Back to top

Who’s the Real Impostor?

Why we doubt ourselves, and how to overcome it 

Four years into a doctoral program at UMass in the College of Education, I was procrastinating terribly on writing my dissertation. One day in class, another student began reading aloud from an article by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes titled, “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women.” Among the women they sampled, Clance and Imesun covered a pervasive pattern of dismissing accomplishments and believing that their success would disappear once others discovered the awful secret that they were in fact “impostors” who might one day be found out.

I started nodding like a bobblehead doll. “Oh my God,” I thought, “She’s talking about me!” Everyone else was nodding too. We talked about how intimidated we felt when we discussed our research, how anyone who looked too closely would realize we weren’t scholar material. We agreed that these feelings of fraudulence were holding us back. The impostor phenomenon became the impetus for my doctoral research, in which I explored why so many clearly intelligent, capable women feel they are anything but.

Once you understand the reasons you may feel like a fraud, you can do more contextualizing and less personalizing.

My research became the foundation for a workshop I would go on to lead at over 100 universities and at a huge range of companies around the world. A broad cross section of people—women and men—at all levels have experienced the same I’m in over my head and they’re going to find out feeling known as impostor syndrome.

If you’re anything like me, just discovering a name for these feelings, and that some of the most talented and successful people on the planet share them, can be tremendously reassuring. But what can you do?

Normalize impostor feelings

Take stock of situational factors that can make you more susceptible to impostor syndrome. Research shows that being a student, working alone, or being the first generation in your family to go to college can be factors. Stereotypes about competence based on gender, race, ability, class or age may influence it. Certain creative fields or organizational cultures themselves can fuel self-doubt—ironically, impostor syndrome is rampant in higher education, not just in students but among faculty and staff as well.

Once you understand the reasons you may feel like a fraud, you can do more contextualizing and less personalizing.

Reframe

The next time you have an impostor moment, hit the pause button and take a moment to reframe the conversation in your head.

Instead of responding to a new, unfamiliar assignment with “Yikes, I have no idea what I’m doing,” tell yourself, “I’ve never done this before, but I can figure it out‚” or “I’m going to learn a lot.” Instead of being crushed by criticism, choose to see it as a gift that allows you to address your blind spots. Instead of hesitating to ask a question because you don’t want to sound stupid, raise your hand with confidence, because you understand that no one knows it all‚ including you.

Keep going regardless of how you feel

We all have moments of confidence and moments of self-doubt and fear‚ especially when faced with a new challenge. You must first change the way you think by normalizing impostor syndrome and reframing your thoughts. Then you have to act like you believe those new thoughts. Trust that the more you stretch, the more confident you will feel.

The goal isn’t to never feel like an impostor again but to use information, insight, and tools to talk yourself down faster. That way you can go from living an impostor life to just having an impostor moment. The only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like one.



Valerie Young ’77, ’85PhD is now an internationally known expert on the impostor phenomenon. She shares her insights as a speaker, writer, and author of the book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.