prove their worthiness. They rarely ask for help, and as a result, they have two typical responses. One is procrastination, where the person fears that they will not be able to complete the task at a high enough standard, and therefore avoid it. The other is over preparedness, where the person spends much more time on a task than necessary in order to overcompensate for their “lack of skill” (4). Because of these behaviors, they often spend a lot of time on projects and tasks, putting in a lot of hard work. However, they believe their success was from their constant anxiety, continuing the self-destructive cycle.
Imposter syndrome does not have to just apply to an intellectual setting, however. Many people who are born in America and then visit family in other countries tend to feel like a “racial imposter” where they doubt their true racial and cultural identity (2).
Hopefully, in the future, more research is done on this interesting topic, which will possibly allow us to understand more of the science behind self-doubt and ways to remedy it. In the meantime, here are some ways to counteract these imposter feelings (5):
- Focus on your successes and figure out why you truly succeeded.
- Try writing down all of your successes in the past few years, and the skills you used to achieve those accomplishments.
- Utilize feedback to further develop yourself.
- Understanding you’re not perfect is one of the first steps, and getting positive feedback can help you address that it is fine to not be perfect: nobody is!
- Change your habits.
- Rather than obsessing over something for hours, give it to a friend to look at when you only spent a small amount of time on it. Then make corrections, and repeat. Overworking and doubting are habits, and trying to break them is a long, but rewarding process.
- Understand that other people feel this way.
- You are not the only one. Thousands of people feel like imposters, and yet you most likely give other people more credit than yourself. Acknowledge your hard work and accomplishments and don’t discount yourself over others (3).
- Talk it out!
- Talking about it with others is one of the best things you can do. Whether it be a friend, family member, or therapist, talking about your feelings can help you better understand what they mean and how you can resolve them.
Hopefully, these help you doubt yourself a little less and realize that imposter syndrome is a very real psychological problem that can be addressed. Working hard and addressing your hard work takes a mix of introspection and honesty, but it is worth it in the long run. This will help you realize to take off your “mask” and realize that the mask wasn’t even there in the first place.
(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), 241-247. doi:10.1037/h0086006
(2) Donnella, L. (2017, June 08). ‘Racial Impostor Syndrome’: Here Are Your Stories.
(3) Mount, P. (2015, March 05). Imposter Syndrome. Retrieved from
(4) Weir, K. (2018). Imposter Syndrome: American Psychological Association.
Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud.aspx
(5) Wilding, M. (2017, September 12). Why Imposter Syndrome Can Be a Competitive
Advantage. Retrieved from https://www.betterup.co/why-imposter-syndrome-can-