From Buzzphrase “Impostor Syndrome” to Reality

If you go to any leadership forum, you hear the phrase “impostor syndrome” being tossed around as often as any other buzzword. It’s usually has a connotation that you are lacking self-esteem and think you are not worthy of X,Y, or Z. Worse, any advice you get on how to deal with it is often is in the direct conflict with the advice of “faking it til you make it.” After all, you know you’re faking something, so you are acting as an impostor. Can we say cognitive dissonance?

Let’s start with what impostor syndrome actually is.

It’s a psychological condition in which people are unable to internalize their own accomplishments. According to Jackson,1 70% of engineers self-report feelings of being an impostor. Yes, engineers, not just business folks. Dr. Pauline Clance goes on to note in her book The Impostor Phenomenon, that 70% of successful people in the US believe they are impostors. The reason, Clance summarises, is that people who suffer from impostor syndrome persist in attributing their success to external factors (i.e. luck) rather than their own skills and these high achievers think others overestimate their abilities, which might lead to them expecting too much from the high achievers. Seritan and Mehta2 reveal that most of the research done about this topic as of 2014 is scant, and most of it is done by Clance herself.

communication, miscommunication

Sums it up perfectly, doesn’t it? Found at Ryan Avery.

In other words, this “problem” is one of perception. The way we perceive ourselves, and the way we think others perceive us.

Turn the tables.

So, you know it’s a perception problem. What are you going to do about it?

Here’s a thought. Start with the premise that this impostor syndrome is a good thing. It shows a bit of humility, which is more human than whatever you might have had put away in your head. And being more human makes you far more relatable and likeable.

Is that such a bad thing?

When I was younger I used to think it was. Thankfully, the world is either really open to imperfections or starting to open up depending on what culture you’re in. In the western world there is a lot more wiggle room, it seems, than when I worked in middle east and east not long ago. But again, that’s perception, and I could be completely off on that reading of my environment. But while working in a variety of cultural environments I learnt a few invaluable lessons about being authentic with capabilities and showing off how “awesome” you can be.

Embracing reality in the moment.

If the impostor syndrome stems from a matter of miscommunication and perception, there are a few ways you can make sure people are on the same page. Communicate outright, demonstrate, and embrace reality.

Communicating outright isn’t the most comfortable for people. I get that, and I know I’m lucky that I ran out of fucks to give a long time ago. Telling someone outright, “I’m not an expert at that, but I’d love to give it a shot if you don’t mind” really doesn’t bother me. The worst that I ever imagine they would say is no, then you move on. However, if you can if you can manage to get at least partway there, you’ll feel like less of an impostor.

Demonstrating your capabilities openly is a silent way of telling people your true talents. You can do this by integrating workshops, videos, or any other method to work openly with people in your work. It shows them what you are good at while not putting emphasis on what you aren’t as familiar with.

Embracing success and failure can teach you different types of life lessons in turn. So, if you’re wanting to teach yourself some new skills, learn them. Then, the first time you practise them for a client, take something with low stakes so if/when you fail it’s not a huge deal. Then, step back and look at why you failed. The same thing works with success: take a step back after every time and see why and how you succeeded, then integrate more habits and behaviour that got you there.


1. Jackson, D., & Heath, T. (2014). An antidote to impostor syndrome. XRDS: Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students, 21(2)

2. Seritan, A., & Mehta, M. (2015). Thorny Laurels: the Impostor Phenomenon in Academic Psychiatry. Academic Psychiatry, 40(3), 418-421.