Monday Mornings with Madison

Why Many Overachievers, Rising Stars and Go Getters feel like Imposters

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Estimated Read Time: 6 min.

Exposing Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome is a condition experienced secretly — and often with deep fear and shame — by many super stars, high achievers and workaholics.  People who suffer from Imposter Syndrome are plagued with pervasive feelings of insecurity, self-doubt and being unworthy.  Behind a façade of success, they feel like fakes, playacting roles but believing deep down that they lack genuine skill, talent or qualifications.  Inside, they have adopted a ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ attitude, all the while hoping no one will discover “the truth”.

No matter how many awards, promotions, compliments, or degrees they earn, how much success they achieve or what degree of fame they realize, they still feel deeply unworthy.  This isn’t modesty or even fake modesty.   Deep down, they really feel like imposters.   In fact, the more they accomplish, the more intense the feelings of being undeserving.  Ironically, it affects people who are often quite smart and successful… probably because those feelings of unworthiness compels them to keep studying, learning and trying hard to be deserving of any recognition.  When they do gain the very recognition they are striving to deserve — and ample evidence confirms that the acclaim is merited – they still feel unfit.

While this affects people of all backgrounds, ages, level of education, genders and upbringings, there are two groups who suffer from it most:  women and minorities.   People with Imposter Syndrome might fear that someone will eventually realize that they really aren’t qualified or capable.  Like an actor or trickster, they feel that they’ve been able to fool everyone thus far, but worry constantly that someone will eventually “unmask” them and blow their cover.  The gem will be found to be a counterfeit.

High achieving minority students often report feeling this way when they are accepted to and attend an Ivy League university.   They report feeling like they don’t belong.

Women who get promotions or win awards and accolades in their field often claim to feel that they really aren’t as good as others or as good as others think.  Or they might say that their success is due to hard work, not innate talent or intellect.  They often say they were in the right place at the right time or that they were just lucky.  According to Sheryl Sandberg in her book, Lean In:  Women, Work and the Will to Lead, “She explained that many people, but especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are- impostors with limited skills or abilities.”  Of course, that isn’t true of all women, but it does seem to plague women more than men.

Why Does Impostor Syndrome Happen?

There are many studies done on what causes Imposter Syndrome.   One article in the American Journal of Family Therapy titled Parentification and the Impostor Phenomenon: An Empirical Investigation[1] discussed the relation between parentification and Impostor Syndrome. Parentification is when a child takes on emotional or other responsibilities that normally rest on the parent.  They found that it caused Imposter Syndrome.  But the article also cited a number of other traits that have been associated with Imposter Syndrome including low global self-esteem, introversion, neurosis, and perfectionism as well as psychological problems like anxiety, depression, and psychological distress.

Another article in Contemporary Educational Psychology titled Achievement Orientation and the Impostor Phenomenon among College Students[2] found that a family culture that places an overly high value on achievement is associated with Impostor Syndrome.  Those children are pushed to achieve, but high achievers are only high achievers when compared to others.  They are compared to others their whole lives—when earning grades, winning honors, being selected into colleges, and landing jobs.  In turn, they often do well.  This does two things.  First, they value the process of comparison because they have done well by it.  Second, they are extra alert to the process.  Awareness of being evaluated and caring deeply about the outcome is an important mindset for success, but when it backfires, it lays a foundation for feeling like a phony.

A third team of researchers in the U.K. found that having overprotective and/or controlling parents and low self-esteem are the two best predictors for Impostor Syndrome, accounting for half the variation in feelings of being an impostor.[3]

Dr. Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford, attributes Imposter Syndrome to a common parenting mistake.[4] Dweck believes well-meaning parents often praise kids with labels like ‘You’re so smart!” or “You’re so pretty!” These labels, meant to be complimentary, actually hinder kids by implying they don’t have anywhere left to grow.  Either you’re smart or you’re not, and there’s nothing you can do to alter it.  When those kids make a mistake, they question if they really are smart.  “Maybe I’m not smart after all?  Mom may be wrong.”   It drives them to keep trying to prove the label right.  This lays fertile ground for Impostor Syndrome.

