What is Imposter Syndrome?

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Dr. Rick Petronella

If you ever fear you’ll be discovered as inadequate, here’s how to stop those unwanted fears.

Do you ever think, “Someone is going to find out that I’m not as good as they think?” “What if they realize they hired the wrong person?” “I fear it is a matter of time people will see how dumb I am.” 

This is classic Imposter Syndrome, a term coined to describe ongoing feelings of inadequacy despite evidence on the contrary. While Imposter Syndrome is a relatively prevalent phenomenon in normal times, the sense of dislocation many have experienced over the last year coupled with being thrust out of their comfort zone, has made it even more so.  If you’ve got a nagging fear of being “exposed” or not being as smart, or talented, or deserving, or experienced or (fill-in-the-blank) as people have previously thought you were, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in good company.

The list of accomplished people who have at some point wrestled with a fear of being uncovered as an impostor is quite long. Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou once said: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” 

Actor Jodie Foster expressed a similar fear: “I thought it was a fluke,” she said after receiving her one of her two Oscars. “I was afraid I’d have to give it back.”

No one is immune to the doubts that feed Imposter Syndrome. But if you sometimes feel like a fraud, it matters less than the power you give to those feelings.  If fear of being exposed as inadequate is keeping you from taking on bigger challenges or stepping into the limelight, here are seven ways to stop feeling like a fraud, and start realizing self your worth.

Focus on the value you bring; on giving your best, not being the best. Imposter Syndrome is the domain of the high achiever. People who set the bar low are rarely it’s victim. So, if you this article is speaking to you, you are someone who strives to excel. With that said, it’s important not to conflate giving your best with being the best. There is a distinct difference between trying to better yourself verses trying to be being better than everyone else.

The truth is that you don’t have to have a genius IQ or be the world’s is best at what you do in order to drive impact or contribute meaningful value. And you don’t have to be perfect at something before deserving to be praised for it.

Realize your successes (you didn’t get just get lucky!) If you have a tendency to attribute your success to external sources – to getting lucky or having had helping hand, start taking more ownership of the internal attributes you drew on. Try not to over attribute success to external sources nor over attribute failure to internal inadequacies. Regularly stop and celebrate your small wins. Many of us often focus more on what we haven’t done than on all that we have done.  Learn to celebrate your small wins along the way to your big goals.  

Many who suffer from Imposter Syndrome have habit of always focusing on what they have not yet done and rarely stop to celebrate, and fully internalize the small gains, growth and milestones along the way. The best way to stop a bad habit is by replacing it with a good one. Consider scheduling time to reflect on all that you have done or overcome. Self-appreciation is a habit that many of us need to nurture.

Stop with the comparisons, and run your own best race. Have you ever been pulled into negative comparisons, wishing you possessed a strength you admire in someone else? I think we all have in one way or another.

“If only I could speak with the poise and charisma as that person.” 
“If only I was that quick with numbers.” 
“If only I was as creative-athletic-disciplined-organized-(fill-in-the-blank) .”

Comparisons are mostly subjective, often biased, and rarely helpful. They always leave us feeling ‘less than’ in some way.  The reality is that everyone has their own path to forge, strengths to sharpen and gifts to share. Likewise, we all have our own set of challenges, insecurities and struggles to face.  Chances are that others may look at you and think: “If only I was as good with (insert-your-strengths-here)”.  

Reframe miss-steps as refining your skills and growing into your potential. One of the best indicator’s that you are growing into your potential is regularly placing yourself in new situations with new challenges that call on you to learn and develop. This, by default, means that you will not always know what you’re doing or have all the answers, at least not right away. So, if you experience self-doubt in these moments, that’s entirely normal. If you sometimes make a ‘miss-step’ (which is the etymology of the word mistake), don’t interpret it as a sign of your permanent deficiency but as a sign of growing proficiency and all part of what is required for developing your potential. Take the lesson and move forward. 

Accept compliments graciously. I’ve recently heard someone say that “There is nothing holy in diminishing yourself.” So, next time someone pays you a compliment, embrace it.

The risk of exposure. Fear of being “found out” can stifle our success by driving us to steer away from situations that risk what we most fear; being exposed as inadequate or unworthy in some way. Giving in to fear will keep you from taking the very actions that would ultimately help you discover how little reason you ever had to be afraid. 

It takes courage to step out, and to pursue goals that put you at risk of falling short, losing face or being ‘found out.’ But what do you put at risk if you don’t? Life has taught us that avoiding threats to our reputation is ultimately more risky than outright exposure.

The world doesn’t need your perfection. It needs your perspective.

Quiz: Do You Ever Fear You’ll Be Discovered as Inadequate?

“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.” —William Shedd

In our insecurity, we tend to avoid risk, to err on the side of safety. In our inadequacies it is a great time to try new strategies that go against conventional wisdom, to take calculated risks and to remain open to innovation. Take this Self-Quiz to see whether you could benefit from a little more “true self” in your world.


1. I am willing to take action, even when there is risk of exposure involved.

2. I plan for the worst—but hope for the best.

3. I am acquainted with fear of failure, and it doesn’t scare me.

4. To me, innovation sounds exciting, not spooky.

5. I want to reach my potential, my dream, so I’m willing to walk out on the ledge a bit.

6. I’m playing to succeed and not avoid making mistakes.

7. I’d rather face uncomfortable things head-on and grow in the process than remain small.

8. My motto is “Ready. FIRE. Aim.” I’d rather act and then correct than wait until something is perfect before taking action.

9. I agree with the saying, “Playing safe is probably the most fearful thing in the world. 

10. In personal growth, playing it safe can actually increase insecurity. 

11. What is now considered a “safe” hidden practice was once the fear of being found out. I look at calculated risk and innovation as pushing ahead to a new self-discovery.

12. I could play it safe and never fail, but that would be no fun

13. I look at the willingness to take risk (and to feel uncomfortable because of it) as an essential quality of self-growth.

14. I can be safe and adequate, or I can take a chance and find freedom in my life.

15. True self growth isn’t about not taking risks.

If you answered “false” more often than “true,” you may benefit from working with a coach to work through the fear that may be keeping you stuck at safe and not moving forward. 

Author’s content used under license, Rick J Petronella PhD

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