Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information to the contrary.  It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.

It is basically feeling that you are not really a successful, competent, and smart, that you are only posing as such.

Some common feelings and thoughts that might characterise the imposter syndrome are: “I feel like a phoney” “My colleagues/manager etc. are going to find out I don’t really belong here,” “The selection panel must have made a mistake”.

The imposter feelings can be divided into three sub categories:

  1. Feeling like a phoney: the belief that you do not deserve your success or professional position and that somehow other have been deceived into thinking otherwise.  This goes together with a fear of being, “found out”, discovered or “unmasked”.  People who feel this way would identify with statements such as: “I can give the impression that I am more competent than I really am.”  “I am often afraid that others will discover how much knowledge I really lack”.
  2. Attributing success to luck: Another aspect of the imposter syndrome is the tendency to attribute success to luck or to other external reasons and not to your own internal abilities.  Someone with such feeling would refer to an achievement by saying, “I just got lucky this time” “it was a fluke” and with fear that they will not be able to succeed the next time.
  3. Discounting success: The third aspect is a tendency to downplay success and discount it. There is also often difficulty accepting compliments.  One with such feelings would discount an achievement by saying, “it’s not such a big deal”, “it was not important.”  One example of this is discounting a career promotion, which is really a big success.  Or saying, “I did well because it is an easy job etc.”

This is not an all or nothing syndrome.  You could probably identify with a few statements but not with others. Some people may identify with imposter feelings in some situations and not in others, or maybe you may not identify with these feelings but have friends who do. 

Who Is Likely To Have The Imposter Syndrome? 

The imposter syndrome is associated with highly achieving, highly successful people.  This makes imposter feelings somewhat different from the concept of “low self-esteem” because there is a discrepancy between the actual achievement and the person’s feelings about the achievement that may not be present in low self-esteem.  People in different professions such as teachers, people in the social sciences, people in academia, actresses and actors, may all have imposter feelings.  

Dealing with Imposter Feelings

If you have imposter feelings it does not mean that you are stuck with it forever. There are steps that you can take to reduce those feelings and to cope with them when they do come up.

  • Support: being able to discuss those feelings with others in order to understand that you are not alone and to get a reality check.  This may be something to discuss with your mentor.
    • Identify those feelings: be aware when you engage in thoughts and feelings of imposter-ness. Awareness is the first step to change.
    • Programmed thoughts: Programmed thoughts can be defined as underlying, unquestioned thoughts, which affect how you perceive an event or situation.  These thoughts are often so embedded that they occur very fast and you may not even notice them…..but they are affecting your perception. An example of a programmed thought related to imposter syndrome would be “I am not good enough.”  This underlying thought may lead to thinking such things as: “Everyone else is smarter than me” or “the selection panel made a mistake.”
    • Do your own reality check: Question these programmed imposter thoughts and feelings and try to come up with more balanced thoughts.
    • Understanding the difference between feelings and reality: Some people tend to believe that if they feel something strongly it must be right. “If I feel so stupid, it must be that I am stupid.” When you catch yourself thinking in this way change it to a coping statement of “the fact that I feel stupid does not mean that I really am.”

Career management can be especially difficult if you doubt your own abilities.

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