impostor mask

impostor mask

Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great. I have written eleven 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

You finally got the big promotion you’ve been working for, but you secretly wonder if you really are worthy.

You assure yourself that you MUST be competent and good at your job, or you wouldn’t have gotten that raise and increased responsibilities.

But feelings of doubt linger…you think that at any moment, someone is going to realize you are a fake.

Worries that you are on the verge of being unmasked and revealed to be a fraud often haunt your thoughts.


If the scenario above sounds familiar, you may be suffering from Impostor Syndrome.

Also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, impostor syndrome is a term that describes people who are unable to internalize their accomplishments.

Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

Impostor syndrome is known to be particularly common among high-achieving women, but some studies indicate that both genders may be affected in equal numbers.


In 1978, Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., and Suzanne A. Imes, Ph.D., coined the term “Impostor Phenomenon” and wrote a paper about it titled The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.

They identified several behaviors of high-achieving women with impostor syndrome:

  • Diligence: Gifted women often work hard in order to prevent people from discovering that they are “impostors.” This hard work often leads to more praise and success, which perpetuates the impostor feelings and fears of being “found out.” The “impostor” woman may feel she needs to work harder, and will over-prepare and obsess over details. This can lead to burnout and sleep deprivation.
  • Feeling of being phony: A woman with impostor feelings often attempts to give supervisors and professors the answers that she believes they want, which often leads to an increase in feeling like she is “being a fake.”
  • Use of charm: Gifted women often use their intuitive perceptiveness and charm to gain approval and praise from supervisors and seek out relationships with supervisors in order to help increase her abilities intellectually and creatively. But, when the supervisor gives her praise or recognition, she feels that this praise is based on her charm and not on her abilities.
  • Avoiding display of confidence: Another way that a woman can perpetuate her impostor feelings is to avoid showing any confidence in her abilities. A woman dealing with impostor feelings may think that if she actually believes in her intelligence and abilities she may be rejected by others. Therefore, she may convince herself that she is not intelligent or does not deserve success to avoid this.


Dr. Clance describes it this way:

Most people who experience the Impostor Phenomenon (IP) would not say, “I feel like an impostor.” Yet, when they read or hear about the experience, they say, “How did you know exactly how I feel?” And how do they feel? Even though they are often very successful by external standards, they feel their success has been due to some mysterious fluke or luck or great effort; they are afraid their achievements are due to “breaks” and not the result of their own ability and competence. They are also pretty certain that, unless they go to gargantuan efforts to do so, success cannot be repeated. They are afraid that next time, I will blow it.

Joyce M. Roche, author of the book, The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success, says:

Impostor syndrome is the fear and self-doubt that causes people to question their abilities — even in the face of success — and to constantly search for external validation. Simply put, it makes it difficult to recognize and celebrate one’s strengths and accomplishments.

While impostor phenomenon is not considered a psychological disorder and isn’t an official diagnosis listed in the DSM, psychologists and other experts acknowledge that it is a very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt. Impostor feelings are generally accompanied by anxiety, stress, and depression.

Researchers believe that up to 70% of people have experienced impostor syndrome at some point, although it tends to be particularly common in high achieving, successful people.

Impostor syndrome differs somewhat from the concept of low self-esteem because there is a discrepancy between the actual achievement and the person’s feelings about the achievement that may not be present in low self-esteem. People who are generally insecure or have low self-esteem usually have a difficult time achieving success.


The late Maya Angelou wasn’t the only prominent figure to experience impostor syndrome. Many of the “best of the best” have experienced the phenomenon:

“The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” – Albert Einstein

“What are you doing here? What do you think you’re doing? You’re going to be found out.” – Liz Bingham, managing partner Ernst & Young

“I’d wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and think, I can’t do this; I’m a fraud.” – Kate Winslet, award-winning actress

“All I can see is everything I’m doing wrong that is a sham and a fraud.” – Don Cheadle, award-winning actor and producer

“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.” – Tina Fey, award-winning actress and writer

“There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert.  How do these people believe all this about me?  I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.” – Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization

“I still think people will find out that I’m really not very talented.  I’m really not very good.  It’s all been a big sham.” – Michelle Pfeifer, award-winning actress

Perhaps the most eloquent description of what it is like to experience impostor syndrome comes from award-winning author Neil Gaiman’s commencement address at the University of the Arts:

The problems of failure are hard.

The problems of success can be harder, because nobody warns you about them.

The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you. It’s Imposter Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police.

