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Imposter Syndrome

What do Maya Angelou, Serena Williams, Tina Fey and Tom Hanks have in common? All have struggled with Imposter Syndrome at one time or another.

What is Imposter Syndrome? In general, it is feeling that you don’t deserve the success that you have earned. Often people struggling with it will

worry that it is only a matter of time before others find out they are a fraud.

Imposter Syndrome Origins: The term first gained popularity in a 1978 paper by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes who hypothesized that high achieving women are more likely to experience this phenomenon. Over the years, additional research has shown that both women and men can feel like an imposter. However, there is some evidence that it does impact women and people of color slightly more often than their white, male counterparts.

Types of Imposters: In The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women by Valerie Young, the author categorizes 5 types of Imposter Syndrome sufferers.

1. Perfectionists feel like a failure with even the smallest of mistakes.

2. Experts want to know every piece of information first to confidently answer questions.

3. Natural Geniuses expect everything to come easily to them and it when it doesn’t they feel like a fraud.

4. Soloists feel that everything is on their shoulders and asking for help is a failure.

5. Supermen/Superwomen have a strong desire to be achieving more than those around them to show their worth.

Where does Imposter Syndrome come from?

The short answer is that it is not directly correlated to any one thing. Instead, it is more likely that several key factors can lead to it. For example, having certain personality traits such as anxiety and neuroticism can be factors. Or growing up in a family with perfectionist parents where certain levels of performance were expected. As well as environmental factors such as choice of schools, friends and location of one’s home can impact a person’s susceptibility for developing Imposter Syndrome.


It is possible to overcome Imposter Syndrome but it does take a level of commitment and diligence to do so. While working with a professional can be a good idea if you are struggling with it, here are some ideas you can try on your own.

  • Treat Yourself Like a Friend: This is a tool that works for many other concerns as well, such as developing self-compassion. To use it, simply imagine that a friend was telling you the things you feel like an imposter about. Would you shame them or tell them they are a fraud? Most likely not. You are more likely to offer encouraging words and help remind them of their achievements. Take that same kindness and apply it to yourself.

  • Write Down Your Accomplishments: Our brains are designed to use different parts depending on what activity is happening. As a result, thinking something, writing it or saying it out loud will actually change the way your brain processes that information. So, start by making a list of your accomplishments. Then say that list out loud. Take a moment to reflect on the list, how it felt to hear them versus read them and finally, refer back to the list if you are having an impostor syndrome moment.

  • Celebrate Milestones, Big and Small: In our society, many times, even when celebrating an achievement, we or well-meaning loved one will ask what is next for you. While it might seem small, these comments over time lead people to believe that what they did accomplish was not enough. That they have to be working immediately towards the next thing rather than enjoying their current accomplishment. Next time you accomplish something, give yourself permission to appreciate and really notice it. How do you feel in this moment? Reflect on the effort it took to get you there. Think about all the smaller milestones along the way that got you to this point. Let it all soak in. If others try to refocus you to what is next, try saying something like, “Right now I am focused on celebrating the hard work that went into getting here.” And then do just that.

  • Stop Comparing Yourself to Others: People do this all the time. In the world of social media where the art of promoting oneself has taken on a whole new dimension, people forget that even those who look like everything is going well can also be struggling with issues. Our images online are mostly a small snapshot of our lives rather than a wholistic view of ourselves. Nevertheless, people constantly compare or downplay their own achievements to others. “This person as a better job than me,” or “they make more money than me” or even “I should have gone a different way in my career like that person did.” If this is happening to you, take a step back from social media or from relationships that make you feel less than until you feel more confident in yourself and your accomplishments to re-engage. Try some of the other items mentioned above to stop the cycle from repeating.

These are some strategies for flipping the script on Imposter Syndrome. If they don’t work or you find that Imposter Syndrome is getting in your way, reach out to a coach or a therapist to get more support and develop targeted strategies for dealing with your own inner critic.

Kealy is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in CA as well as a Leadership, Career and Communication Coach. She works often with individuals who are struggling with Imposter Syndrome and Perfectionism in both her therapy and coaching practices. Additionally she has been helping leaders since 2005 to develop their communication and leadership skillsets.

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