Impostor syndrome: When the whole world believes in you but you

Around 70% of people will have to deal with imposter syndrome during their lives: a feeling of being unworthy of any positive feedback; Who is likely to suffer from imposter syndrome, how does it manifest in their careers and how can it be addressed?
Or Sopher|
Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which individuals are unable to objectively appreciate their accomplishments. Those who experience this syndrome suffer from significant self-doubt, casting doubts on their abilities and skills and constantly fearing that they are deceiving others, as if they are "faking it."
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When receiving clear affirmations of their worth (such as salary raises, promotions, compliments from senior colleagues, closing complex deals, etc.), they attribute them to luck, charisma, procrastination, or simply their exceptional ability to deceive and pretend. The thought that they might truly deserve it and succeed due to talent and hard work rarely crosses their minds, and if it does, it is quickly dismissed.
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Impostor syndrome can be seen as the inverse of the Dunning-Kruger effect (a cognitive bias where people with low ability overestimate their skills), and just as researchers Dunning and Kruger did not speak of an inaccurate sense of superiority in terms of impostor syndrome, using the term in the context of pretending is also misleading.
Clinically, "impostor syndrome" does not actually exist. It is not a recognized disorder in the DSM, it is not a psychological diagnosis, and there is no specific treatment provided to those who experience it. However, mental health professionals are familiar with it and tend to use the term "Impostor Phenomenon" less formally.
The term was coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, who studied 150 women with remarkable achievements in the professional world and identified a recurring phenomenon. These women confessed that they often feel that the recognition they receive is unjustified, not based on their true abilities, but rather on their ability to present a "facade" of skills that may not exist at all or exist to a lesser extent.
Besides the general lack of confidence, Clance and Imes emphasized that a central factor in this phenomenon is the fear that, in the end, someone "in the know" will discover that they are indeed impostors and that they do not deserve the success or accolades they have received.
Clance later defined what she called the "Impostor Cycle." In the first stage of the cycle, a person receives a task that can be evaluated (by a number or general assessment). For example, giving a presentation or formulating a work plan.
It is natural to feel some degree of concern or even anxiety in the face of the challenge, but in the case of "impostors," these feelings lead immediately (the second stage of the cycle) to a doubt in their ability to perform the task. This brings us to the third stage: what does a person do when they are not entirely confident in their ability to perform the task? They either procrastinate until the last minute or, conversely, dive into hysteria, investing excessive effort and prolonged time in its execution, well beyond what is required.
Regardless of whether "the impostor" chooses self-deprecation or excessive effort, they will always reach the fourth stage in the cycle: the evaluation stage.
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Assuming the task is successfully completed and the impostor receives positive feedback, they will view it as either an exaggeration that they don't deserve, or in the worst case, an absolute lie. Either way, compliments seem irrelevant and worthless to them.
If they chose self-deprecation and managed to finish the task at the last moment somehow, they will attribute the success to their "honed ability to improvise" ("Oh, I managed to fool! What luck!"). If they chose excessive effort, they will attribute the success to their ability to "put their back into it" over time ("Any lazy person who invested so much effort would achieve this result").
In other words, there is no scenario in which the impostor attributes success to themselves, their abilities or skills. And what do impostors always attribute to themselves? Negative criticisms, of course. They always feel that they rightfully earned these, as there are no mitigating circumstances, and any negative critique is merely a reflection of failure.
According to various studies, about 70% of people experience impostor syndrome to different degrees at some point in their lives, as explained by Omri Sade, a specialized clinical psychologist.
"In fact, anyone engaged in something (e.g., work), assigned to a specific role (e.g., a role in the community or an organization), or who attributes a specific identity (ideological, religious, etc.) can feel like an impostor and believe they are expected to fulfill things they are not capable of or receive titles they don't deserve."
If the phenomenon comes and goes at certain stages in life, it is fine, but many must cope with its ramifications for extended periods, which becomes more complicated.
Frederik Anseel, an organizational behavior professor from Belgium, explains that at the immediate level, the phenomenon silences and restricts its sufferers. Over time, it generates an inability to enjoy accomplishments and may lead to a feeling of constant emotional emptiness and even depression.
Another aspect to consider is that the negative consequences also impact the environment of the impostor. If the feeling of impostor syndrome occurs in a home environment, family members and close friends feel compelled to constantly support the "impostor" and convince them repeatedly that they are not incompetent. This can become quite tiresome support – how many times can one say to a person, "You are good," and receive the response, "Yeah, sure," with rolling eyes?

