Skip to main content

Do You Feel Like an Imposter?

| July 11, 2023

by Kathy Pletcher

The first time one of my MOR coachees confessed to having Imposter Syndrome I was puzzled. The 360 Report we reviewed together showed strong evidence that this person was accomplished, well-educated, and successful at their institution. I wanted to learn more. My research revealed that imposter syndrome is common among higher education professionals and holds them back as leaders.

What Is Impostorism?

The phrase goes back to 1978 when Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes published an article entitled The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women in which they described a pattern of successful women dismissing their accomplishments and believing their success would disappear once others discovered the awful secret that they were “fakes” or “imposters.” Dr. Valerie Young, a doctoral student at the time, recognized this phenomenon in herself, and many of her fellow students identified as imposters. Thus, she began to focus her research on impostorism and became a leading expert in the succeeding decades.  The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women and Men: Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It is a compilation of her research with practical advice on recognizing and overcoming impostor syndrome.

According to Dr. Young’s research, “people who don’t feel like imposters are no more intelligent, capable, or competent than those who do. They just think different thoughts.” She refers to those without feelings of impostorism as “humble realists” who are characterized by the following patterns of thinking:

  • Hold themselves to realistic standards of competence
  • Have a healthy response to failure, mistakes, and constructive criticism
  • Expect to experience self-doubt and fear, but keep going regardless

What distinguishes those with feelings of impostorism is “they hold themselves to an unrealistic and unsustainable standard of competence; falling short of this standard evokes shame.” Dr. Young’s research further revealed that those with feelings of impostorism don’t all experience failure-related shame in the same way. she identified five types:

  • Perfectionist.  The focus is on how things are done and the results. A small mistake or achieving 99% is seen as a failure, thus evoking shame.  
  • Expert.  Similar to the Perfectionist, except related to knowledge. The focus is on what you know and can do. You think you should know everything, so not knowing even something small is seen as a failure, thus evoking shame.  
  • Natural Genius.  Similar to the Expert, except you feel it must also come fast and easy. If you struggle in any way and can’t achieve perfection on the first try, it is seen as a failure, thus evoking shame.  
  • Soloist.  The focus is on who achieves the results. It can only be you achieving those results. Needing to ask for even a little help is seen as a failure, thus evoking shame.  
  • Superhuman.  The focus is on the number of different roles you can succeed in simultaneously, fast and easy. Leader, technical expert, member of many committees, work confidant, partner, parent, friend, volunteer – not fully achieving in any of these is seen as a failure, thus evoking shame.  

As you can see from the explanation of these types, a hallmark of impostorism is often setting unrealistic expectations of yourself. We wouldn’t expect others to achieve so much, yet we commonly place these expectations on ourselves.

Why Is Impostorism a Leadership Problem?

Imposter-related thoughts and feelings lead to unproductive behavior which is costly to individuals and their organizations. If you set “an unrealistic and unsustainable standard of competence” for yourself, you will never consistently reach that standard and will feel chronic stress and shame. This is not healthy and it steals your joy. Further, it can impact your entire team, family, and other vital relationships. Leaders experiencing impostorism not only hold themselves back but also hold others back. Soloists, for example, often don’t delegate and develop others on the team. Perfectionists will not tolerate people achieving results using different steps or learning through mistakes. Superhumans set a lousy example, stressing themselves and everyone else in the organization by taking on too much.  

How Can Impostorism Be Overcome?

Stop limiting yourself. Reframe your thoughts from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Consider: Experts believe they need to know everything about a project before they can make a proposal to their team. But if they reframe their perspective to think: “I don’t need to have all the answers before I present this because it can be refined as I gather more data, and maybe others have ideas or data to contribute.” By lowering the competence standard from “I have to know everything” to “I don’t need to have all the answers up front,” the task becomes achievable. Small successes build confidence. There is an extensive description of solutions for each of the five types in Chapter 6 of Dr. Young’s earlier referenced book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women and Men. The solutions center around reframing our thoughts. Reframing, like changing any habit, takes time. Be compassionate with yourself and seek help from trusted colleagues, family, and friends. They want you to succeed!

Last month we asked about ways to create and restore healthy relationships:

  • 30% said they truly listen to the core concerns
  • 29% said they seriously examine what changes are needed in your behavior
  • 18% said get to know the person outside of work
  • 15% said to be more than a passive participant
  • 8% said they envision the desired future state

As we consider healthy relationships, all the techniques above can be helpful. However, by far the most common are two foundations: actively listening to others and thinking about the changes we need to make in ourselves. While it can sometimes feel hard to receive, the gift of feedback received by genuinely understanding another’s perspective provides us valuable insight. And the person we can most influence is ourselves, so start there. Looking at thoughts of impostorism we may experience, it is also essential to listen to ourselves, understand what we are thinking, how it may align to one of the five types, and most importantly any changes that may be needed in our behavior to overcome those thoughts, including how our healthy relationships might help us in the process.