Dealing with Imposter Syndrome


The concept of “imposter syndrome” was first covered by two American psychologists in 1978, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. Writing in the journal Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, they described imposter syndrome as the feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” They say these people “are highly motivated to achieve,” but also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds” [1].

Clance and Imes first chose to look into the concept upon noticing that the female students in their class were full of doubt regarding their abilities. After conducting interviews with 150 women, a combination of students and professionals, many of whom were objectively successful, they found that “despite their earned degrees, scholastic honours, high achievement on standardised tests, praise and professional recognition from colleagues and respected authorities, these women do not experience an internal sense of success. They consider themselves to be ‘impostors’” [2].

While initial thinking was that this was a uniquely female problem, subsequent studies have shown that “if surveys are anonymous, there are similar levels of these symptoms between men and women. The difference is that men can find it more difficult to talk about these feelings”, according to Dr Jon van Niekerk, group clinical director at Cygnet Health Care [3].

Causes and effects

There is no obvious cause for imposter’s syndrome, nothing so simple as ‘Thing A’ happened, causing ‘Thing B’. But that’s not to say people haven’t tried to track its origins.

Australian academic and expert on self-management Hugh Kearns, who has been researching the phenomenon for more than 20 years, says the feelings associated with imposter syndrome often have their origins in childhood experiences [4]. Whether it’s being told you’re perfect, being made to fear failure, or even made to fear success, these experiences can set children off on a negative path – one from which it is hard to break free.

“For imposters, making mistakes is bad, very bad. It is the time when you risk being exposed,” Kearns says. “So somewhere along the line, you picked up the belief that mistakes are not OK and, since mistakes are a part of life, you have a problem and feel like an imposter.”

Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, says that at its core imposter syndrome relies on “feelings of self-doubt sparking fears of being ‘exposed’ as a fraud, or diminishing genuine achievements and attributing them to luck rather than skill” [5].

In theory, these can sound like positive traits – acknowledging the role of fortune and circumstance in success is taken as a sign of humility, and generally considered preferable to someone claiming they did it all on their own.

Writing in the New York Times, Carl Richards says that the problems really emerge once humility – a healthy and valued trait – crosses the line into paralysing fear. He makes an incisive point, too, about why so many talented, successful people may suffer from imposter syndrome [6].

“We often hesitate to believe that what’s natural, maybe even easy for us, can offer any value to the world,” he writes. “In fact, the very act of being really good at something can lead us to discount its value.” We often champion the value of hard work, but it can go unmentioned that there are people for whom certain valued skills just come naturally. If your talent, be it for writing, singing, painting, or sales, comes easily to you, it can be hard to understand why you are being so rewarded with praise and compensation for it. You don’t have to work that hard, and thus don’t feel like you deserve the positive outpourings coming your way.

That’s not to say that one has to be a uniquely talented specialist in their field to suffer from imposter syndrome. Many people who are not generational talents – but are competent, reliable and successful – suffer in a different way. As Dr Elena Touroni notes, for these cases, people’s imposter syndrome often manifests “as overworking to prove one’s worth, delaying tasks due to fear of imperfection, or [undertaking] an unending quest for validation” [7].

Like Room 101, imposter syndrome adjusts itself to each person’s individual worst fears.

Minority impact

Although it has subsequently been shown that imposter syndrome is not a gendered phenomenon, there is something to be said for the way it impacts certain groups differently.

Some researchers, for example, argue that imposter syndrome hits minority groups harder. Lack of representation can make minorities feel like outsiders. And any feeling of “I don’t belong here” is understandably compounded if you are the only person in a group setting who looks the way you do.

Kevin Cokley, a professor of educational psychology and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted a study published in The Journal of Counseling Psychology. His research showed that impostorism can augment discrimination some minority groups may already feel, which adds to their stress. He also found that African-American college students had higher levels of anxiety and discrimination-related depression when they had significant levels of impostorism [8].

Representation is improving, but it would be naive to discount the impact a lack of it has had on feelings of imposter syndrome among minority groups for many years.

Fighting imposter syndrome

We’ve already noted some of the negative effects imposter syndrome can bring about, from overworking and perfectionism to fear of failure or even putting oneself out there, but negative self-talk can be the most restrictive of all.

Negative self-talk doesn’t just debilitate people who are successful but often prevents people from even trying to become successful in the first place. As the “Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology” puts it: “If the person lacks confidence…there will be no action” [9]. If you stop putting yourself forward for roles or tasks you’d like or think you’re well suited for due to fear you’re not good enough, then you’ll never find out.

Breaking out of negative self-talk requires self-confidence.

“Internally, true self-confidence will lead to more positivity, happiness and resilience,” says Charlie Houpert, the author of “Charisma on Command” and the founder of a 2.7-million-subscriber YouTube channel of the same name. “Externally, high self-confidence will lead to taking more risks, which directly correlates with reaping more rewards” [10].

To develop self-confidence and assuage imposter syndrome, one can try a number of techniques.

Writing down

Dr Cokley advises keeping a daily diary and recording every instance of positive feedback you receive.

“Do that over the course of a week or a month and go back and look at all those instances in which you’ve gotten good feedback, where you’ve been told you’ve done a good job and done something well,” he said.

Kearn’s advice is similar. He suggests judging yourself by objective standards by writing down what you would consider a “win” in any scenario prior to commencing your task. If you achieve that goal, be satisfied, and don’t try to move the goalposts after the fact.

Hyper honesty

Houpert suggests being “hyper honest.” That means that if someone asks what you do for hobbies or for a living, you answer honestly, rather than trying to think of the answer they would want to hear.

“When you stop hiding parts of yourself from other people, you’ll find you feel more confident in who you are,” he says.


Exercise is a brilliant way to develop self-confidence, which in turn is a brilliant way to combat imposter syndrome. The American Psychological Association says that exercise can improve your mood and – alongside regular treatment and therapy – help combat depression and anxiety [11].

New clothes

It may sound trivial, but dressing differently works not just in adjusting how other people perceive you but how you perceive yourself. Dr. Adam D. Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School, found that participants in a study who wore a white lab coat exhibited more focused attention than those dressed casually [12]. Dress as the version of yourself you want to be, the one that’s earned their success and is where they belong, see if it doesn’t help.

Understand you’re not alone

Imposter syndrome affects 70% of people in the world [13]. It is entirely normal to feel like you don’t deserve your success or that you’re out of your depth. It doesn’t mean that you are.

Accept these feelings as normal and try to move past them. Letting them hold you back helps no one, yourself least of all. Research suggests that as much as 40% of our happiness is linked to our intentional daily activities and the choices we make. Only 10% is affected by external circumstances and the other 50% is thought to come from our genes [14]. Focus on the 40% you can control, grow your confidence, and make imposter syndrome feel like an imposter for a change.


[1, 2] 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.