There’s a great movie from the 1990s in which the President of the United States (played by Kevin Kline) hires an impersonator (also played by Kevin Kline) to stand in for him at a fundraiser so he (the President) can go off and pursue his extramarital “hobbies.” Have you ever felt like that impersonator? Sure that at any moment, the gig will be up and you will be hauled off for the fraud you are? Even if, like in the movie, the Impersonator had much more talent and skill than he gave himself credit for?
I have, and I’ll bet so have many of you.
That feeling, that persistent belief that you are a fraud despite abundant and concrete evidence to the contrary is actually a real psychological phenomenon. Variously called Imposter Phenomenon or Imposter Syndrome, it was first identified by two women psychologists in 1978, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. They described it as “[the] internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” Drs. Clance and Imes originally theorized that Imposter Syndrome struck only women, but later research found that men, too, fall prey. Other studies estimate as many as 70% of people suffer from Imposter Syndrome.
In fact, some pretty amazing women have had to deal with their very own inner imposters. Maya Angelou said once, “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.’” Harry Potter actress Emma Watson was reported saying, “Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud. I can’t possibly live up to what everyone thinks I am.”  Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote in her book, Lean In, “…every time I didn’t embarrass myself—or even excelled—I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.”
So where does this Imposter Syndrome come from? Here’s where the research runs a little thin. For sure, Imposter Syndrome has not been recognized as a disorder worthy of being listed in the DSM-V. Dr. Clance herself, downplays the implication that imposterism is a disorder. “If I could do it all over again, I would call it the imposter experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it’s something almost everyone experiences.”
Even though it strikes men as well as women, there seem to be a number of factors that make imposterism among women more acute. First, imposterism can operate to increase the personal impact of discrimination. One researcher, Dr. Kevin Cokley, studied imposterism and discrimination among minorities. He found that when discrimination and imposterism co-existed, they worked together to increase levels of anxiety and depression. “Can we say discrimination causes imposterism? No, but we know there’s definitely a link between the two. Feeling like an imposter can exacerbate the feeling of discrimination.” Dr. Cokley went on to surmise that it might also work the other way, “I suspect that discrimination can exacerbate the impact of imposterism.”
Even if you don’t feel discriminated against, it’s pretty hard to miss that there are very few women in technology. According to the National Center for Women in Information Technology, women were only 26% of the computing workforce in 2017. Not being able to see other women in our field working and succeeding can contribute to the sense that each one of us is alone in the world. And that isolation can undermine your sense of accomplishment. According to Rosanna Durruthy, the head of Global Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at LinkedIn, “Being alone puts you in a circumstance where you’re not only questioning yourself, but also looking for agreement in others.”
Finally, women often get penalized for being confident, even if their behavior is exactly the same as their male counterparts. As written in the Atlantic Magazine by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman,
Yes, women suffer consequences for their lack of confidence—but when they do behave assertively, they may suffer a whole other set of consequences, ones that men don’t typically experience. Attitudes toward women are changing, and for the better, but a host of troubling research shows that they can still pay a heavier social and even professional penalty than men do for acting in a way that’s seen as aggressive. If a woman walks into her boss’s office with unsolicited opinions, speaks up first at meetings, or gives business advice above her pay grade, she risks being disliked or even—let’s be blunt—being labeled a *****. The more a woman succeeds, the worse the vitriol seems to get. It’s not just her competence that’s called into question; it’s her very character.
Women aren’t blind to this trap, either. One poll found that 51% of millennial women believe that the system is rigged in favor of men, 75% said that more changes were necessary to achieve workplace gender equality, and 60% said that they believed that men were paid more than women for performing the same work. It’s hard to not be cynical. Just last year, the World Economic Forum reported that it would take a hundred years to close the gender pay gap worldwide, and that was longer than reported even the year previous.
So, what can we do about it? The internet is rife with suggestions on how to be more confident women. Not all of it is good advice. One article written just a few months ago and published in Forbes Magazine recommended that women should mind how they groom and dress themselves, and stand tall, and laugh more. The male author didn’t tell women to smile more often, but he might as well have.
But a survey of the (good) advice given from a number of sources does show some agreement as to what helps.
Document Your Successes:
As professional women, we all keep a running list of our achievements. It’s called a résumé. When we’re feeling particularly imposter-ish, it is helpful to break the thing out and give it a good polish. Remind ourselves that our success is genuine.
Seek Out the Advice of a Good Friend or Mentor:
That imposter whispering in our ear doesn’t stick around long if we have a good friend or mentor who can help us rein it in. Especially if that good friend or mentor can help us remember just how strong and competent we truly are. One source cautioned, however, that a friend who tells us to “just stop being insecure” isn’t going to be helpful, so choose wisely.
Be a Mentor to Others:
Being a mentor is a great exercise for reinforcing our confidence as experts. Mentees are great audiences that look up to their mentors, and that helps us to keep that internal imposter away.
It’s OK to Fail:
Some of the best things come out of failure. The glue for the Post-It note was a failure for its original purpose but a screaming success in a different application. Especially when we start out on a new endeavor, we should give ourselves permission to fail. Approaching challenges with a sense of adventure, enthusiasm or curiosity defuses the anxiety that a fear of failure causes.
Find an Affinity Group:
Since one of the things that makes imposterism worse for women is isolation and feeling like that only woman in the room, seeking out a women’s group makes sense. Perhaps there’s a mentor or colleague out there that can help you embrace your success, and you just have to find her.
The good news is that on CLN, we have a ready-made vehicle for tackling this particular inner demon—the Women in Networking forum. Right now, the WIN forum is a blank slate, a dormant field so-to-speak. But the grass is greener where you water it, so in the interests of making this space into a fabulous place to see and connect with other fabulous women in networking, I’d like to make this personal invitation to all of you. Introduce yourself in the comments here. Tell us what your area of expertise is, and what you hope to accomplish in the next year.
 Francis, Anna, "Emma Watson: I suffered from imposter syndrome after Harry Potter--I felt like a fraud" CelebsNow, June 15 2013. No word on whether Hermione Granger also suffers from Imposter Syndrome.
 Cokley, K., Smith, L., Bernard, D., Hurst, A., Jackson, S., Stone, S., . . . Roberts, D. (2017). Impostor feelings as a moderator and mediator of the relationship between perceived discrimination and mental health among racial/ethnic minority college students. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 64(2), 141-154. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cou0000198