Being Successful, Feeling Unworthy: Impostor Syndrome

Grace Brown, a senior majoring in art therapy, said that despite her accomplishments, she feels uncomfortable with receiving compliments.

“I think some of it stems from low self-esteem,” Brown said. “I have achieved very highly, but I’ve also failed terribly. When I succeed, it brings up old feelings of failure in a way, even though I didn’t fail. I’m in one extreme over the other, I don’t know how to reconcile with it.” 

This is an example of the impostor phenomenon. Coined by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s, people who experience the impostor phenomenon feel their “success is due to a mysterious fluke or luck or great effort; they are afraid their achievements are due to ‘breaks’ and not the result of their own ability and competence,” according to Clance’s website

Brown said that when she fails at something, she feels like she didn’t give enough effort and internalizes it, but when she succeeds, she feels like her accomplishment was not earned.

“You kind of feel like ‘I should be happy about this’, but I’m not and I don’t know why,” Brown said. 

Those Who Are Affected

According to a posting from the American Psychological Association, “Feel like a Fraud?” by Kirsten Weir,  individuals who experience the impostor phenomenon combat feelings that their accomplishments are not merited and are apprehensive about being discovered as “fraudulent.”

This phenomenon can cause feelings of anxiety and lead to the development of detrimental behaviors.  

“It has always affected women more than men,” said Laurel End, psychology department chair at Mount Mary University. “The people that are most affected by this tend to be perfectionists. They tend to have high standards and have some self-doubt about their skills, and I think that does tend to apply more to women than men.”

End witnesses the characteristic traits of perfectionism and high standards in Mount Mary students. 

“I work with students individually sometimes with research and things like that, and they tend to be exceptional students,” she said. “I’m always surprised when they doubt their own abilities, even though they’ve had a lot of positive feedback.” 

End sees many Mount Mary students striving for perfection and creating high standards for themselves, two things that fuel the impostor phenomenon and the idea that they’re not as good as people think.  

People who tend to be more humble are affected by the impostor phenomenon more than those who are able to acknowledge their accomplishments.

“In our society women are reinforced [to think], ‘Oh no, I’m not that smart,’ and downplay their skills because it’s seen as arrogant and sometimes pushy if somebody says ‘I‘m good at this,’” End said. 

End, who has experienced bouts of the impostor phenomenon herself, said she first encountered the impostor phenomenon in graduate school. 

“I started getting positive feedback about my teaching skills or research and then I had to go defend my thesis in front of these professors from both within and outside my program,” she said. This is when the feelings of doubt started to accumulate.

“That’s the first time that I was like, ‘Oh no, they’re going to ask me a question, and I’m not going to have a clue of how to answer it’ and ‘People think I know all this stuff, but I don’t know anything,’” End said. 

The impostor phenomenon is very common among graduate students. According to Weir, the impostor phenomenon tends to be more prevalent among individuals who are pursuing a new venture, which makes graduate students more inclined to experience impostorism.  

“It’s natural to wonder, ‘Did they make a mistake letting me in here? Because there’s all these smart people here, and I don’t know what’s going on,’” End said.

Ann Angel, an English professor at Mount Mary, also sees this phenomenon in the writers she works with, her students and herself. 

“It’s more common in women because of the way we’re raised,” Angel said. “We’re raised to be nice, to be nurturers, so when we take on leadership we think we’re not capable of it,” she said. 

Every time Angel writes a book, she experiences feelings of self-doubt.

“As a teacher for writing, it is important to me to talk about the insecurities that all writers experience so that they realize that it’s not a unique experience and that it’s something that has to be overcome and dealt with,” she said. “I talk about writers who have frozen after having major successes.” 

Angel references Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” whose book was so popular that she was afraid that she would never again have that “best” work.  

John Green has started novels since writing “The Fault in Our Stars” but has not finished any of them.

Green openly discussed his experiences with writing after his success on his YouTube channel, stating that he feels “this intense pressure, like people were watching over my shoulder while I was writing.”

Angel conveyed a similar experience after the success of her book “Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing,” a biographical novel about the singer’s life. 

“I’ve written since the success of Janis Joplin, but I often think that’ll always be the book that I’m most known for,” Angel said. “I don’t think I’ll ever write a another book that’s that successful. That doesn’t mean that that’s going to be my truth, but it does mean that’s what I have to get over. That’s my hurdle.”

