Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


impostor-syndrome

(PHOTO: ADISORN SAOVADEE/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Not Qualified for Your Job? Wait, You Probably Are

• October 22, 2013 • 6:00 AM

(PHOTO: ADISORN SAOVADEE/SHUTTERSTOCK)

That thing where you’re a relatively high-level professional who can’t help but think you don’t deserve to be where you are? It’s called impostor syndrome.

A few months ago, Katherine Anderson, who works in finance in New York, learned about a new mentoring program for women who work in venture capital and private equity. As a mid-level manager who’d struggled to find good mentorship, she was thrilled. “I said how much I’d like to participate,” Anderson told me, “preferably on the mentee side of the program since I don’t think there is much I can offer to someone else.” The program organizer laughed and told her that she’d just had a high-level managing director at a private equity firm say the exact same thing. None of the women who’d signed up to attend—regardless of their title—thought they were experienced enough to be mentors.

“It’s sort of surprising to me that even when you get to the top, you still don’t realize you’ve made it there,” Anderson says. Or that you still don’t think you deserve to be there, believing you somehow faked your way to success and that you’ll be found out at any moment. Even among elite, accomplished people, it’s a shockingly common affliction. Two-thirds of incoming students at the notoriously selective Harvard Business School raise their hands when they’re asked: “How many of you in here feel that you are the one mistake that the admissions committee made?”

The name for that fraudulent feeling is impostor syndrome. It’s a phenomenon in which people—usually high-achieving professionals—don’t consider themselves qualified for their position and convince themselves that they’ve cheated their way into it. It doesn’t matter how much work they’ve put in or how much experience they’ve acquired.

Impostorism Scale
(Leary, Patton, Orlando, & Funk, 2000)

Read each of the following statements carefully and indicate how characteristic it is of you using the following scale:

1 = Not at all characteristic of me.
2 = Slightly characteristic of me.
3 = Moderately characteristic of me.
4 = Very characteristic of me.
5 = Extremely characteristic of me.

_____ 1. Sometimes I am afraid I will be discovered for who I really am.

_____ 2. I tend to feel like a phony.

_____ 3. I’m afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as they think I am.

_____ 4. In some situations I feel like an imposter.

_____ 5. Sometimes I’m afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack.

_____ 6. In some situations I feel like a “great pretender”; that is, I’m not as genuine as others think I am.

_____ 7. In some situations I act like an imposter.

“The impostor syndrome describes the countless millions of people who do not experience an inner sense of competence or success,” writes Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. “Despite often overwhelming evidence of their abilities, impostors dismiss them as merely a matter of luck, timing, outside help, charm—even computer error. Because people who have the impostor syndrome feel that they’ve somehow managed to slip through the system undetected, in their mind it’s just a matter of time before they’re found out.”

We’re all familiar with the gut-level feeling you get when you know you’ve cheated. It often follows specific, concrete acts, like peeking at a classmate’s answers on a test or sleeping with someone who isn’t your boyfriend. The gut-level experience of impostor syndrome is something slightly different—a nervous undercurrent that runs through your day-to-day experience, unacknowledged, only to crop up in salary negotiations or in small phrases like, “It might just be me but….” or “Not sure I know what I’m talking about….” If you’re pressed to step outside yourself and try to adopt an outsider’s perspective, maybe you can articulate what it is you feel you lack—or admit that you have the same concrete skill set as your coworkers of similar standing. But most of the time, the feeling remains a quiet, hidden thing that you can’t quite express.

This week a young journalist emailed me for advice. She’d been recently promoted from intern to online editor because her boss was going on maternity leave. “It has been a steep learning curve and one which I am loving, but I often feel like I’m an impostor and constantly have to prove myself (mainly to myself),” she wrote. “Basically, I don’t feel like I really deserve this position.”

I hit “reply” and explained to the young journalist that I was very familiar with the impostor feeling. I got my first real journalism job because the editor wanted to sleep with me. Or at least, he was blatantly flirting with me and became openly hostile when I didn’t reciprocate. I believed I got the job based on looks first, skills second, and I may or may not have been right. My next job was one that my then-boyfriend applied for, was offered, and turned down at the last minute. Knowing this would put the magazine in a bind, he suggested they hire me instead. It took a long time to realize that no matter how and why I got those jobs, I was qualified to do them. And I did them well.

Experts note that impostor syndrome thrives when competition is intense and there are few mentors to provide a reality check—which seems to be a pretty apt description of the post-recession American economy. Women—who, despite slow progress in some fields, are increasingly dominant in the professional world—are far more likely than men to suffer from imposter syndrome. Many experts have posited that this is one reason for the so-called “ambition gap.” It’s not that women don’t want to succeed, it’s that, despite their education and experience, they’ve internalized messages about their lack of qualification. This is also true in the earliest stages of a professional career, when the difference between a polite rejection and a modest salary is mostly luck and connections, it can be hard to tell yourself that you earned this entry-level job and that you were qualified above and beyond all of those other applicants.

“You can’t control why someone picked you,” wrote Grantland’s Rembert Browne in a recent post about diversity and hiring. “As much as I’d like to think I got into my alma mater purely on grades, essays, SAT scores, and recommendations, I’ll never really know. What I do know is that it didn’t hurt that I was black and a good student. And the only thing I could control was leaving that environment unequivocally not as quota filler, but as an irreplaceable spoke in the wheel.”

It’s hard to negotiate a higher salary, apply for an even more prestigious job, or be a truly standout employee if you’re convinced you don’t belong. While, sure, any number of external factors—from luck to astrological alignment to the right connections—could play a role in your personal and professional success, you’re robbing yourself of experience and credibility. Deep down, you may believe you’re successful because you cheated, but this very feeling is you cheating you.

Some experts point out that the more you learn, the more you realize you have yet to learn. Impostor syndrome is, for many people, a natural symptom of gaining expertise. While impostor syndrome afflicts achievers in every industry, it’s particularly common among those in tech and science: fields with strict educational requirements where it’s tough to fake knowledge.

What’s the way out of this Catch-22? “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,” writes Jessica Collett, an associate professor of sociology at Notre Dame. “Also let them know that researchers find that impostorism is most often found among extremely talented and capable individuals, not people who are true impostors.” Take it from the expert: If you feel like a fraud, chances are you’re actually quite qualified.

Ann Friedman
Ann Friedman is a columnist for New York magazine's website but lives in Los Angeles. She is living the dream.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.