Sufferers of the phenomenon are in extremely good company. Albert Einstein, the Nobel Prize winner recognized as one of the most influential scientists in history, referred to himself as an “involuntary swindler” and suggested his work didn’t deserve the acclaim it received.
The writer and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Maya Angelou once said: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, 'Uh oh, they're going to find out now.”
And three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep — widely regarded as the greatest living actress — has revealed she gets “cold feet” before every new project and thinks: “Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”
The list goes on, with writer John Steinbeck, actress Jodie Foster, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg all revealing they have suffered from similar insecurities in the past.
In fact, according to a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, it is estimated 70% of people will suffer from impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. But while these highly successful people all achieved greatness despite self-doubt, that nagging voice can prevent many other people from living their fullest life.
So as we look at overcoming impostor syndrome, maybe it’s worth considering that the emotions triggering impostor syndrome could even be an asset … if viewed from a different perspective.
What is impostor syndrome?
The term impostor syndrome — and the impostor phenomenon — was coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in their 1978 research.
In a further paper on the topic, Clance explains, "The psychological experience of believing that one's accomplishments came about not through genuine ability but as a result of having been lucky, having worked harder than others, or having manipulated other people's impressions, has been labeled the impostor phenomenon."
The psychologists' original research focused on the experience of 150 high-achieving women and suggested that females were more affected. In 2006, a separate study at Purdue University, Indiana, also found that women expressed greater impostor fears than men.
But the belief that mainly women are affected has become outdated. In 1993, when following up on her original findings, Clance writes, "Surveys of several populations, however, have found no differences between the sexes in the degree to which they experience impostor feelings."
Further research has since agreed that men can be equally affected, but it can manifest itself in different ways — with women affected in terms of performance, and men more focused on success.
Experts have identified different roots of the issue when investigating what causes impostor syndrome. Some believe it could stem from internalized childhood experiences — and encourage parents to value character ahead of achievement — while others have related it to personality traits like anxiety and neuroticism.
And while we often associate impostor syndrome with work or academic environments, it can affect our personal lives too and lead to unjustified worry that we are not being a good enough parent or friend.
Valerie Young, a leading impostor syndrome expert and author of the book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, identified and described the following five different “types of impostors” from her work in the area:
The Perfectionist’s primary focus is on “how” something is done — and one minor flaw in an otherwise stellar performance is not enough.
This is the knowledge version of the perfectionist. The expert expects to know everything; even a minor lack of knowledge is a failure.
Cares about who completes the task, and feels like it needs to be them alone and that needing help is a sign of defeat.
The Natural Genius
For the natural genius, competence is measured in terms of ease and speed. Struggling to master a subject or skill or not succeeding on the first try feels like failure.
Falling short in any role — as a parent, partner, in the home or at work — all evoke shame because these people feel they should be able to handle it all perfectly and easily.
Overcoming impostor syndrome
When we look at Young’s five types of impostors — and the huge success of the high-profile individuals who have admitted to being affected — the feelings behind it may appear irrational.
So having looked at what impostor syndrome means, the next step is finding practical skills to overcome it.
Firstly, we should remember that the feelings that trigger this response are just feelings that come and go. We need to try to change our relationship with them, so they don’t have a negative impact on our lives.
Tanya Geisler is a certified leadership coach who specializes in helping people overcome the impostor complex.
She says the good news is that real frauds don’t normally feel that way, and that if we are experiencing impostor syndrome, “It’s because you have strong values of mastery, integrity, and excellence. Self-doubt is proof of your humanity, not your inadequacy.”
Geisler also encourages us to accept that we’re all works in progress. She says: “It’s the rooting into what is true about our capabilities, and looking to other people as models of possibility. Every pencil can be a little bit sharper. The truth is, you are already enough.”
Geisler says impostor syndrome thrives when we keep the feelings bottled up and we should not be afraid to ask for help. She explains, “Asking for help just means you are serious about your success. Your people want you to succeed — let them help you.”
And Jessica Collett, a professor of sociology at The University of California, Los Angeles, says an important step is calling our impostor syndrome for what it is. She carried out research on academics, and says, “Research shows that one of the best things we can do is name impostorism, to give students the sense that what they are experiencing is more common than they believe.”
Meditation for impostor syndrome
Being able to identify our thoughts for what they are, becoming at ease with them, and then letting them go without giving them weight or meaning, is a skill we can learn as part of a regular meditation practice.