What is something an Oscar-winning filmmaker, a UN lawyer, a NASA engineer and a Harvard doctor have in common? Well, at one point in their careers, each of these high-achieving individuals felt like an imposter. In preparing for a talk on imposter syndrome to a group of undergraduates, I interviewed these three professionals to learn more about the topic. Each of them conveyed that thoughts of self-doubt, feelings that they were in over their head, and beliefs that they didn’t deserve their well-earned achievements saturated their minds at one point or another. Even renowned author Maya Angelou said, “I have written 11 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.’” 1
The term imposter phenomenon, more commonly known today as “imposter syndrome” was coined in 1978 by Psychologists Paula Clance and Suzanne Imes after surveying high-achieving women in the workplace.2 The term stemmed from women feeling they didn’t belong amidst cultural patriarchal power structures. Contemporary studies show that imposter syndrome continues to impact women and people of color,3 as well as causing anxiety in men,4 and people in high-pressure careers such as the medical profession.5
Grappling with my own imposter syndrome as I prepared to present on a topic I didn’t even know existed a month before, I discovered there’s nothing wrong with feeling like you’re in over your head. The term “imposter syndrome” sounds like a medical condition, and that you are flawed. Really though, it can impact anyone stepping into uncharted territory, or trying something new. So, know you’re not alone and not flawed if you find yourself frozen with self-doubt, or if you think you don’t belong in a particular situation.
Yes, this is highly uncomfortable, and you may want to ditch. If you stay with the discomfort though, you’ll discover that imposter syndrome can be used as a catalyst for personal growth. When you cultivate an awareness of the thoughts and feelings imposter syndrome brings up, you’re able to slow down to see what’s really happening beneath the surface. Perhaps it’s a deep-seated fear of failure, or the idea that you are not good enough to rise to the occasion. Maybe these thoughts are associated with a past experience, or even a family member who planted seeds of self-doubt as far back as childhood.
Metacognition, the ability to notice your thoughts and think critically about them, is one way to build the bridge between imposter syndrome and it’s more positive counterpart: confidence. Unlike imposter syndrome, confidence is the appreciation of one’s own abilities, and a feeling of self-assurance. Now, what’s the best part about confidence? Neuroscientist Stacie Grossman Bloom explains that it is a learned behavior.6 This means that no one is born with any more confidence than another. Rather, it is a behavior that you can practice, and with time get better at no different than learning to play a musical instrument or a new language.
So, the next time you find yourself in a situation where you feel like you’re in over your head (a new job, a high-pressure situation, traveling, a relationship etc):
- Noticing the thoughts that arise. I can’t do this; I don’t belong here; How did I get myself into this?
- Pause, and remember that it’s common to feel these things when you’re starting something new or challenging.
- Use any healthy strategies you have to calm yourself from stress, such as breathing exercises, meditation, exercise, journaling, etc.
- Try a mantra, or reframe your thoughts to practice a confident mindset. I am going to let myself grow in this opportunity; I can do this.
Following these steps helped me teach the class that felt out of my comfort zone. Similarly, they will bring you back to the present moment and allow you to tackle the task at hand in a self-assured way.
As a reminder that imposter syndrome is common, watch this TedTalk by CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes, who, with humor and experience reminds us that the thoughts and feelings it brings up are just another opportunity for growth!
 Richards, C. (2015). Learning to Deal With the Impostor Syndrome. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/26/your-money/learning-to-deal-with-the-impostor-syndrome.html
 Clance, P. R. & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. doi: 10.1037/h0086006
 Cokley, K., Mcclain, S., Enciso, A. & Martinez, M. (2013). An Examination of the Impact of Minority Status Stress and Impostor Feelings on the Mental Health of Diverse Ethnic Minority College Students. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 41(2), 82–95. doi: 10.1002/j.2161–1912.2013.00029.x
 Badawy, R. L., Gazdag, B. A., Bentley, J. R., & Brouer, R. L. (2018). Are all impostors created equal? Exploring gender differences in the impostor phenomenon-performance link. Personality and Individual Differences, 131, 156–163. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2018.04.044
 Villwock, J. A., Sobin, L. B., Koester, L. A., & Harris, T. M. (2016). Impostor syndrome and burnout among American medical students: a pilot study. International Journal of Medical Education, 7, 364–369. doi: 10.5116/ijme.5801.eac4
 Centeno, C. C. (2018). Your Brain On Confidence. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolyncenteno/2018/04/18/your-brain-on-confidence/#1a538cee60cb