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What Is Imposter Syndrome? (+How to Fight to Overcome It)

Does your professional success scare you? Do you ever want to throw your hands up and say, "I feel like a fraud?" If you answered yes to both questions, you may be suffering from the imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is an obstacle that affects many successful and creative people—causing them to doubt their own abilities.

But imposter syndrome is more than just a personal problem. If not dealt with, it has a cost. It can cause someone to fail to live up to their potential. Imposter syndrome can rob businesses of much-needed talent, as it may keep someone from applying for a challenging position that they are actually qualified for and able to do. Imposter syndrome can also strip a person of the confidence they need to feel good about themselves.

Exploring Imposter Syndrome
Many successful people struggle with imposter syndrome. (Image Source: Envato Elements)

In this post, we'll explore imposter syndrome in more depth. I'll define imposter syndrome and explain how it affects those who struggle with it. And just to prove that you're not the only one who sometimes feels like a fraud, I'll share quotes from eight successful celebrities and leaders about imposter syndrome. Finally, I'll share seven tips on how to combat imposter syndrome in your own life.

What Is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a term used to describe feelings of inadequacy that successful people often have. The term was created in 1978 by two clinical psychologists, Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes, as a way to describe their observation that many of the successful women they studied felt undeserving of their success

Although it's popularly referred to as a "syndrome," the imposter syndrome is actually not a medical condition. It's not even a psychological disorder. But imposter syndrome is very real and if you struggle with it, the effects can keep you from achieving your full potential and keep you from enjoying the success that you do have. Imposter syndrome is sometimes also referred to as imposter phenomenon.

What Does Imposter Syndrome Feel Like?

Imagine that you just got a major promotion at work. You've worked hard to earn the position, but instead of feeling satisfied with your achievement you're filled with dread. Even though all of your colleagues agree that you're more than qualified to do the job, you're afraid that you'll be humiliated when people find out that you really don't deserve it. Worse yet, you're afraid you'll make a stupid mistake and everyone will realize you're a fake. That's what the imposter syndrome feels like.

How Many People Struggle With Imposter Syndrome? 

A lot of people wrestle with it. While research varies on exactly how many people face imposter phenomenon, some studies estimate that as many 7 out of 10 of us will experience imposter syndrome at least once. While the initial researchers believed it to be mostly a women's problem, subsequent studies have found that imposter syndrome isn't just limited to women. 

Note: Before you dig into stories those that have struggled with imposter syndrome, take a moment to learn about the upcoming event International Women's Day on March 8, 2018. Help press gender parity and inclusiveness forward. 

Advice From 8 Successful People on Imposter Syndrome

If you're one of those who have struggled with imposter phenomenon, you may be interested to know that you're in good company. Some of the most accomplished and successful people have come forward to share their own struggles. Here are some thoughts and advice about imposter syndrome from eight high achievers:

1. Cyan Ta'eed

Cyan Taeed
Cyan Ta'eed, Image Source: Envato Newsroom

Cyan Ta'eed is the successful professional who co-founded Envato, a leading Australian tech business (and also the publisher of Envato Tuts+). She's won numerous awards over the years including the Victorian Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the 2015, the Telstra Women in Business Award, and the Entrepreneur of the Year prize in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year award program.

Yet despite these successes, Ta'eed has admitted to the Women's Agenda that imposter syndrome has been a struggle. Ta'eed shared this resolve:

“If there’s stuff you’re going to do you shouldn’t wait around or say ‘no’ to it because it stresses you out. I just decided I’m not going to worry what other people think. So I got out of my own head and I stopped worrying about failure.”

2. Tina Fey

An actress and comedian as well as a writer (among other things, Fey wrote the screenplay for the popular movie, Mean Girls), Tina Fey has made countless millions laugh. Fey is perhaps best known for roles on the popular long-running comedy series Saturday Night Live. Here's what the actress said to the Independent about feeling like a fraud:

"The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: 'I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!' So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud."

3. Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor
Sonia Sotomayor, Photo by Stacey Ilyse -- CC BY 3.0 -- via Wikimedia Commons

Sonia Sotomayor is currently serving on the U.S. Supreme court. Before being nominated to the Supreme Court, Justice Sotomayor had a long and distinguished legal career, ruling on many notable and groundbreaking cases. Yet despite these successes, according to the Wall Street Journal Justice Sotomayor has also faced the imposter syndrome

“I have spent my years since Princeton, while at law school and in my various professional jobs, not feeling completely a part of the worlds I inhabit. I am always looking over my shoulder wondering if I measure up.”

4. Jodie Foster

Jodie Foster is an accomplished actress, director, and producer known for dozens of roles in television and film. The list of awards this actress has won is long and includes multiple awards from:

  • American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (The Oscars)
  • British Academy of Film Awards
  • Directors Guild of America
  • Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globe Awards)
  • Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (Primetime Emmy Awards)
  • And many others

You'd think with such a long list of accomplishments; the actress would be comfortable with success. But it appears that's not always been the case. In a 1999 60 Minutes profile, Foster was quoted as saying:

"I thought it was a big fluke. [Referring to the Oscar win] The same way when I walked on the campus at Yale, I thought everybody would find out, and then they'd take the Oscar back."

