Impostor Syndrome

Instructor: Derek Hughes

Derek has a Masters of Science degree in Teaching, Learning & Curriculum.

Impostor syndrome, while not a diagnosed disorder, affects many high-achieving academics and professionals. This lesson will introduce you to impostor syndrome, how it might manifest in one's thinking, and some ways to cope with it.

Impostor Syndrome Defined

Have you ever been in a situation where, by all evidence, you are the expert in the room on a certain topic? While in that situation, have you ever felt like someone had made a mistake - there was no way you could contribute in the field you worked so hard to become an expert in? Have you ever felt like you got where you are in life by pure luck or through someone else's mistake?

If any of those questions rang true, you might have or still be suffering from impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome is the feeling that you are inadequate or undeserving of a job or position, despite overwhelming evidence that you earned it. In other words, you feel like an impostor - someone who is pretending or posing as someone they're not. It is not a mental disorder and is often thought of as a reaction to certain events or stimuli.

It is important to note that it is perfectly normal to experience some self-doubt, especially when starting a new job or academic program. However, those suffering from impostor syndrome have an all-encompassing, overwhelming fear that someone will figure out that they don't deserve to be in the position they're in.

Who It Can Affect

Though many people might suffer from it, impostor syndrome is most likely to affect high achieving people in the field of academics or other public professions. It is also more likely to impact successful women. The rest of this lesson will focus on the symptoms and potential coping skills for impostor syndrome through the lens of high achieving, successful women. That does not mean, however, that men do not experience these symptoms or can't use these same coping skills.


Picture in your mind a successful, professional woman working for a technology company. What does she look like? What is she wearing? What is she thinking? Focus on the last question more closely. You might assume that this woman is thinking of various things she has to do, solutions to some problems her company is facing, or ways she can improve the performance of her staff.

These thoughts might apply to this woman. However, if she is suffering from impostor syndrome, her thoughts are going to look quite different. People dealing with impostor syndrome will often suffer silently, while their thoughts of inferiority take over their day. Instead of having the confidence to solve a particular problem, the successful professional you pictured might instead be thinking 'Someone made a mistake hiring me' or 'I can't do this, I must have gotten lucky to land this job'.

The thought processes of someone with impostor syndrome usually manifest as three broad ways of thinking. The person might feel like a phony and have thoughts that reinforce that, she might credit her success to good luck instead of hard work, or she might play down her success or hard work. Examples of these kinds of thoughts and how they're manifested are:

  • Feeling like a phony: 'I'm only giving the impression that I'm competent. In reality, I am not good enough or qualified to do this.'
  • Success due to luck instead of skill, ability or hard work: 'I got lucky that my presentation was a success. I won't be able to do that again.'
  • Downplay accomplishments: 'Getting a promotion isn't that big a deal. There's still a lot more I need to work for.'

These thoughts are not just passing, every-so-often experiences. They are persistent and overwhelming. They can also lead to a change in behavior. For example, a woman suffering from impostor syndrome might feel the need to work three times as hard to 'prove' to herself and superiors that she really is qualified for her position.

The 'impostor' may also use charm to connect with superiors and coworkers because she feels that is the only way to succeed with her self-perceived lack of skills or knowledge. She may also avoid acting confident, for fear that someone will figure out that she is faking or pretending to be someone she's not.

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

Picture the professional woman from before. Now that you know she is suffering from impostor syndrome, what are some ways you might try to help her overcome those feelings? You may not be an expert, but some of the ideas you just came up with are probably suggestions that you will find in this section.

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