Imposter Syndrome: How Self-Doubt Can be Undervalued and Reframed to Our Advantage

By Barbara Oakley, Ph.D

“Imposter syndrome” is the feeling that you are not truly deserving of your accomplishments — or, at the very least, far less able than those around you. Though it’s called a “syndrome,” feeling like an imposter is not a mental disorder — it’s simply an emotionally harmful way of framing your achievement. If you are successful, you think it must have been an accident or lucky timing. Or maybe people were somehow fooled. In other words, the way you see it, your success wasn’t really your doing. If you fail, on the other hand, you see it as your fault.

Women, in particular, seem to experience these feelings often, though men can as well. (It’s possible that men just aren’t as forthcoming about their feelings.) As Drs. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes noted in their original research paper on the topic back in 1978: “Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.” And, sadly, this belief — this feeling that they are frauds — persists even in the face of solid evidence of their intelligence, achievements, and capabilities. (i)

Imposter syndrome, oddly enough, occurs most commonly in high achievers. Part of the challenge in overcoming the syndrome is that the imposter’s humility can be refreshing for regular people who catch a whiff of it (she’s humble!). Women, perhaps because of their heightened sensitivity to the feelings of others, might tend toward being bashful to avoid the stigma of being considered a braggart. (ii) Testosterone may play a role here as well — the hormone is associated with aggressiveness, dominance, and risk-taking behaviors. (iii)

Princess found herself experiencing full-blown imposter syndrome in the technical summer camp she attended. She was placed in charge of an all-male team designing a long term vegetable storage container for farmers. In managing her team, she not only had to speak in front of the group — always a problem for her — but she also had to tell the group what to do. Who was she to be put in such a position of authority?

Courtesy of Unsplash

CThis “I am not worthy” attitude led Princess to take care in how she issued directions to her team. “Do you think this is correct?” she would wonder aloud. To her amazement, she began to realize that the team saw her as a leader — one who made good decisions. This encouraged her to take her blinders off and really look at what was going on around her. This informed, more objective assessment of reality, as it turns out, is an important step in overcoming feelings of imposterhood. Ultimately, Princess’s reframing toned down those self-critical, second-guessing-herself circuits that were running in her head. Clearly she was capable. And she was further reassured of that by guidance from mentors. She began to realize something else — that she didn’t always need to be stereotypically dominant, just ordering people around, to be a good leader. This, in turn, allowed her to recognize that she could move past the imposter syndrome while also benefiting from it.

Self-doubts are by no means always bad. Military officers and embassy officials, for example, can be full of a subconscious cultural rectitude that their perspectives are correct — an attitude that can get them into trouble once they arrive at their overseas assignments. In the realm of science, Nobel Prize–winning neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal said that one of the biggest challenges of the geniuses he worked with was that they would jump to conclusions and then be unable to change their minds when they were wrong.(iv) History is replete with business executives, generals, and politicians who only listen to others when they reinforce their own thoughts — these leaders then steer with blithe conviction toward disaster. Doubt, of course, can be overdone — but it can also be undervalued. (v)

And the reality is that although talents and skills matter, luck can also play an important role in our lives. A toss of the dice between two equally talented applicants can leave one with a job, and the other feeling like a reject. A concussion from an out-of-the-blue automobile accident can mean college prep exams go badly — meaning your chances of getting into that top university are reduced. Perhaps the most wonderful piece of luck of all is to be born into a loving and supportive family — a sort of luck that some can only wish for.

Thus it’s natural that most of us — except perhaps the most brash and narcissistic — can fall occasional prey to feeling like an imposter. Accepting that these feelings are normal, and reframing them to our advantage forms a healthy way to move forward.

i Clance and Imes, 1978.
ii Bloise and Johnson, 2007; Derntl, et al., 2010; Montagne, et al., 2005.
iii Sapienza, et al., 2009; Mazur and Booth, 1998; Giammanco, et al., 2005.
iv Ramón y Cajal, 1937 (reprint 1989)
v Burton, 2008.


Excerpted from Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential by Barbara Oakley, Ph.D. © 2017 by Barbara Oakley. TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.