Is the Impostor Syndrome All Bad?


A recent edition of the Abu Dhabi English-edition daily, The National, approached the impostor syndrome from a unique angle.

Most articles focus on the anxiety of waiting for the other shoe to drop. In a refreshing twist, this reporter from the Middle East instead emphasized the upside of this tendency to feel less capable than you really are.

Namely, impostor syndrome can be an indicator that you care about your work.

The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women Readers Share Their Success Stories

When we hear of others who have overcome long-held, self-limiting beliefs and behaviors it inspires in us the hope that we can do the same.

In the few short months since The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women has been out I’ve received dozens of emails from people telling me what a difference the book has made in their lives.

Naturally this is tremendously rewarding for me. As the great Katharine Graham said, “To love what you do and feel that it matters, how could anything else be more fun?

What’s in Your Competence Rule Book?

I’ve spent nearly a quarter of a century working primarily with women who feel like impostors, fakes, and frauds. In that time I’ve come to an important conclusion. If you want to truly put yourself on the fast track to feeling as bright and capable as you really are, then nothing, I do mean nothing, will get you there quicker than adjusting your beliefs about what it takes to be competent.

The Impostor Syndrome goes beyond lack of confidence. Everyone experiences bouts of self-doubt from time to time and especially when attempting something new. But for impostors self-doubt is chronic.

Do you dismiss your accomplishments as “no big deal”?

Do you dismiss your accomplishments as “no big deal” or “If I can do it, anybody can”? Do you agonize over even the smallest flaws in your work or beat yourself up when you make a mistake? Do you feel crushed by even constructive criticism, seeing it as evidence of your “ineptness?” When you do succeed, do you think, “Phew, I fooled ‘em this time but I may not be so lucky next time.”

If so join the club.

The Other Side of the Impostor Syndrome

The fear that others will discover that you have been bluffing your way through is very real.

Every day intelligent, competent people drop out of school, take jobs far below their true abilities and aspirations, and allow long-held creative or entrepreneurial dreams to wither all in an attempt to avoid detection. These are of course the extreme cases. Most people who identify with the impostor syndrome don’t give up or give in. Like you, they press on in spite of the persistent self-doubt to get the degree, advance in their field, take on the challenge, and by and large succeed, sometimes spectacularly so.

Are You Wise to Feel Like a Fraud?

“I still believe,” confessed Mike Myers, “that at any time the No-Talent Police will come and arrest me.” Myers is not alone.

The question is, why do so many clearly smart, capable, successful people feel like intellectual frauds who are merely impersonating a competent person? Most would consider this a bad thing. But at least one researcher believes that feeling like a fraud is in fact, “deeply wise.”

Most of the people who study the impostor syndrome come out of the field of psychology and therefore tend to trace its origins to either the family/childhood message or to various psychological characteristics like being introverted, pessimistic, Type A personality and so on.

Finding a Name for the Feelings

I’ll never forget the day I first learned about the Impostor Syndrome. It was 1983. A chronic procrastinator, I was in my fourth year of a doctoral program. Like a lot of graduate students, my status was what was commonly referred to as “A-B-D,” meaning I’d completed “all but the dissertation.”

I was sitting in class one day when another student rose to present the findings of a study conducted by psychology professor Pauline Clance and psychologist Suzanne Imes called The Impostor Phenomenon Among High Achieving Women (1978).

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