In my case, I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard (I don’t know why he carried a clipboard, in my head, but he did) would be there, to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job, one that didn’t consist of making things up and writing them down, and reading books I wanted to read. And then I would go away quietly and get the kind of job where you don’t have to make things up any more.

People who suffer from impostor syndrome tend to reflect and dwell upon extreme failure, mistakes, and negative feedback from others. If not addressed, impostor syndrome can limit exploration and the courage to try new experiences, for fear of exposing failure. It also can prevent a sufferer from enjoying the success they’ve worked so hard to achieve, because they are afraid they don’t really deserve it and it will be taken away.

The impostor phenomenon and perfectionism are often linked. Many “impostors” think every task they handle has to be done perfectly, and they rarely ask for help. That perfectionism can lead to two typical responses, according to Dr. Clance. A person may procrastinate, putting off an assignment out of fear that he or she won’t be able to complete it to the necessary high standards. Or, he or she may over-prepare, spending much more time on a task than is necessary.

A vicious cycle can ensue. Afraid of being discovered as a fraud, people with impostor feelings work excessively hard to complete tasks perfectly. When they succeed, they begin to believe all that anxiety and effort paid off. Eventually, they develop almost superstitious beliefs. “Unconsciously, they think their successes must be due to that self-torture,” Dr. Imes says.

What causes impostor syndrome?

The Caltech Counseling Center says past experiences may contribute to impostor syndrome:

Attitudes, beliefs, direct or indirect messages that we received from our parents or from other significant people in our lives early on may have contributed to the development of impostor feelings. Certain family situations and dynamics tend to contribute to impostor feelings: when the success and career aspirations conflicts with the family expectations of the gender, race, religion, or age of the person, families who impose unrealistic standards, families who are very critical, and families who are ridden with conflict and anger.

Some researchers identify two main types of family dynamics that can contribute to impostor feelings, although there may be others.

Family Labels:  Different children in a family may be identified or labeled differently.  For example, some families have one “intelligent” child and one “sensitive” child.  While growing up, many times families will not change their perception of each child, no matter what that child does.  Therefore, the sensitive child, even if she gets better grades or more awards may not be recognized for her intelligence.  This can lead to doubting her intelligence and believing the family is correct even with evidence, which contradicts these labels.

Family messages of superiority: Other families can give their child full support to the point where the family and girl believe that she is superior or perfect.  As the girl grows up and encounters challenging tasks, she may begin to doubt her parent’s perceptions and may also need to hide her difficulties in order not to disturb the family image of her.  As a result of these normal difficulties, this girl may come to believe that she is only average and even below average.

Many people who feel like impostors grew up in families that placed a big emphasis on achievement, says Dr. Imes. In particular, parents who send mixed messages — alternating between over-praise and criticism — can increase the risk of future fraudulent feelings. Societal pressures only exacerbate the problem.

“In our society there’s a huge pressure to achieve,” Imes says. “There can be a lot of confusion between approval and love and worthiness. Self-worth becomes contingent on achieving.”

People who feel like impostors may fear success and the responsibility and visibility that come with it. Being more successful will increase the tension between the inner feelings and the outside perceptions.

On the flip side, there can be a huge amount of pressure to avoid failure, because failing could lead to being “found out.” This prevents the person from being able to enjoy or internalize success.

So, how can you manage fraudulent feeling flare-ups?

If impostor syndrome is plaguing your thoughts and inhibiting your ability to relax and enjoy your successes, consider these tips.

Own your accomplishments: there is nothing wrong with acknowledging when you do a good job on a project or have mastered a skill. Don’t chalk it all up to luck – accept that you played a major role in your success. You are willing to accept responsibility for your failures – so why not accept responsibility for your successes, too?

Talk to others: Discuss your feelings in order to understand that you are not alone and to get a reality check.

Be aware: Identifying thoughts that make you feel like an impostor is the first step to overcoming the problem. Sometimes we are not aware of our automatic thoughts. Caltech elaborates:

Automatic thoughts can be defined as underlying, unquestioned thoughts, which affect how you perceive an event or situation. These thoughts are often so automatic that they occur very fast and you may not even notice them…but they are affecting your perception. An example of an automatic thought related to impostor syndrome would be “I am not smart enough.” This underlying thought may lead to thinking such things as: “Everyone else is smarter than me” or “admissions made a mistake.”

Recognize your expertise: It’s okay to acknowledge your accomplishments and competence. Chances are, you worked hard for many years to become successful in your field. Dr. Imes recommends making a realistic assessment of your abilities:

Most high achievers are pretty smart people, and many really smart people wish they were geniuses. But most of us aren’t. We have areas where we’re quite smart and areas where we’re not so smart.

