Need to know
If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’ve had a thought or two like:
- I have no idea what I’m doing.
- I’m not as competent as they think I am.
- I don’t deserve to be here.
- Any minute I’m going to be outed for the fraud that I am.
These kinds of thoughts are at the heart of the imposter phenomenon – also known as imposterism or ‘imposter syndrome’.
As a clinical psychologist, I’ve known many bright, highly accomplished clients who have downplayed their own competence, despite their achievements. For some, the belief that they are secretly inadequate leads them to avoid opportunities – such as taking on more responsibility at work or applying for a new position – that they would likely find rewarding. Others do the opposite: they ‘go-go-go’ and ‘do-do-do’, hoping that, if they just achieve one more goal, they will eventually outrun their feelings of fraudulence. In the former case, people risk stagnation, even if professional growth is something they value; in the latter, the risk is eventual burnout.
For me, the imposter phenomenon began when I was accepted to a competitive doctoral programme. I remember a mentor in my master’s programme telling me: ‘Now listen, Jill, you’re going to go to Boston and think: Everyone here is smarter than me. They all know more than me. At any minute they’ll all figure out I don’t really belong here.’ And he was right. Not only did I think these things; as far as I was concerned, they were facts. In my mind, I didn’t deserve to be in the programme – my father had previously played golf with the director, and I believed that was why I was given a spot, despite being assured it wasn’t. But I went on to do well in the programme and, since I graduated, have cultivated a successful business, written three books, given a TEDx talk, hosted a popular psychology podcast, and achieved other goals that should (you would think) demonstrate that I need not fret about my deservingness or competence. And yet, sometimes, I still do.
Imposterism can feel lonely: you look at people around you who are accomplishing so much and assume they can’t possibly understand how you feel. That for them to be successful, they must also feel confident. But for so many people, this simply isn’t true.
What is ‘imposter syndrome’?
Originally termed the imposter phenomenon by the US psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 – and then relabelled ‘imposter syndrome’ by others – the experience involves a feeling of phoniness or inadequacy that exists and persists despite evidence to the contrary. If you’ve had this experience, you likely have an inner critic or ‘imposter voice’ – ie, a negative way of thinking about yourself that repeatedly pops up in your consciousness – which questions your legitimacy and perhaps whether you truly belong in your company, your team or another group. You likely believe that others have overestimated your competence, which causes a fear of being ‘found out’.
You may be wondering why I keep putting ‘syndrome’ in quotation marks. The imposter phenomenon is not a disorder or a disease, and research suggests that it is a common experience. What’s more, when Clance and Imes first described the imposter phenomenon, they identified it specifically among high-achieving women. It didn’t take long, in a patriarchal society, for other people to co-opt the concept and pathologise this experience. Women struggling with their confidence came to be described as if they were suffering from some type of disordered psyche – a ‘syndrome’.
What was ignored was the role of organisational and systemic bias. While anyone can experience the imposter phenomenon, people who have a history of marginalisation may be more prone to experiencing it. It makes sense: if you have received the message that people of your description don’t belong at the table – eg, that women don’t belong at tables dominated by men, that people of colour don’t belong at white tables, or that LGBTQIA+ people don’t belong at straight/cis tables, etc – you may be more vulnerable to feeling like an imposter once you arrive there.
Early learning experiences may contribute to the development of imposterism as well. If your parents, teachers, coaches or friends were highly critical of you, you might have developed an ‘I’m not good enough’ story about yourself. Imposter thoughts could be an extension of that, as you worry that the ‘truth’ of your inadequacy will be revealed.
You don’t have to be constrained by imposter fears
The imposter phenomenon can have various costs, some of which I’ve mentioned: burnout, due to working overly hard to prove yourself; missing out on opportunities, due to fears about your competence; even relationship problems due to people-pleasing behaviours, which might be used to compensate for feeling inadequate. All of these issues involve experiential avoidance, or trying to avoid or control difficult feelings.
As you reflect on how the imposter phenomenon might appear in your life, I want you to consider whether the choices you make are in the service of moving away from discomfort, or in the service of moving toward your values – that is, who and how you want to be in the world, and what deeply matters to you. For example, if you take on a new challenge with the aim of personal growth and learning, and those things matter to you, you are moving toward your values. But if you are taking on something just to assuage your fear that you aren’t good enough, and you are missing out on time with family, or recreation, or other things that matter to you, then your choices are in the service of moving away from discomfort, and that experiential avoidance is coming at a cost.
My passion is teaching people how to identify and move toward their values while making space for emotional discomfort. The fancy term for this, psychological flexibility, comes from an evidence-based psychological intervention called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). The goal of ACT is to build psychological flexibility to help people thrive.
