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The Imposter Complex

Updated: May 1, 2019

In speaking to a group of women, a hand gingerly raised in the group to ask this question: "Sometimes I feel like an imposter or that I don't really belong in the position I have. When does that feeling go away?" This question gets me. Every. Single. Time. I am asked this question among students, women who have been in the workforce for many years, and women who have accomplished incredible professional feats. Certainly this question always causes me to take a deep breath before I answer. Why? Because even thirty years in Human Capital has not erased the too-oft feeling for me that even when looking at my own professional accomplishments, a hidden part of my consciousness likes to tell me I'm just a good fake.

"Sometimes I feel like an imposter or that I don't really belong in the position I have. When does that feeling go away?"

If you are a man or woman out there who has thought to yourself, " When are they going to realize I'm a fake" or " I don't deserve to be here", you are not alone. Many highly successful women have raised their hand to feeling this way including some you may not expect such as actress and comedienne Tina Fey, author Elizabeth Gilbert and Sheryl Sandberg. To quote Sheryl in her book, Leaned In, " And every time I didn't embarrass myself--or even excelled--I believe that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up."


The good news is there is a name for this phenomenon. It is called Imposter Syndrome. Yes, its a thing. Studies on this topic suggest that 70% of people experience Imposter Syndrome at some point in their career. I'm not sure it that makes you feel any better except that perhaps by understanding it better, it can be less disarming to you. An article in Psychology Today, by Peg Streep, delved into the science behind this and its fascinating. To distill the findings into a very non-scientific summary, it's not just a female problem. But more females experience it than males. While the causes are nuanced and complex, a finding that stuck out to me is that gender stereotypes are still alive and well from a very young age. Lin Blan's study in 2017 looked at 5, 6, and 7 year olds and their association with brilliance (defined for that age group as "really, really smart"). At age 5, boys and girls denominated each other as equally brilliant. But by age 7, girls were less likely to denominate the girl as "really, really smart" but identify the boy as such. And it follows as no surprise that girls at this same age started to be identified as "really, really nice" instead. Ouch.


When we are faced with an anxiety-ridden challenge where sabotaging self-talk is trying to take a front seat, what do you do? The answer is different for everyone. For me, I go back to something I learned in 7th grade drama class when a painfully shy girl with big glasses and buck teeth had to lip sync to Boston. I pretend I'm someone I'm not. I take a deep breath, do a little positive self-talk, and pretend I am a confident and capable person. Pretending is the thought that leads to action that leads to a reality. Oh, and I wear very bright socks (usually hidden) in a little secret message between me and the universe that says, "I've got all kinds of unexpected magic that is a part of me". It works for me.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that while she doesn't consider herself someone who has classic imposter syndrome, she still struggles with insecurity at times. She said, "I have that initial insecurity but I'm capable of stepping outside of it and proving to myself it's wrong." And for those of you who want to delve into this deeper, consider reading up from expert Dr. Valerie Young, in her book "The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women; Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It".


The good news (besides the fact you aren't alone) is that there are as many solutions to overcoming this as there are people who experience it. And there is an unexpected silver lining--studies also show that those who feel this way show a tremendous amount of resilience. And over time and with effort, are less affected because we learn how to work with and around the negative beliefs we have.

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