The Imposter Phenomenon

Have you ever wondered when you would be ‘found out’ or felt terrified at making a mistake because it ‘proves’ you are not perfect, and not up to the job?

First defined by two American academics, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes (1978), the prevalence of imposter phenomenon, especially among women, was highlighted by Sheryl Sandberg’s book ‘Lean In’.  However, this phenomenon, often incorrectly referred to as the imposter syndrome, is not confined to women.

So what is the Imposter Phenomenon?

First, let’s explore what it is not.  The imposter phenomenon does not refer to people who really are imposters, for instance those charlatans or fraudsters who we might have the misfortune to meet from time to time.  Nor does it refer to those people who ‘fake it until they make it’.  Nor does it refer to those moments of self-doubt that we all experience from time to time.

No, the imposter phenomenon is an intense, internal feeling of phoniness; a feeling that we are not really as good as everyone else thinks we are.  It is a feeling – it is not actual phoniness.  The internal fraudulent, inadequate or undeserving feeling is completely opposite to the objective evidence.  We truly are competent, knowledgeable or skilled, but inside we just don’t believe it.

So if it is just a feeling, where’s the problem?  The issue arises because many of those who experience this feeling are successful, highly capable, intelligent people (men and women), who are holding themselves back, usually at work.  In essence, the belief that they are not really as good as everyone else thinks they are prevents them from reaching their full potential, and it is highly stressful.

One common statement I hear from those who have imposter feelings is that they don’t want to become over-confident, or heaven forbid, arrogant.

However, there are those who experience a delusion about their own abilities in the opposite direction, believing they are far more capable than they actually are.  (Some X-Factor auditions spring to mind, though maybe this applies to a work colleague too?).  This has been termed the Dunning-Kruger effect, after Dunning & Kruger who described this over-inflated view of skills or importance back in 1999.  However, if you experience imposter-type feelings there is little chance you will reach the extreme of arrogance, even if you start to acknowledge your success, skills and abilities. What will happen is that you will start to come across as more confident, self-assured, in control, and less apologetic and self-deprecating.

So, what can you do if you find yourself experiencing this phenomenon?  Here are three ways that can help:

First and most importantly, acknowledge it to yourself, and to someone else.  It helps to talk about it with someone you trust and find you are not alone.

Secondly, accept that no-one, not even you, will be perfect, no matter how hard you try.  Ask yourself if 80% would be good enough. The chances are that what you consider to be 80% good enough will be close to someone else’s 100%.

Thirdly, acknowledge the role your skills and abilities have played in your success.  Don’t put it all down to luck, timing or hard work.  While these will no doubt have played a role, without your skills and abilities no amount of luck, timing or hard work would have enabled you to achieve what you have achieved.

It is likely that if you experience the imposter phenomenon you will have some awards, accreditations or accomplishments under your belt, as well as a plethora of feedback from other people telling you that you are great at your job.  So how come you think the awards judges, examiners and your colleagues are all wrong, and that you, just you, are right? Learning to accept positive feedback can also help overcome the internal “not good enough” chatter… something I am still working on!


Atkin, K. (2015) Entrepreneurship and the imposter phenomenon: A qualitative analysis of the role of self-efficacy MSc thesis awaiting publication

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241 – 247.

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1121.

Kate Atkin MSc is a professional speaker, facilitator and coach.  She has written two books, The Confident Manager and The Presentation Workout and regularly speaks on the imposter phenomenon with her talk entitled “Why do I feel like a Fraud?” in which she shares her own experience of the imposter phenomenon as well as proven strategies to overcome it. Contact Kate on 07779 646 976, email





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5 comments on “The Imposter Phenomenon

  1. It’s hard to find well informed individuals
    on this issue, but you seem like you realize what
    you’re talking about! Thanks

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