Carrie King, department chair in counseling at Mount Mary University, has also experienced this phenomenon and has witnessed it in her students.  

“Men tend to say ‘I got here on my ability,’ women tend to say ‘It was luck.’ But when things don’t go right, men tend to say it was an ‘outside source,’ but women will say ‘It’s because I wasn’t good enough,’” King said. 

King’s first encounter with the phenomenon occurred when reading an article about the effects of impostorism in African-American women in U.S. institutions of higher education and its  implications in counseling. The effects of this phenomenon in marginalized groups are even greater. 

“The impostor syndrome is a common phenomenon for women,” said King. “But when you have a group of women who have experienced racism and discrimination and have been getting additional messages about their ability, qualifications, intelligence or worth, all those pile on top of the sexism.”

King said that whenever you are looking at a group that is discriminated against, this inequity has an active impact.

“If someone is starting to internalize and believe the lies, myths and stereotypes of who they are as a racial being, sexual being or whatever it is, it just increases the reasons why someone might believe they are an impostor,” she said. 

Tips to Conquering Impostor Syndrome

1. Accept your success and learn from your mistakes 

According to End, it’s important to recognize that through your hard work, you have learned and mastered skills.

“Talking about what you can do is just stating facts,” End said. “But I think you should focus on what you have accomplished, while keeping in mind that there is so much more that you could learn. You may have great skills that other people don’t have, but keeping it in perspective so you don’t think ‘I’m so much better than everybody else now.’” 

End especially encourages women to not downplay their skills to make people feel comfortable and to keep a balanced perspective. 

“Instead of thinking of the glass as half empty, like ‘there’s all this stuff that I don’t know,’ look at the glass both ways,” she said. “Here’s what I know. I’m going to constantly be learning more, but I shouldn’t disregard what I already know. I can’t disregard that there’s more to learn in my future.” 

End also recommends having a different approach about what is defined as failure, and to take it as a learning opportunity when things don’t turn out as expected. 

“If you’ve gotten that feedback, that will help you get a little closer to your goal and rethink about how you’re conceptualizing something so that you’re more accurate next time around,” End said. “But it’s not a failure on your part.”

2. Let go of perfectionism 

According to Angel, the best way to cope with impostorism is deciding that it’s not about being the best.  

“You have to let go of the theory perfection and pick up on the theory of putting one foot in front of the other every day,” Angel said. “If you’re going to be a writer or a physician, you need to keep walking towards those goals, a little piece at a time.” 

When dealing with the impostor phenomenon, End said she conquered it by talking about her worries with her mentor, a person she worked closely with throughout her graduate school career. He pointed out that he wouldn’t have allowed End to go into a thesis defense if she didn’t know anything and End found assurance in this because of their relationship of trust.

“He would have been the first one to notice that I didn’t know what I was talking about,” she said.

Crediting that experience, End has since been largely unaffected by the impostor phenomenon because she no longer cares about what people think about her. She doesn’t fear looking “stupid.” 

End encourages people to feel more comfortable admitting when they don’t know something because that’s how we learn. 

“People around us are not going to give us false feedback if they really care about us,” she said. 

3. Recognition and support 

King explained that the impostor phenomenon often occurs unconsciously, so recognizing it helps individuals address it.  

“Otherwise, it just sits there and then you undermine yourself all the time,” she said. 

King also recommended locating a peer group for support.  

“We are less likely to be encouraging of ourselves than we are to be encouraging to others, so it’s about finding people who have had similar psychological and environmental experiences,” King said. 

King said that educating people about the impostor phenomenon could help bring it to the forefront. 

“The only places I’ve seen impostor phenomenon really touched on is with women in specific careers, and [in] literature-based sources that talk about children of color in schools feeling like they don’t belong,” King said. “Outside of that I don’t read or hear about it on the news.”

King said that the more you can get people who are having these experiences to be able to talk about it openly, the better.

“I feel like making it a part of the conversation is a way to not normalize it, but acknowledge it and challenge it,” King said. “Once you become aware of it, then you can see where it’s rooted in you, what kind of situations or people can trigger that and then you can talk yourself out of it with self-affirmation.”

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