Who is affected?

The first was Sheryl Sandberg. In her bestselling book Lean In from 2011, the Facebook COO admitted that during her time at Harvard University, she felt like an impostor, and later on in her corporate career as well.
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Sheryl Sandberg
Sheryl Sandberg
Sheryl Sandberg
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Sandberg brought awareness to the impostor phenomenon and paved the way for other well-known achievers to come "out of the closet." A year later, in a TED talk that garnered 36 million views, the social psychologist Amy Cuddy extensively discussed her own struggle with the phenomenon.
In the past decade, many public figures, such as the author Neil Gaiman and acclaimed actresses Kate Winslet, Renée Zellweger and Lena Dunham, have declared in the media that they too sometimes feel like they are deceiving the world.
As mentioned, about 70% of people will experience the impostor phenomenon in some form during their lives. The factors that increase the likelihood of coping with this phenomenon are dependent on gender, age, work environment, and personal characteristics.


While early research focused on the prevalence of the impostor phenomenon among high-achieving women, subsequent studies revealed that it also affects women with average careers and men. So far, there are no definitive conclusions regarding the gender distribution of the phenomenon, and it's possible that it is equally common among men and women. However, according to Sade, there is one interesting difference.
A 2018 study examined the extent to which male and female students feel like impostors and the level of anxiety this feeling generates. It was found that women, in general, felt more like impostors than men, but men also reported higher levels of anxiety than women.
Minority racial and ethnic groups also have a higher likelihood of frequently experiencing the impostor phenomenon, Sade argues. "Because at the core of the impostor syndrome, there is a sense of not belonging and being different from someone toward the group they are in (colleagues at work, for example), then minority populations may be more influenced by it.
“If someone feels different in their workplace because most of their colleagues are of a different gender, ethnicity, culture, or any other characteristic, from the outset, they will be in a situation where there is something that sets them apart from the environment. Therefore, this feeling of otherness can more easily extend to the aspect of job performance.
"Stereotypes and preconceptions from the environment can also accelerate such a process. For example, if the majority of male employees make a female employee feel less competent or suitable for a role, even subtly, the path to the impostor syndrome will be much shorter."
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Personal factors

Anseel identified three personal factors that predict a high score on the impostor phenomenon scale: low self-efficacy, maladaptive perfectionism, and neuroticism.
Self-efficacy is a psychological term describing how a person perceives their ability to perform a task. Maladaptive perfectionism is attributed to individuals who cannot accept any situation other than complete flawlessness and struggle to feel a sense of accomplishment even when they have achieved a very high standard they set for themselves. Neuroticism is characterized by high levels of anxiety, worry, and insecurity.
Experts speculate that high intelligence may also be a predictive factor for the impostor phenomenon, but explicit research on the explicit relationship between the impostor phenomenon and intelligence has not been conducted yet.

Work environment

Clance and Imes found that certain work environments are fertile ground for the impostor phenomenon. In professions lacking clear-cut objective measures, the phenomenon intensifies. In other words, it is reasonable to assume that the impostor phenomenon is less common in sales-related fields, where success is often difficult to quantify and debate.
On the other hand, work environments where the impostor phenomenon is highly prevalent include academia and the journalism world, where assessments are frequently ambiguous, and professionals often feel they are not as good as they should be.
"Both academia and journalism foster a 'all or nothing' working model," explains Anseel. "In such environments, everyone wants to shine, and there is a strong tendency to compare oneself to peers."
Even in liberal professions that require years of expertise alongside experienced and seasoned professionals, such as medicine or psychology, the likelihood of the impostor phenomenon increases. In these fields, young professionals are required to "impress" patients. The knowledge that they are perceived as experts more than they believe themselves to be can lead to the feeling of impostorism.


