Do you often feel like a fraud in professional settings—as if your achievements are due to luck rather than hard work and innate ability? If so, you may be suffering from impostor syndrome, a pattern of thinking that leads even high achievers to believe that they don’t deserve their success.
Impostor syndrome is common. Studies show that 70% of people will experience one or more incidents of this phenomenon during their lives.
If you’re struggling with feelings of fraudulence right now, it may help to understand what’s going on.
What Is Impostor Syndrome?
Originally coined “impostor phenomenon,” the syndrome was first described by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes in their journal article “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.”
Clance and Imes explained the phenomenon as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness” and posited that it is especially prevalent among high-achieving women. Clance also outlined other characteristics of the syndrome, including “The Impostor Cycle,” in which the sufferer reacts to anxiety about a project either by overpreparing or procrastinating.
Subsequent research has shown impostor syndrome in just about every demographic group. A 2019 review of the literature on impostor syndrome found reports of the phenomenon across all genders. The review further found that the syndrome was prevalent in Black, Asian, and Latinx college students. For example, due to correlated factors such as depression and survivor guilt, Black freshmen who reported frequent racial discrimination but low levels of distress from discrimination had higher levels of impostor syndrome than those who reported high levels of distress from discrimination. In terms of employed populations, impostor syndrome was discovered among professionals including nurses, accountants, managers, and teachers. Some of the studies found that impostor feelings declined with age; others showed no age effect at all.
In short, it’s safe to say that anyone can experience feelings of fraudulence. But just because you’ll have plenty of company doesn’t mean that you should accept your situation.
Letting those feelings linger could have negative consequences for your career, not to mention your mental health.
Why Feeling Like a Fraud Can Damage Your Career
Although you won’t find impostor syndrome listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), research has shown that the phenomenon often coexists with psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. If you’re a sufferer, this probably won’t come as news.
Anxiety, depression, and self-esteem issues have obvious negative implications for your career. For example, people with generalized anxiety disorder often report having difficulty concentrating and meeting deadlines and may report symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and stomach upset. And research has shown that both anxiety and depression increase the risk of frequent and prolonged sick leave.
Poor self-esteem can also have a negative effect on your career prospects, simply by limiting your willingness to advocate for yourself.
Speaking with Harvard Business Review, Joseph Weintraub, founder and faculty director of the Babson Coaching for Leadership and Teamwork Program, says, “You can’t assume that the organization will take care of you just because you do a good job. There is a degree of self-promotion that’s needed. If [you don't] ask, you don’t get.”
How Can You Tell If You Have Impostor Syndrome?
Have you been reading this article and nodding in recognition with every sign of impostor syndrome? Feelings of fraudulence—check. Fear of being found out—check. Self-esteem issues and/or depression or anxiety—check. If so, you would probably like a definitive diagnosis and some tips on how to beat impostor syndrome, or at least keep it from derailing your career.
Unfortunately, a definitive diagnosis may be hard to come by, since impostor syndrome isn’t a recognized disease or disorder. Even Dr. Pauline Clance, who coined the term “impostor phenomenon” and created a test that subjects can use to detect IP characteristics, cautions on her site that “[t]est results do not constitute an official diagnosis.”
However, if you’re curious and want to force yourself to reckon with any feelings of fraudulence, Clance’s test, called the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale (CIPS), is a good place to start.
The bottom line is that you need to determine whether your perception of your abilities is hampering your professional progress.
The CIPS may help you do that, or you may be able to note the pattern in your career and take steps to improve your situation.
How to Overcome Your Doubts and Achieve Success
There is one thing that probably will not help you beat your impostor syndrome, and that’s repeated success. Why? Because research has shown that “impostors” tend not to attribute their success to their ability. If they responded to their anxiety about a project by overpreparing, they may even connect their achievement to their perfectionism, thus fueling the cycle.
What will help you cope with feeling like a fraud? Researchers and experts have identified a few strategies that can be effective:
1. Find Social Support
One study suggests that the cure for your feelings of fraudulence might be to look beyond your immediate circle.
Researchers at Brigham Young University found that when student subjects reached out to family and friends outside their academic program, “their perceptions of impostorism were reduced.” By contrast, those who sought social support from other students in their own program often felt worse instead of better.
2. Make Small Changes to Reframe Your Thinking
Dr. Suzanne Imes reported helping her clients break the cycle by reframing their thoughts through incremental changes—for example, by putting in eight hours on a project instead of 10.
"Superstitions need to be changed very gradually because they are so strong," she tells the American Psychological Association.
3. Recognize That Many of Us Feel Like Impostors Now and Then
Famously successful people ranging from John Steinbeck to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor have reported suffering from the symptoms of impostor syndrome. Steinbeck wrote in his journal, “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” Sotomayor called the phenomenon out by name, saying, “I’m not a classic impostor-syndrome person because I have that initial insecurity but I’m capable of stepping outside of it and proving to myself it’s wrong.”
And perhaps that is the best thing to take away from any examination of your own feelings: it’s common to feel like a fake now and then. Being able to cope with those doubts and move on with your work is what will set you apart from your peers.