We’ve all been there – that nagging feeling that you’re not good enough or deserving of professional success. That feeling you have is called imposter syndrome, and way more people experience it than you probably realize. I’ve been there, as has almost every person I’ve supported during my 10 years as a career coach and vocational counselor. Even though imposter syndrome is not an official mental health diagnosis, it’s an extremely common experience that can significantly impact confidence and overall well-being in your life.
We hear it so much now, but where did the term “imposter syndrome” even come from? It was named in the 1970s by researchers Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who published a paper describing how high-achieving women persistently believed they were not intelligent and were overvalued by others; they felt like imposters in their own lives.
While imposter syndrome is often associated with women, people of all genders experience it and at all different levels of their careers. Studies show that an estimated 70% of people will feel like a fraud at some point in their careers. Even introverts and perfectionists are prone to imposter syndrome. As someone who is both of those things, I went through years of feeling like I wasn’t good enough to be a career counselor.
That was when I was first starting out. Somehow, I secured my role as a career counselor after meeting only 50% of the qualifications. As you can imagine, that set me up from the beginning to question my worth and expertise. I’d applied on a whim to see what would happen and was shocked when they offered me the job. It took several years of practicing how to be assertive, handle feedback/criticism, and learning new skills for the feeling of imposter syndrome to become only a whisper.
What causes imposter syndrome to pop up? People most often experience it during major life transitions or when achieving something major like starting a new job, earning a degree or certification, taking on more job responsibilities, and getting praise or recognition. Anything along those lines can ignite the inner voice that says “I don’t deserve this.” The voice of your inner critic can be loud and hard to ignore, so much so that it becomes all you hear in your head.
The good news is imposter syndrome doesn’t mean you lack intelligence or ability. It’s often the opposite. High achievers are more likely to discount their talents and fear being “found out” as a fraud. But in reality, any successes are due to your hard work and competence. If you weren’t qualified, you wouldn’t have received those opportunities in the first place.
This is where working on your mindset and taming the inner critic is so important. You do this in 3 steps:
1. Notice and acknowledge the negative thought you’re having.
2. Question if it’s true (spoiler alert: it typically isn’t).
3. Replace the negative thought with something more productive.
I provided training about how to do this to the members of The Confident Career Society. For more details about how to successfully use this method, you can watch the video training below:
If you want access to more resources about building confidence, job searching effectively and figuring out what to do next with your career, I encourage you to click here and join the free group.
While coping with imposter syndrome on an individual level is necessary to give you relief, it’s a phenomenon that also needs to be addressed on a societal level. Certain environments and social factors make imposter syndrome worse, especially for marginalized groups like women of color. Workplaces and institutions should take proactive steps to create more inclusive cultures where everyone is treated with respect and supported in their professional growth. As an example, research shows women and minorities feel heightened imposter syndrome in male-dominated fields. Seeing few role models who share your identity can increase those internalized feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. Mentorship programs, employee resource groups, and recruiting efforts to diversify organizations can help combat this.
Similarly, academia should examine elements that feed imposter syndrome, like intense competition and “genius” myths that undermine confidence. Professors can be transparent about failures and challenges in their own journeys to normalize struggle. Grading rubrics and assessments should be clear and objective to avoid subjectivity.
We need to challenge narratives that equate worthiness with elitism, raw talent over hard work, and perfectionism rather than growth. Not everyone progresses at the same pace, and unique backgrounds enrich our capabilities.
As a society, we must show more empathy, praise accomplishments without caveats, and stop measuring everything as an outright competition. Reframing success as attainable with motivation and grit can alleviate pressure and alienation.
Still struggling with feeling like an imposter? Here are some helpful tips:
- Share your feelings. Talk to a trusted friend or mentor to gain perspective. Knowing other people can relate to what you’re feeling is validating.
- Celebrate your wins, no matter how small they seem. Write down your accomplishments so you can visualize your capabilities (and this is super useful as achievements you can add to your resume).
- See mistakes as part of learning, not as proof you’ are’re a failure. Challenge negative self-talk using the method I explained in the video above.
- Focus on YOU, not other people or what they’re doing. We all have different strengths so there’s no reason to compare yourself.
- Trust your abilities. Fake it til you make it! Act confidently even if you don’t feel it yet. Think of yourself as an evil mastermind who has fooled everyone into believe you’re an expert. It might feel silly to do that, but that humor takes away the power of your inner critic.
- Be kind to yourself. This is common and doesn’t mean something is wrong with you. You got this!
The bottom line? You deserve to be where you are today. Don’t allow imposter syndrome to dim the light of your confidence. Stay positive, acknowledge your capabilities, and take on new challenges as opportunities to grow. You’re not an imposter, but the rightful author of your own story. Keep writing it! Remember – this isn’t just an individual struggle, but one we must address collectively in our workplaces, institutions and culture. By supporting each other, we can all genuinely feel we belong.