5. Howard Schultz

Howard Schultz
Howard Schultz, Photo by Photobra Adam Bielawski (Own work) -- CC BY-SA 3.0 -- or GFDL -- via Wikimedia Commons

If you're a coffee drinker, you're familiar with the work of this successful entrepreneur and businessperson. The current executive chairperson of Starbucks Coffee, Schultz served for many years as CEO and was instrumental of updating the chain's concept. Schultz has won numerous awards for leadership, including the 2017 National Equal Justice Award from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Still, in a 2010 New York Times interview, Schultz had this to say when asked about advice for another CEO:"

"Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the C.E.O. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true."

6. Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg
Sheryl Sandberg, Photo by cellanr -- CC BY-SA 2.0 -- via Wikimedia Commons

As Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and a former Google executive, Sheryl has influenced the way consumer technology is used. In addition to the Facebook role, Sandberg serves on multiple corporate boards and has won multiple awards for leadership. As a founder of, Sandberg seeks to inspire women to succeed. Despite these accomplishments, it seems Sandberg sometimes struggles with feelings of inadequacy according to this statement from a Forbes interview:

“There are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”

7. Shonda Rhimes

You've probably watched a television show that was written or produced by this talented author. Shonda Rhimes was the head writer and executive producer of such popular TV series as Grey's Anatomy and Scandal. Rhimes was also involved in the production of other popular series. In 2007 TIME magazine named Rhimes on their list of "100 People Who Help Shape the World." In 2015, Rhimes published a memoir, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person, which includes this statement:

“We all spend our lives kicking the crap out of ourselves for not being this way or that way, not having this thing or that thing, not being like this person or that person ... We all spend our lives trying to follow the same path, live by the same rules. I think we believe that happiness lies in following the same list of rules. In being more like everyone else. That? Is wrong. There is no list of rules."

8. Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks, Photo by Alan Light -- CC BY 2.0  -- via Wikimedia Commons

This actor has starred in so many motion pictures and television series that the name "Tom Hanks" is pretty much a household word. In addition, Hanks has collaborated on the production of many popular films. Plus, the actor has received numerous awards including awards such as:

  • Academy Awards
  • British Academy of Film Awards
  • Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globe Awards)
  • Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (Primetime Emmy Awards)
  • Producers Guild of America
  • And many others 

Even with all of those achievements, Hanks admitted to feeling like an imposter in a 2016 NPR interview:

"No matter what we've done, there comes a point where you think, 'How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?'"

7 Tips to Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Is all this starting to sound a bit too familiar?

If you're experiencing the fear of imposter syndrome, know that it doesn't have to hold you back. As I've shown you earlier, many successful people struggle with imposter syndrome. Here are some tips to help you with overcoming imposter syndrome: 

Tip 1. Don't Compare Yourself to Others

One of the biggest contributors to imposter syndrome is comparing yourself unfavorably to others. This can make your feelings of inadequacy worse—especially if there are real or perceived differences between you and the person you're comparing yourself to. Instead, remember that you're a valuable individual with your own unique strengths.

Tip 2. Don't Listen to Naysayers

Internalizing criticism can lead to imposter syndrome. When you face criticism (and all of us do face it eventually), learn from it if you can. But if it's criticism about something you can't help (or of you personally) tell yourself the criticism isn't a reflection on you—because it's not! Remember instead that it reveals a flaw in person criticizing you. 

Tip 3. Surround Yourself With People Who Believe In You

Just because we all face criticism, doesn't mean you've got to put up with only negative people. Keep several people around you who believe in you and support you. A few encouraging words from these friends can help offset the negativity. Also, if you can, try to be that positive person in someone else's life. The rewards will be great.

Tip 4. Allow Yourself to Make Mistakes

Even the most talented, gifted people make mistakes. In fact, making mistakes is how we learn. So, know that making a mistake doesn't mean you're not qualified or that you're a fake. Don't let fear of mistakes keep you from trying something new. Allow yourself to make mistakes so that you can learn and grow in your field.

Tip 5. Keep Your Eyes on Your Goal (And Not Yourself)

As you work, don't think about how a project will affect you or what others might think. Instead, stay focused on meeting the goals that you need to complete. Acknowledging the little successes along the way to achieving your goal can help. For example, celebrate (even if only privately) each time you complete a step project step on time or early.

Tip 6. Look for the Humor in The Situation

If you do happen to have a setback on your way to success, seeing the humor in the situation can help you to put things in perspective (and relieve stress). Another way to put things in perspective is to ask yourself, "How will I really feel about this setback/problem in five years? In ten?" In many cases, you'll have to admit that whatever you're stressing over won't seem as big to you in the future.

Tip 7. Know That It's Normal

If you take nothing else away from this article, I hope you take this last concept away. If you feel fake, you're not the only one who feels that way. It's normal to sometimes feel like a phony. And imposter syndrome doesn't have to keep you from achieving your goals. As I've demonstrated earlier, many successful people have felt the same way.

Where to Go From Here

Imposter syndrome can hold you back, but only if you let it. The good news is: you don't have to let it hold you back. Now that you've read this article, you should know that you're not that only one who deals with self-doubt. You also have some tools in your arsenal to help you deal with and overcome the imposter syndrome. Best wishes in everything you do!

Also, take a moment to learn about the upcoming event International Women's Day, which is happening March 8, 2018. Help press gender parity and inclusiveness forward. 

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