Personal & Executive Coach

Consulting Psychologist & Psychoanalyst

Imposter Syndrome

What Is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome is a catchy label.  Despite that the term “Syndrome” is suggestive of it, it is not a diagnosis nor a medical or psychiatric condition.  What the label does accomplish is to name aspects of insecurity and fear of failure suffered by many people in some degree of other in every possible context. 

That said, just as “fear of flying” may refer broadly to a spectrum of anxiety about getting on an airplane, there is a smaller subgroup of people for whom fear of flying means they are not only afraid, but in fact never get on airplanes.  By this analogy, Imposter Syndrome in the broad sense could refer to anyone who has felt undeserving of their success — however temporarily; and in the narrow sense  suffer many of the mindsets and behaviors of Imposter Syndrome, often to the point of dysfunction or deep anxiety and depression. 

These mindsets and behaviors include:

  • Fear exposure or being found out as a fraud when they are successful
  • Hold themselves to lofty, almost impossible standards
  • Rationalize their success as “luck” or “a mistake”
  • Feel they don’t deserve praise and have difficulty accepting credit
  • Do not let positive feedback sink in or last long
  • Are unable to take satisfaction in work well-done
  • Self -sabotage opportunities for professional growth
  • Work long hours to make something perfect
  • Are intolerant of own mistakes or small failures
  • Are over-reactive to negative feedback
  • Have an unhealthy work-life balance, suffer from workaholism


If you if you identify with some or all of the above, fear of failure – or success – can be immobilizing.  Success is a limited point in a vast plane of suboptimal possibilities.  There is only one way of succeeding and many ways of failing.  The standard of success is set so high that the sheer difficulty of attaining it can lead to a sense of futility or paralysis.  This is augmented by a tendency to self-criticism and self-defeating thoughts, including a negative self-image, a sense of inadequacy, unworthiness, or a conviction of being a phony.

Who Suffers From Imposter Syndrome?

Many people, if not most, suffer one or another aspect of these symptoms. Surveys conducted on students and alumni of universities, professional schools, even high school students and the general public reported that as much as 80% of individuals have endorsed these symptoms. Nor do concrete awards and credits overcome the experience, since many successful people such as John Steinbeck, a writer of Nobel Prize standing, and Meryl Streep, of Oscar fame, have both reported feeling like imposters.

Why Does Imposter Syndrome Occur In The First Place?

To some extent the prevalence of Imposter Syndrome owes itself to aspects of the society and culture we live in, which prizes performance, achievement and success – sometimes at any cost. While it is part of the human makeup to seek agency, mastery and control – when those drivers turn toward perfection and First Place as a goal, people lose perspective of what they are realistically capable of doing, or what it takes to feel good about themselves.

The ubiquity of social media has turned the modern world, as Shakespeare described it, as “all the world [is] a stage.”  Social media platforms turn human communities into a relentless stage to demonstrate the prosperity and success of a many a person’s life, even as the individuals who post these snapshots experience the normal gamut of insecurity and inadequacy. Believing you should always look good, confident, prosperous and on top of everything is guaranteed to increase a feeling of being fake, even if subconsciously. 

What is the Origin of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome was originally named by American researchers in the 1970s, who found it to be prevalent among female academics.  Women who were born in the 1950s and earlier in the United States and elsewhere were subject to a widespread cultural belief that females were incapable of succeeding at school and work.  Cultural beliefs are passed on through families (see my article on Asian women and fear of success); and gendered attitudes about your value and your potential are extremely powerful and enduring. 

Even if you didn’t grow up in a family that underprivileged you because you were female, there are any number of different ways in which strong insecurities, often culturally determined, influenced how you were viewed or how people in your life – your parents, your teachers, your society – viewed  themselves and others in a way that affected your sense of identity.  Name the poison.  It could be skin color, or a physical disability, or sexual orientation, or how rich or poor your family was.   Many a male child has suffered, growing up, brutally narrow stereotypes about what is expected of him as a “man.”  While these are culturally-based values, the attributions lending themselves to psychological meaning, is infinite.  Don John in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing was embittered  in life because he was “illegitimate” (a cultural and legal concept).  I’ve worked with someone who belonged to a privileged and “dynastic” family, who suffered from their own and their families’ nervous yet undefinable sense that they wouldn’t be “good enough.”

In other words, most of the time, that feeling of being “not good enough,” which is the essence of Imposter Syndrome, has its source somewhere in a person’s sense of self, which is independent of the situation and evaluation at hand.