Commonly, advice for managing imposterism suggests you need to learn to change negative thoughts into positive ones, build confidence or improve self-esteem. If that works for you, great – go for it. But I have found that these strategies often don’t work and can even backfire. If I were to start listing all your accomplishments to convince you of how great you are and how much you deserve your success, what would happen? How would your mind respond? Mine yells: ‘YEAH, BUT…’ and then lists the ways I’m not good enough.
Trying to control your thoughts and feelings can make them even more persistent. The good news is, you can stop struggling to convince yourself that you’re great. You can stop waiting to feel confident before you take action. Building psychological flexibility allows you to move forward with your goals even when you feel unsure and your mind calls you an imposter.
The alternative to trying to control your thoughts and feelings is to change how you relate to them. In the rest of this Guide, I will teach you how to do just that. Based on my two decades of clinical work and personal practice, I’ll offer some strategies that you can apply right away to start cultivating your own psychological flexibility. As a first step, instead of struggling to control, escape or avoid uncomfortable imposter feelings, you can practise willingness instead.
What to do
Develop a willingness toward difficult feelings
Willingness, also known as acceptance, is the practice of noticing emotions, physical sensations and urges, and allowing them to be as they are. Willingness does not mean giving up or giving in. Rather, it means you are allowing something to be present that is already there anyway. When you are willing to allow discomfort, you greatly broaden your options for choosing behaviours. Take a moment to consider all the things you might be more likely to do if you were willing to do them even if you felt uncomfortable, uncertain, or like an imposter.
When I work with clients, they often grasp what willingness is and the rationale for practising it, but they get stuck on exactly how to practise it. This is my favourite part – where you get to be creative and playful. For example, take a moment right now and either interlace your hands together (as if in prayer) or sit cross-legged in a way that feels comfortable. Now just take a moment to notice how that feels. Next, switch it up a bit, so your fingers shift over one place, or you swap your legs so the opposite leg is now in front. This will feel funny. Notice that. Notice the urge to switch back, but don’t.
See if you can just observe and sit with the discomfort. Use your breath to help – when you inhale, your chest and belly expand, so use this expansion to imagine yourself making space for the discomfort. When you exhale, let go of your resistance. Maybe you let go of tension in your face, shoulders or elsewhere in your body. Importantly, you’re not using exhales to release the discomfort; you’re using them to release the unwillingness to have the discomfort.
You can continue these practices using all your senses. That first one used your sense of touch. You could also listen to music by an artist you don’t care for, or an online audio clip of nails on a chalkboard. You can smell your cat’s litter box in a willing way the next time you change it. You can try a new food you don’t think you’ll like, or retry one that you’re already sure you don’t. My personal favourite way to practise with taste is by playing the game Jelly Belly BeanBoozled, in which you spin a spinner and must eat whatever jelly bean it indicates. That pink-speckled bean could be pomegranate flavoured, or it could be ‘old bandage’.
Engage in some of these practices each day with the aim of changing your relationship to the experience by getting more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Once you’ve strengthened your willingness muscles with these benign, playful practices, you can move up to a higher level of difficulty – like watching a very sad or scary movie, listening to a politician you can’t stand, or riding an intense amusement park ride – so you can work on being willing toward uncomfortable emotions.
When I work with clients, I compare these practices to training for a marathon. If you’re not yet a longdistance runner, you’re not going to head out and run 26.2 miles this weekend: you’re going to train with shorter, easier runs first, and then work your way up to more challenging ones. Eating jelly beans and watching online video clips of sad movies or infuriating people is a way to train. You are deliberately triggering internal discomfort so you can practise relating to it in a new way. As you build this willingness muscle, you can practise opening up to progressively more challenging internal experiences ‘in real life’. For example, a client of mine who had imposter feelings first engaged in the more playful practices, and then ‘graduated’ to working on his résumé, researching new companies, and eventually leaving his stable job for a new position, all behaviours that mattered to him and that he had been avoiding for years.
Unhook from your imposter thoughts
Now that we’ve covered some practices for becoming more open to difficult feelings, I’ll be asking you to think about your thinking. When an imposter thought arises in your mind (eg, I’m incompetent, or I don’t belong here), I want you to start asking yourself: if I listen to this thought and take it seriously, will that move me toward or away from the life I want to live? Of course, when your mind tells you something like Your car payment is due tomorrow, it makes sense to listen and pay the bill so that you can keep driving to be with the people and do the things you care about. But if your mind says that you don’t measure up, that you’re going to be ‘found out’, that’s probably not a useful thought. I want you to get better at deciding whether to listen to your thoughts or not. Too often we react automatically to thoughts without being conscious, deliberate choosers.
