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impostor syndrome

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that causes sufferers to attribute their successes and accomplishments to external factors such as luck, timing or connections rather than to personal merit, hard work or ability. Essentially, people who suffer from impostor syndrome feel like frauds, and that feeling is associated with a lack of confidence that can hamper productivity and limit future success.

Although some people are more prone to impostor syndrome than others, it is considered a response to particular types of situations rather than a stable personality trait. Albert Einstein, Neil Armstrong, Neil Gaiman, Sheryl Sandberg and Maya Angelou are among the high achievers who have reported relatively persistent feelings of unearned success.

Impostor syndrome is correlated with a number of maladaptive beliefs and behaviors and their effects, including a lack of self-confidence, perfectionism, procrastination, overwork, a lack of work-life balance and burnout. Those affected by the syndrome may have a persistent dread of being exposed as the frauds they perceive themselves to be. As a result, they often work very hard to try to prevent others from discovering their "secret" and may be extremely productive, at least in the short term.

On the other hand, some sufferers have difficulty getting started on new initiatives because they fear that their incompetence will cause them to fail. Fear of failure can also make some employees underperform because they don't really apply themselves. (That psychological twist may be based on the unconscious belief that if they don't try really hard and fail as a result, the failure is not indicative of their lack of ability.)

To overcome impostor syndrome, experts suggest creating a list of your accomplishments and examining it objectively, as evidence of your capabilities. Sufferers can also embrace the possibility of failure, rather than dreading it. Failure happens, and is part of most eventual successes. Another suggestion is change your mental focus on the work itself and providing value, rather than thinking of work as an expression of your abilities. Finally, those who feel like they don't deserve their own success should fully understand that most people feel the same way, at least occasionally. According to the Behavioral Science Research Institute, impostor syndrome affects about 70 percent of people at one time or another through their lives.

Author Neil Gaiman took comfort in learning that the astronaut Neil Armstrong also felt like a fraud:

"Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for."

This was last updated in November 2017

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