What's behind the imposter syndrome

If you’re convinced you’re not as good as everyone thinks you are, give yourself kudos—and fake it.


Photo: Paul Bradbury/Getty

Some of the world’s most successful people are impostors. Vivian Schiller, the first female CEO of National Public Radio, was one. “I would get promoted and I would think, ‘Don’t they know?’ Or I’d get a new job and I’d think, ‘God, I’ve fooled them. Wait till they find out.’” Comedian Mike Myers is one, too. “I still expect that the no-talent police will come and arrest me,” he said. Even Sherry Cooper, BMO’s celebrity chief economist, recently admitted to being one in an interview.

Why would such overachievers feel like frauds?

They suffer from the “impostor syndrome”—the crippling feelings of self-doubt and anticipated failure that haunt people who attribute their success to luck or help from others rather than their own abilities. It isn’t a clinically recognized disorder, but it has been the subject of ample research over the past three decades. While everyone has occasional bouts of professional insecurity, impostors suffer from profound doubts about their abilities, no matter what they accomplish or what other people think.  

Such feelings of fraudulence have generally been associated with women, but in a new book titled The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Valerie Young says that’s no longer the case. “Men are attending my seminars in increasing numbers, and among graduate students [tested for impostor syndrome], the male-female ratio is roughly fifty-fifty,” writes Young, whose book is based on her own research, including more than 25 years of teaching a workshop for sufferers.

While both genders experience the condition, they react very differently to its symptoms. For example, Purdue University researchers found that when men felt the strain of impostor syndrome, they focused on avoiding situations where their incompetence could be discovered. Indeed, “The more men were motivated by a desire to avoid failure, the greater their impostor fears,” the authors write. In contrast, women tried to feel competent by striving to outperform others.

Shirin Khamisa, a Toronto career coach who works with executives and mid-career professionals, says that about 20% of her clients have some difficulty dealing with high expectations and feeling accomplished, but she would consider only 2% or 3% to be impostor syndrome sufferers. It’s a dangerous condition, because the self-effacing behaviour such feelings often produce can sabotage people’s careers. “They sell themselves short,” she says, and over the years, that attitude can hold talented people back. “You have to be your own best advocate in order to move up and grow. When your belief system doesn’t align with your performance, it can make [impostors] risk-averse.”

The first step toward overcoming the problem is recognizing it, says Khamisa, which can be a challenge for sufferers not ready to be introspective. One simple exercise she uses in such cases is to have the person make a daily list of three things they did successfully. She finds that even people who don’t identify as impostors can feel defensive and have trouble coming up with tasks they accomplished well. “But as they keep searching for that evidence, their perspective starts to change,” she says.

Phil Tyson, a psychotherapist based in Manchester, England, who works with men, uses the same strategy. He sees the condition regularly in his practice, and even experienced it himself in his early days as a university lecturer. “The more success I attracted, the more unbearable was my sense of being an impostor,” he writes on his blog. “Natural talent and hard work leads to promotion and new roles, which again triggers another cycle of the syndrome.” He and Young both believe the problem stems from perfectionism. “Often, people with the impostor syndrome have unrealistic expectations of what it means to do a good enough job, and these need to be challenged to make them more realistic,” says Tyson.

Young points out that many sufferers are also chronic procrastinators who put off doing the jobs that make them feel like phonies. To solve this, she advises setting firm completion dates, and declaring them publicly to create accountability. After the task is done, ask a trusted adviser for feedback or write yourself “a letter of recommendation so you can see your accomplishments and attributes through someone else’s eyes,” she says.

And if all else fails? Young suggests impostors “just fake it till you make it.” Few people ever really get over their impostor fears, and relapses are common. But as you wait until you feel more sure of yourself, pretending you’re confident can be helpful. “It’s perfectly normal to be nervous as heck,” Young writes, “just as long as you act as if you expect to be an unqualified success.”