It’s easy to get hooked by thoughts and to buy into old, familiar narratives. To help you unhook, you might imagine your thoughts as cartoon thought bubbles floating above your head. This way, you are no longer looking at the world from your thoughts, you are stepping back and looking at your thoughts. You could also imagine your thoughts in the form of a song, or a silly voice, or even type them into an online translator, where you see or listen to them in a language that you don’t speak. These are all ways in which you can learn to take your thoughts less seriously – to see them for what they are, as a collection of images and syllables, not ‘The Truth’. Creating this small space each time that your ‘imposter voice’ shows up offers a new context in which values-driven choices become more available.
An effective way I have found to unhook from my inner imposter voice is to name her. As the psychiatrist and author Dan Siegel has advised with regard to emotions, you have to ‘name it to tame it’. I named the jerk living in my head Sheila (no offence meant if that’s your name – I have nothing against Sheilas!) When I start to get highly self-critical, I take a pause and think something like: OK, Sheila, I hear you. I know you’re just trying to protect me from failure and rejection. But I’ve got this.
Then, I resolve to act in a way that corresponds with my values, rather than backing down to Sheila. If I had listened when this inner voice insisted that I wasn’t a ‘real’ writer, I would never have decided to write a book (let alone three). If I listened when she assured me I didn’t have an idea worth sharing, I would never have started public speaking or agreed to join a podcast. I wouldn’t be doing a lot of the work I love. Sharing psychological flexibility skills with the public matters deeply to me. Detaching from thoughts allows me to proceed with my values-driven mission even when my mind questions whether it’s my place to do so – and it can help you to do the same. In the next step, we’ll think further about how your values can help guide you in this way.
Take stock of your values to help you see past imposterism
Challenging yourself to allow discomfort and unhook from unhelpful thoughts is not easy. So you need to have a why. Your values are your why. Values are how you want to be and what you wish to stand for as you navigate this one life. They represent what truly matters to you. They are what you are doing and how you are doing it when you are living a meaningful life.
There are many things that you might potentially recognise as your most important values: common examples range from authenticity, bravery and dependability, to fairness, kindness and openness. Importantly, values are not feelings. They are things people do and qualities they embody. So, while you can’t simply will yourself to always be calm rather than anxious or angry, you might say: ‘I value treating others with respect, even when I’m feeling anxious or angry.’ In a sense, values are about how you choose to move your hands, your feet and your mouth – the things you can control.
It can feel overwhelming, at first, to figure out your top values if you’re not entirely clear on what they are already. One of my favourite ways to start is to think about writing an epitaph. An epitaph is a brief inscription, typically engraved on a headstone or monument, in memory of a deceased person. If you were to write yours, what would you want it to say about the way you chose to live? Would you want it to say: ‘Here lies [your name], who avoided challenges for fear of being revealed as a fraud’? Or might you prefer it to say something like: ‘Here lies [your name], who embraced challenges despite fear, uncertainty and self-doubt’? Or perhaps: ‘Here lies [your name], who was true to herself’ or ‘who was fair and kind to others’?
You might also think about a values-based tagline for yourself. Taglines are typically meant to represent the values and mission of a brand. The most effective ones are memorable, meaningful (ie, they communicate a benefit), and upbeat or optimistic – like Nike’s ‘Just Do It’. You can develop one or more of your own to represent your personal values and mission. For example, mine might be ‘Work hard; play harder’ or ‘What you see is what you get.’
Think of values like a lighthouse in a storm. If you are a ship on a journey and a thick fog of imposter thoughts and feelings rolls in, you may be tempted to drop anchor and wait for the fog to pass. But as long as you’re waiting, you’re not moving forward with your journey – and let’s face it, the fog may never fully dissipate. A lighthouse offers a beacon (your values) that can guide the way, even in the presence of that fog. So, with your values firmly in mind – and with the help of the techniques for responding to discomfort and unhelpful thoughts that we’ve reviewed – you can decide to go for that promotion or new job, even if you’re not totally sure you fit the bill, or you can write or speak about your ideas, even when your mind says you shouldn’t.
As you begin to approach your imposter thoughts and distressing feelings in a new way, there’s something else I want you to remember. Most of us love a comfort zone – and comfort zones aren’t all bad. But they’re never where the magic happens. If you want to grow, to expand your options for experiencing meaning and vitality, you have to be willing to feel anxiety and self-doubt.
In fact, these feelings can sometimes be a signal, a bright red neon arrow, indicating that you are right where you are meant to be. Because we feel pain only in the places we care about. Check this against your experience: when you are most worried, I bet it has to do with the people or experiences you care about the most. So instead of moving away from discomfort and being bossed around by your imposter voice, try opening up to your feelings instead, detaching from unhelpful thoughts, and making conscious, deliberate decisions to show up as the person you most deeply long to be.