She suggests writing down the things you’re truly good at, and the areas that might need work. That can help you recognize where you’re doing well, and where there’s legitimate room for improvement.

Share your expertise: Help others who are beginners in your field. Become a mentor. This is a win-win technique: the people you coach will learn from your experience, and teaching others will help you realize how far you’ve come and how much knowledge you truly do possess.

Avoid comparing yourself to others: Kyle Eschenroeder of StartupBros explains:

When I compare myself to these others it’s easy to fall into the trap of “my life sucks compared to that life”. You might as well not even do anything! Your life isn’t the best life! Emerson said, “Envy is ignorance…” and he was right on. You aren’t here to live the life of another person. You’re here to do whatever life you can. Turn Facebook off, get off Instagram, stop reading biographies of “successful” people and learn to respect your own experience. You’re not a fraud, you’re just you.

Comparisons can be damaging, as speaker and author Margie Warrell points out:

Comparisons are always subjective, often biased  and rarely helpful.   Acutely aware of how hard we’re working to keep our head above water and fulfill expectations, we often mistakenly assume others are getting by more effortlessly. The reality is that many many people are stretched and struggling just like you. Perhaps not in the same way, but in their own way, with their own unique set of challenges, insecurities and internal struggles.

Don’t expect perfection: Making mistakes is natural and inevitable. Even most so-called “experts” don’t know EVERYTHING there is to know about their field. To err is human. When you fail at something or make an error, accept it, learn from it, and move on.

The thing about “impostors” is they have unsustainably high standards for everything they do. The thinking here is, If I don’t know everything, then I know nothing. If it’s not absolutely perfect, it’s woefully deficient. If I’m not operating at the top of my game 24/7, then I’m incompetent. – Dr. Valerie Young, an internationally known speaker, author and expert on women and impostor syndrome

Appreciate your natural talents: New York Times writer Carl Richards says he thinks part of the impostor syndrome comes from a natural sense of humility about our work, which is “healthy but can cross the line into paralyzing fear.”

When we have a skill or talent that has come naturally we tend to discount its value. Why is that? Well, we often hesitate to believe that what’s natural, maybe even easy for us, can offer any value to the world. In fact, the very act of being really good at something can lead us to discount its value. But after spending a lot of time fine-tuning our ability, isn’t it sort of the point for our skill to look and feel natural?

Here’s how Richards recommends we respond to the impostor syndrome when it shows up:

We know what the feeling is called. We know others suffer from it. We know a little bit about why we feel this way. And we now know how to handle it: Invite it in and remind ourselves why it’s here and what it means.

Every cloud has a silver lining…

Another way to respond to impostor syndrome is to be aware that the feeling actually indicates positive things about you. The reason? Feelings of faking it are usually associated with intelligence, diligence, and, strangely enough – competence. In fact, the genuinely incompetent are the ones who tend to be the most confident. This phenomenon, called The Dunning-Kruger Effect, is a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is. So, the fact that you sometimes doubt your competence is actually a positive attribute.

Dr. Young says that the impostor syndrome isn’t all bad because it can be an indicator that you care deeply about the quality of your work, but balance is important:

Caring about one’s work can also show up in the faulty thinking that we need to know a subject backwards and forwards before speaking up in a meeting or offering an opinion for fear of being wrong. If you accept the false notion that you need to know everything there possibly is to know before you consider yourself remotely competent, you may not even attempt things you’re perfectly capable of doing.

The quest for ultimate knowledge is an unreachable mirage. Instead relax and just do the best you can. Besides you don’t need to know everything. You just need to be smart enough to figure out who does and take it from there.

You can and should care about your work. It’s a matter of balance.

Perfectionists are welcome to hold onto that pursuit of high standards. Just shed the shame you feel when you fall short. Those who embrace the knowledge version of perfectionism can still value the importance of knowledge. Just ditch the unrealistic expectation that you should know it all.

The Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale assessment Dr. Clance developed can help you determine if you suffer from the syndrome. It can be taken on her website.

When thoughts of being a fraud infiltrate your mind, remember that it is usually a sign of true competence, and that you are in good company.

Related Reading

When Thinking Becomes Harmful: Rumination, Depression, and Anxiety

Is “Intolerance of Uncertainty” Making You Anxious?

Figuring Out How We Think—Socratic Questioning

The Real Reasons You Procrastinate and How to Stop

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