Do you feel like a fraud? If so, you may be getting in the way of your own happiness and success in life. Imposter syndrome is that nagging feeling that whatever we achieve, we’re never good enough for our achievements, never worthy of our successes. Learn how to overcome it.
In 1949, when Groucho Marx left the Friar’s Club, a New York fraternity for entertainers on 57 E 55th Street, he sent a telegram to its owners.
“Please accept my resignation,” it read, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”
The famous Marx brother was telling a joke. His telegram was tongue-in-cheek.
By the end of the 1940s, Groucho had starred in nearly 20 movies. He was more than worthy of admission to any celebrity clique.
When he joined the Friar’s, he expected he’d be mingling with the brightest and funniest men in Manhattan. The dull wit of the other clientele had fallen short of his expectations. So he told the owners that he was the imposter. It was Groucho’s sly way of alluding to the real charlatans in their midst.
Are You an Imposter?
If you’ve ever made a joke like Groucho, you’re likely not an imposter. But you may have imposter syndrome.
The symptoms are widespread: Persistent self-doubt, self-flagellation, an obsession with past mistakes, and unrealistic expectations of your achievements. According to the International Journal of Behavioral Science, an estimated 70 percent of people experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives.
Often afflicting high-achievers, imposter syndrome may lead the best and brightest to preoccupy themselves in unhealthy ways over the details of their work. They may demonstrate an unrelenting effort to improve and prove themselves. They’re blighted with perfectionism and performance anxiety. They may fear the people around them will discover that they’re not all they let on to be.
Feeling like frauds, they sometimes isolate themselves. Terrified of appearing vulnerable, they might stop asking questions. Believing they have to do everything themselves, they may avoid seeking help when they most need it. They also tend to overwork to try to outperform the negative image they have of themselves.
As clever as Groucho Marx’s line is, suffering from imposter syndrome is no joke. There’s nothing funny about experiencing its harmful effects. The condition can undermine your courage to seek out new opportunities. The loneliness, fatigue, and anxiety may impair your professional performance. If you’re always trying to prove yourself, you’ll exhaust your mind, body, and soul in the process. Burnout for those with imposter syndrome is real.
Where Does the Term Imposter Syndrome Come From?
Clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes first coined the term “imposter phenomenon” in an article published in 1978 in Psychotherapy: Theory Research and Practice.1 Clance had experienced feelings of inadequacy in graduate school. When she began teaching at a well-known liberal arts college, she found that her high-performing students came to her with similar feelings. Rather than celebrate how far they’d come, they often felt overwhelmed by all they didn’t know.
While Clance and Imes focused their early research on accomplished women who were suffering from feelings of inadequacy and incompetency, men suffer from imposter syndrome too. Studies from the University of Salzburg demonstrate that amongst over 200 professionals, both men and women who identified with imposter syndrome received less pay and felt less satisfied in their work.
Imposter syndrome, however, is not a psychiatric disorder. You can’t receive a diagnosis for it like you can with obsessive compulsive or bipolar disorder. It’s a lay term to refer to a collection of behaviors and symptoms that emerge from both conscious and unconscious feelings of unworthiness.
And while each case is unique, depression and anxiety are the most common clinical symptoms. Psychologist Audrey Ervin considers the term “imposter syndrome” to apply to anyone “who isn’t able to internalize and own their successes.” Athletes, artists, and musicians experience it too.
Do You Have Imposter syndrome?
Do you ever feel like no matter how much you do it’s never enough?
If you suspect you might be suffering from imposter syndrome, take Dr. Pauline Rose Clance’s test.
Where do you fall on her “Imposter Phenomenon Scale”?
If you score high, try these three simple and straightforward strategies to overcome the illusion that you’re anything less than.
- Realize you’re not alone
David Bowie. Lady Gaga. Howard Shultz, Serena Williams. All those superstars have suffered from imposter syndrome.
Bowie won four BRIT awards, six Grammys, and eleven NME awards. He invented glam rock and inspired generation after generation to feel at ease to be themselves. He also suffered from self-image problems and low self-esteem, feelings he hid by writing music obsessively.
Lady Gaga says she “still sometimes feel(s) like a loser kid in high school.” Despite those insecurities, she picks herself up every morning and convinces the woman in the mirror that she’s not a loser but “a superstar.”
