Imposter Syndrome is Real
And it's a real drain on your mental health. Our columnist shares how he manages his own imposterism—and how you can, too.
“I’m a creep. I’m a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.”
This month’s column is a little late, probably due to the fact that the subject is imposter syndrome. My own imposter syndrome kicked in, whispering helpful advice like, “Hey, you’re not the right person to write this column. What the hell do you know that can help anybody? And who in their right mind would take advice from a loser like you?”
It’s part of the lexicon now, but the concept of impostor syndrome was introduced back in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., and Suzanne Imes, Ph.D., of Georgia State University in Atlanta. They described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable, or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”
While it’s not a diagnosable psychological disorder per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V), it’s worth keeping an eye on since it can lead to, or perhaps be caused by, clinical anxiety and depression.
Turns out not everyone feels like a phony on the verge of being exposed. Just most of us. It’s estimated that 7 out of 10 people experience imposter syndrome. (Who are those other three people and why the hell are they so confident!?) It’s funny because it’s true, but the anxiety and self-doubt associated with imposter syndrome is no joke—it can cause real distress and have serious consequences when it comes to quality of life.
“Opportunity cost” is a term from economics that’s really important for people with feelings of imposter syndrome. It means the option you chose was not the most beneficial option for you. So-called imposters miss out on many opportunities due to their fear that they’re not good enough. It starts early, too.
Weird flex, but when I was offered a scholarship to the top private high school in New York City (fun fact: Jeffrey Epstein taught math there), I was miserable and felt like a pretender. They must have made some kind of mistake. I pretended to be happy in front of my teachers, who were making a big deal about it, but there was no effing way that I, a schmuck from the armpit of Brooklyn, belonged in a school with children of the rich and powerful. I tore up the letter and threw it in the garbage before going home. I didn’t tell my parents, because I knew they’d encourage me to go, and if I went, I was convinced I’d be the dumbest kid in the smartest school, so I bailed on it.
Maybe I was right, and I would have fallen on my face. Maybe I would have been up for the challenge. Who knows where that could have landed me? That’s one of the many opportunities I passed up because I felt like I had somehow fooled people into believing I was competent (and it would be better to let them keep thinking that than actually show up and prove what a mess I really was). When you’re so full of self-doubt that you feel like you don’t deserve the good things you’ve earned, you’re more likely to sabotage your own success.
Decades later, when I was offered a publishing deal for my cookbook, I was obsessed with signing the contract as quickly as possible—before they realized that I was “just” a vegetarian cooking blogger who cursed too much. In my previous life as a police officer, I often felt like a kid playing dress up on Halloween. The people I worked with were real cops, obviously, but I was a wannabe writer in uniform who didn’t want to hand out tickets. I kept waiting for them to figure it out and arrest me for impersonating an officer.
Can you think of a time in your life when you lowered your standards because you felt unworthy of something better?
Were you ever afraid to ask someone out because you felt like they were out of your league?
Do you work way harder than you have to in order to prove that you’ve earned your spot by being better than everyone else?
Do you downplay your intelligence and accomplishments even though you know what you’re capable of?
Do you have difficulty accepting praise and/or constructive criticism?
Do you focus on perceived shortcomings instead of actual accomplishments?
Do you feel like a big phony who doesn’t belong and everyone around you knows it?
If you answered yes to more than one of these questions, you might have a touch of imposter syndrome.
There’s that hilarious meme, “Lord, grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man.” As the whitest, most mediocre man in most rooms, let me assure you that we feel the same way, too. (Remember, 7 out of 10 people is a majority). The confidence thing is a total front. Most of us have been socialized to give the impression that we’ve got things under control even if we feel like big, dumb, frauds who don’t know what the hell they’re doing.
If I feel this way in a country run by people who look just like me, imagine how much more intense it is for someone who doesn’t. When the term burst on the scene in 1978, it was thought that it was a condition that only affected high achieving professional women in what was then considered “a man’s world.” We now understand that representation matters, and when women, LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC folks don’t see that representation, it stands to reason that feeling like an outsider, combined with experiences of discrimination will lead to an intense version of imposter syndrome that comes with heavy stress, anxiety, and if untreated: severe depression.
A University of Texas at Austin study proved this by showing a correlation of negative mental health outcomes amongst African-American students with feelings of imposterism. Professor Kevin Coakley Ph.D., lead author of the study stated in the press release, “Unlike white students who may experience imposterism, I believe that the ethnic minority student experience of imposterism is often racialized because ethnic minority students are aware of the stereotypes about intelligence that exist about their racial/ethnic groups.” Cokley recommends that mental health professionals check for imposterism and perceived discrimination. That may aid ethnic minority students in working through discriminatory experiences and depression and anxiety.
So, what can we do about imposter syndrome when it strikes?
Stop comparing yourself to other people. They don’t have everything together while you’re falling short. If I’ve learned anything my years of dealing with, talking about, and writing about mental health, it’s that we’re more alike than we are different. Those people are probably thinking the same things about you, wishing they were as competent, accomplished and intelligent.
Remember your feelings aren’t facts. Thoughts and feelings have a tendency to seem more important than evidence, but they’re not. If your brain’s telling you that you’re incapable of doing something, pause that negative loop and write down a list of times when you did that very thing or something even more difficult. Then look at your facts and know you’ve done it before and will do it again.
Reach out, don’t retreat. Take a good look around that room you feel so uncomfortable and out of place in. I’m willing to bet you can spot another person who radiates a similarly awkward, odd-person-out vibe. Say hello to that person. Introduce yourself. You’ll be doing a good deed by making them feel welcome, and now neither of you are alone anymore.
Tell someone how you feel (not your boss). People don’t usually talk about feelings they may be embarrassed by, but those are often the most important to get off your chest. Tell a friend you can trust, or a good therapist about what an imposter you feel like and how it makes you feel. Tell them everything. Don’t be surprised if they spit back a list of your accomplishments and times when you were brilliant, and their bewilderment at how someone like you could possibly feel like a fraud. Take the compliment. Take a note of it if you can so that the next time you feel like a faker, you have some tangible things others see in you to combat your imposter nonsense.
Know when good enough is good enough. A perfectionist like you probably isn’t going to accept this, but you don’t have to be the greatest Zoom meeting participant of all time. You don’t have to have a clever insight that’s going to blow everybody away. Think about it: you’re talking on a screen to a group of people may or may not be wearing pants and might night have showered since the summer solstice. Now apply that to everybody else in life.
- Rate of Imposter Syndrome: International Journal of Behavioral Science. (2011). “The Imposter Phenomenon.” so06.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/IJBS/article/view/521/pdf
- Imposter Syndrome and Minorities: Journal of Counseling Psychology. (2017). “Impostor Feelings as a Moderator and Mediator of the Relationship Between Perceived Discrimination and Mental Health Among Racial/Ethnic Minority College Students.” psycnet.apa.org/record/2017-09930-002