How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter Syndrome can be exhausting and debilitating to anyone experiencing it.   And while no one likes an egomaniac, refusing to recognize self-worth and accept praise is not good either.  A balance can exist between Impostor Syndrome and arrogance.  Modesty is the goal.   There are tactics than can help tackle this condition.

  1. You’re Not Alone
    It is important for those who experience Imposter Syndrome to know that this condition — while hidden like a deep secret – is actually widespread.  Feeling like a fraud is not good but it is not unusual.  In fact, it is rampant in any circle or group that is exclusive, from Nobel Prize Winners to Oscar Winners.   There is an element of shame and the fear of being discovered so most people won’t admit to it.  But the moment one sufferer confesses to feeling this way, countless others chime in agreement. 
  2. Focus on Accomplishments
    Every Imposter sufferer should keep a curriculum vitae or some kind of list of “life work.”  Much more than a resume, it should list every accomplishment and should be reviewed from time to time.  He or she should also look over school transcripts, past letters of recommendation, inscriptions on past awards, positive reviews and anything else that tracks a record of success. That’s an excellent way to see – in black and white — a pattern of achievement. 
  3. Let the Secret out of the Bag
  4. Share this imposter feeling with a supporter.  A person with Imposter Syndrome should disclose such feelings to a trusted and supportive confidant, friend, fan, colleague or mentor.  If that person cares, they will likely offer words of encouragement and support.

  5. Get a Mentor
    Seek out a mentor who matches your gender or ethnicity, and who understands what it feels like to feel like an outsider or unworthy.  That person can help to identify and communicate the good they see in the “imposter” and validate that in fact he/she is the real deal. 
  6. Get a Mentee
    While this might sound counterintuitive for a person who feels like a fraud to embrace teaching someone else, being a mentor to a mentee is a great way to really discover how much the so-called “imposter” knows.  By contrasting oneself with mentees – who are newbies or rookies – is it possible to gain a true understanding of one’s own knowledge.  That nurtures the next generation and also nurtures the sufferer’s own sense of value. 
  7. Embrace being an Outsider or Rookie
    Everyone with Imposter Syndrome can benefit from understanding the pluses of being a novice or rookie. They should embrace the benefits to being new in a field. Those not steeped in the conventional wisdom of a particular job, role or profession are able to ask questions that haven’t been asked before or approach problems in new ways. 
  8. Praise Effort
    Rather than praising traits such as “you are so intelligent”, it is better to praise effort.  Compliment hard work and results.   Telling someone who feels like an imposter that their hard work and professionalism paid off reinforces that the praise is deserved. 
  9. Expect Initial Failure
    It is good for anyone with Imposter Syndrome to expect failure before success.  “Every salesperson should expect 99 “No”s before they get 1 “Yes.”  Every scientist will conduct many unsuccessful experiments or trials before having a breakthrough.  By allowing such leeway, the pressure is off to succeed.  After all, no one worries about being an imposter when it comes to failure.  No one worries about being a failure fraud.  Problem solved. 
  10. Quote of the Week

    “I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” Maya Angelou, Pulitzer Prize-winning Author

    [1] 2004, Castro, D. M., Jones, R. A., Mirsalimi, H., Parentification and the Impostor Phenomenon: An Empirical Investigation, The American Journal of Family Therapy, Volume 32, pp 205-216.

    [2] 1995, King, J. E., Cooley, E. L., Achievement Orientation and the Impostor Phenomenon among College Students, Contemporary Educational Psychology, Issue 203, pp 304-312.

    [3] 2001, Sonnak, C., Towell, T., The impostor phenomenon in British university students: Relationships between self-esteem, mental health, parental rearing style and socioeconomic status, Personality and Individual Differences, Issue 316.

    [4] April 29, 2015, Dweck, Carol, Professor of Psychology, and Parker, Clifton B., Perseverance key to children’s intellectual growth, Stanford News Service,


© 2018, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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