Howard Shultz may have built one of the most successful coffee chains in the world, but he admits to feeling undeserving and insecure a lot of the time.
Serena Williams grew up in the shadow of her older sister, Venus, and has never found it easy to own her unprecedented success.
Concerned about your image? Feel like you’re a geeky kid bound to be bullied in the schoolyard? Doubt whether you deserve love, success, and happiness?
Pull a Lady Gaga. You may not feel super all the time, but when you get up each morning, tell yourself you’re a superstar anyway. Act the part. Dispel those voices in your head saying you’re anything but Gaga-level gorgeous, Bowie-level outrageous, and Shultz-level courageous. Feed off your positive feelings. Metabolize them to meet whatever goals you aspire to achieve.
From a scientific point of view, any identity you confine yourself to will never tell the whole truth. Take the liberty of choosing how you want to frame the achievements of the person in the mirror. Self-talk like “I’m a rockstar” or “I fully deserve all the success I’m creating,” activate your brain’s reward circuits. They engage the neural systems associated with self-referential (medial prefrontal cortex + posterior cingulate cortex) and valuation (ventral striatum + ventral medial prefrontal cortex) processing. All that helps you take positive action and follow through on achieving your goals.
If you learn to form a healthy system of self-reference, you’ll more likely project a pro-social and life-enhancing picture of yourself into the future. Positive self-references will steer you towards healthier goals. You’ll more heartily anticipate positive rewards, which will keep you motivated and driven to overcome any obstacles in your way.
- Restore a healthy sense of self by taking five minutes a day to visualize the best version of yourself and to appreciate all that you have done to get to where you are.
- Be grateful for your past efforts and accomplishments.
- Embrace your inner rockstar. If passing thoughts try to convince you otherwise, send them to the curb!
- Focus on implicit rather than explicit rewards
Many people who live with imposter syndrome focus too narrowly on how other people see them. They attribute their sense of self-worth to whatever visible symbols of status might happen to measure their success in the culture at the time.
Research reveals that implicit motivation trumps explicit motivation every time. When we’re motivated spontaneously from the inside out (instead of from the outside in) — when we’re driven by internal rewards rather than controlled by outer rewards — our actions will more likely flow effortlessly towards our own version of success.
Individuals who are implicitly motivated react spontaneously to situations where they can put their abilities to the test. They experience less inner resistance when moving towards a goal. Many of the processes that underlie implicit motivation are unconscious. They’re effortless.
Explicit rewards, on the other hand, may not always come directly in the form of external recognition, like a teacher’s praise or a raise. Sometimes the unspoken expectations of our family and peers indirectly inform how we view ourselves. Conforming to others’ ideals and norms activates the extrinsic reward centers in the brain. Striving to live up to those ideals can be exhaustive.
- Rather than conform to an idea of success, instead of chasing after someone else’s vision for your life, free up cognitive resources to pour into the things you most love doing.
- Choose goals more closely aligned with your inner values, not what other people value.
- Give up playing someone else’s role in your life and carve one out for yourself!
- Celebrate your successes (Even the little ones)
You don’t need recognition from others as an excuse to celebrate what you’ve accomplished in life. The brain gets a shot of dopamine whenever it believes an award is coming. That’s true for the big achievements, like buying a house or finishing a degree. But it is also true for tiny accomplishments, like meeting a deadline or making a meal.
When you put in the effort to make dinner for yourself, celebrate your power to self-nourish, to create something nutritious and beautiful for your body and brain.
When you rise to your alarm and get to the gym or to your desk early in the day, give yourself a pat on the back! You burned through resistance like a pro when you hurled those covers to the side.
Learn a new dance step and bust a move to prove to yourself how courageous you are for learning a new thing. Don’t dance that new step for anyone else. Prove to yourself you can do it for you. You’re the only one that matters in this audience!
- Do things spontaneously.
- Savor that feeling of your most energized self escaping from any prison of self-doubt.
- Build healthier self-esteem by practicing gratitude.
- Bow to all the teachers and friends near and far who helped to make you who you are.
- Build on and appreciate your small successes, one tiny step after the other.
And the next time your inner imposter appears, talk back to that voice: “Well, I’d like to convince you otherwise.”
1. Clance, P.R., & Imes, S.A. (1978). The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Interventions. Psychotherapy: Theory Research and Practice, 15, 241‑247. http://www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/ip_high_achieving_women.pdf