Career & Money

Dealing with Impostor Syndrome

Dr. Anne Litwin
By Dr. Anne Litwin

Have you ever felt like a fraud or impostor—like you did not belong or deserve a promotion or award? I know I have. Kristin Wong, writing for the New York Times, explains that the impostor syndrome is a term coined by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in 1978 to describe an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” In my experience as a leadership coach, impostor syndrome is not uncommon, but most people do not talk about these feelings and think they are the only ones having them. Impostor syndrome can cause people to hold back, hesitate, or fail to contribute their valuable ideas and skills. They may appear to “lack confidence.” When they have an opportunity to put a name to this experience and discover they are not alone, they often feel liberated and empowered. They also come to know that these feelings will reappear from time to time and that they need support from others who understand when this happens.

I am a coach in several women’s leadership development programs and one of them, the Power of Self Program, administers an impostor syndrome self-assessment instrument during the first of six classes in the program. I have the opportunity to debrief my coaching clients who take this course to hear about the impact of having a name for the impostor experience. They are often surprised and relieved to discover they are not alone and that there are strategies they can use to overcome the debilitating impact of the syndrome. The impostor syndrome often becomes a central focus of our coaching work.

Some researchers have found that impostor syndrome hits minority groups harder, which has also been my experience as a coach. Sometimes a coaching client struggles with an almost debilitating impostor syndrome when

  • Impostor syndrome can cause people to hold back, hesitate, or fail to contribute their valuable ideas and skills.They are a member of an underrepresented group in an industry or organization. When you don’t see other people like you, this can reinforce the feeling that you don’t belong.
  • They were raised in a culture where they were told they would not or could not do certain things. For example, many of my clients of Asian descent, especially females, have been told all their lives that they are not intelligent or worthy. It is the belief in some Asian (and other) cultures that parents will bring bad luck to their children if they say positive or encouraging things. They do the opposite to show their love and protect their children from bad luck. But this can cause difficulty for those children as adults trying to succeed.
  • They are raised in a culture, including Western cultures, where social norms dictate that women and men should adhere to traditional gender norms and roles. To do otherwise can feed the impostor syndrome.
  • They are functioning in a culture where racial/ethnic/class/caste norms prescribe roles and access to opportunity. Breaking through those barriers can be difficult, both externally and internally, as internalized oppression can accompany us on our life journey.
  • They cannot distinguish between their own internalized experience of oppression and actual discrimination, where the barriers really are external.

Wong cites Rosanna Durruthy, a global diversity leader, and Kevin Cokley, a professor of educational psychology and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin, as suggesting these strategies for dealing with impostor syndrome at work:

  • Join an affinity group to find people with similar backgrounds and experiences.
  • Recruit a mentor to serve as a professional anchor, preferably someone who has shared your experiences.
  • Document your accomplishments. Record positive feedback you receive and your accomplishments in a daily journal. A review of this journal can both help you get through an attack of impostor syndrome and create a record to draw from to make the case for your next raise or promotion.
  • Develop a mantra to remind yourself that you earned your success.

What has worked for you?



Photo courtesy of businessforward (CC BY-SA 2.0)


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Dr. Anne Litwin
Anne H. Litwin, Ph. D. Consultant, Coach, Trainer, and Author Dr. Anne Litwin has been a consultant, coach, and trainer for more than 30 years in a wide variety of organizations throughout the world, including Africa, China, Myanmar, Russia, Singapore,...Read More
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