Key points – How to thrive amid ‘imposter syndrome’
- The imposter phenomenon involves feelings of phoniness or inadequacy. If you’re experiencing it, you might question whether you belong in your position or fear that you will be ‘found out’ – regardless of your actual competence.
- You don’t have to be constrained by imposter fears. Yielding to the thoughts and feelings of imposterism can stifle growth. Instead, you can cultivate psychological flexibility and pursue what matters to you, in spite of this experience.
- Develop a willingness toward difficult feelings. To practise with allowing unpleasant feelings – rather than trying to avoid or control them – can help you respond to the discomfort of the imposter phenomenon in more productive ways.
- Unhook from your imposter thoughts. When a self-critical thought pops up, imagine it as something separate from you, and ask whether it helps you move toward or away from the life you want.
- Take stock of your values to help you see past imposterism. After reflecting on which qualities and ways of being matter most to you, use them as a guide when imposter thoughts cloud your decision-making.
Five varieties of the imposter phenomenon
When I have felt like an imposter in a particular area, my tendency has been to immerse myself in learning: reading books, listening to podcasts, taking courses, you name it. I’m ‘the Expert’, as Valerie Young describes it. In her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women (2011), Young writes that people who experience imposterism develop distorted ideas about what is required to demonstrate competence, and that they engage in different sorts of behaviours to prove their own competence and avoid being exposed as a fraud. Young proposes five categories to describe these attempts to prove competence: the Expert, the Perfectionist, the Soloist, the Natural Genius, and the Superhuman.
The Expert believes their competence is measured by how much knowledge, skill and experience they have – and they never feel that they quite have enough. There is always one more degree, course or credential, one more book, article or expert to consult.
The Perfectionist believes that nothing short of perfect is acceptable, and that they must deliver an unblemished performance at all times. Perfectionists are convinced there is a right and wrong way to do everything, and they can sometimes be as critical of others who fail to measure up to their high standards as they are of themselves. For the Perfectionist with imposterism, making a mistake or failing to live up to those impossibly high standards ‘proves’ they are incompetent and will be revealed as a fraud.
For the Soloist, to be competent means being able to succeed without help from others; accomplishments count only if they’re achieved on one’s own. Soloists can struggle with collaboration because, if they meet goals as part of a team, that diminishes their feelings of success. If a Soloist needs to ask for assistance, they feel vulnerable and weak, seeing this as a sign that they don’t really know what they’re doing.
The Natural Genius
The Natural Genius believes that intelligence and ability are innate qualities that lead to effortless success. For them, competence means being able to excel with ease and speed. They believe they should be able to hear or learn things once and understand them completely. Struggling to immediately grasp something offers confirmation that they are a fraud.
People in this category believe that competence means being able to juggle all the balls – even if the balls are on fire – while also balancing on a unicycle, singing show tunes, and smiling. How expertly the balls are juggled definitely matters, but being able to handle All The Things, all the time, is what distinguishes the Superhuman from other imposterism subtypes.
Identifying with any of these categories may help you spot some of the unhelpful ways you tend to respond when imposter thoughts arise, so that you can choose to respond differently. Whatever description most relates to your experience (and you might see yourself in more than one), the same strategies I discussed in the What to Do section above apply – practise building psychological flexibility, and you will be well on your way to thriving, despite imposterism.
Links & books
For a deeper exploration of the concepts in this Guide, including more on values, willingness and unhooking from thoughts, you can check out my book Imposter No More: Overcome Self-Doubt and Imposterism to Cultivate a Successful Career (2023).
Are you ‘the Expert’, ‘the Perfectionist’, or ‘the Superhuman’? Here’s a quiz to help you identify which imposterism subtype most resonates with your experience.
The article ‘Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome’ (2021) by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, in Harvard Business Review, examines the role of systemic and organisational bias in the imposter phenomenon.
If you’d like to listen to a conversation about imposterism, I’ve appeared on several recent podcast episodes about this subject. These include the ‘Imposter No More’ (2023) episode of my own podcast, Psychologists Off the Clock, with co-hosts Debbie Sorensen and Yael Schonbrun, as well as the ‘Totally Rethinking Imposter Syndrome’ (2023) episode of the Well, Hello Anxiety podcast (with Jodi Richardson) and the ‘Imposter Syndrome’ (2023) episode of Life’s Dirty Little Secrets podcast (with Emma Waddington and Chris McCurry).
In her Smith College graduation speech in 2023 – titled ‘Imposter Syndrome is a Scheme’ – Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, describes imposterism as a systemic issue, advising those who experience it that there is ‘nothing you need to fix about you’. (I agree that the imposter phenomenon is not your fault – and I think that it’s OK to work on how you respond to it, so that it doesn’t hold you back. Have a watch and see what you think.)