In general, it can be said that the impostor phenomenon occurs more intensely among young people at the beginning of their professional journey. Anseel's research indicates that close to a quarter of individuals in their 20s experience strong feelings of impostorism, compared to only 14% of people in their 50s. "In my view, this is a disturbance that diminishes over time," he says. "Only a few will significantly suffer from it in the long term."
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Perhaps it is not age as a chronological number, but rather the experience in the working world that matters. "When a person gains experience in a certain role, they usually develop more confidence in their work and experience many successes," explains Sade. "They also know their colleagues better and can better evaluate their true professionalism. All this information leads most people to feel that they are at least average, not 'posing' or impostors."

How to deal with it?

Despite the prevalence of the phenomenon, many avoid seeking psychological treatment that could help them cope. The main reason for this is that, in many cases, the potential client is unaware of the problem. They genuinely believe they are impostors and that their achievements are lower compared to others and their own expectations. If they are aware of the issue, it is often accompanied by shame and embarrassment.
"Similar to many other types of difficulties, I recommend that a person seeks treatment when they feel their quality of life is affected," says Sade. "You don't have to wait for a crisis or breaking point; if you enter a new environment or framework, and after an initial adjustment period, you feel that stress and anxiety are overwhelming you, or you are constantly trying to cover up your 'posing' – it is a good time to seek treatment. On the other hand, and this is quite common, if you feel that you are holding back your development or taking on responsibilities in that context out of a sense of inadequacy or unsuitability (such as a managerial role), it is also worth working on that. Avoidance due to anxiety is limiting, and it is definitely possible to deal with it."
What exactly happens in treatment? "The treatment focuses on working with cognitive patterns – many people often operate based on rigid assumptions and 'rules' in life, such as 'in order to be a good worker, I must know everything about X' or other personal rules that involve must/have to/should not. This rigidity creates dichotomous situations where if I'm not exactly like that, then I'm not at all. Life doesn't work that way, of course. Additionally, it involves working on reducing self-criticism and coping with anxiety-provoking thoughts."
And if one does not pursue psychological treatment, what can be done at home to feel better? "The best advice, which touches the heart of the syndrome, is to talk and share about this feeling and not remain alone with it. Modern theories explain that the main factor of the syndrome is a phenomenon that affects everyone, called 'pluralistic ignorance,' in which each person doubts themselves but believes they are the only one feeling this way because no one else shares these thoughts.
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אילוס אילוסטרציה דכאון חרדה קורונה
אילוס אילוסטרציה דכאון חרדה קורונה
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When they discover that in fact, the majority of people feel the same way, either in a specific context or in other areas, the realization normalizes the feeling and reduces the pressure, as it is not logical for everyone to be impostors. You can talk about it with friends, colleagues, and even parents to understand how common it is and to reduce anxiety.
"Another thing that can be done is to start challenging the negative self-talk that characterizes the syndrome. Put question marks at the end of your harsh statements about your work or abilities: Am I bad? I really don't know what I'm doing? This will help you reach a more balanced thinking and maybe even find examples that do not align with the negative self-experience."
Another way to challenge the thinking is to avoid all-encompassing and definitive statements such as "all my projects were a disaster!" When such a thought crosses your mind, try to specify it: which parts were genuinely in need of improvement, and what actually went well, perhaps even great? With an "everything is terrible" mindset, there isn't much we can do, but when we engage in specific and constructive criticism, we understand what needs improvement without feeling so negative about ourselves.
And finally, pay attention to, document, and even celebrate the successes and positive feedback received. Most of us tend to focus on the negatives and what needs fixing, while the positive things often go unnoticed. When we give them proper attention, they gain significance in our eyes and put things into perspective.
Managing an employee struggling with imposter syndrome can be quite challenging. What is the right way to manage people with the syndrome so that their stress levels decrease and their advantages shine?
"Often, managers try to encourage and reassure the employee by showing them how good they actually are. Sometimes, even using titles like 'outstanding employee,' which may be entirely justified. The problem is that, for an employee who feels like an impostor, these things won't be perceived as credible but rather as acts of kindness or pity – which will increase the feeling of faking and negative emotions.
"The recommendation is to take them for a one-on-one conversation and share specific experiences or the internal doubt you had when you just started working. It's very reasonable to assume that at least at some point in your life, you felt exactly the same way.
Of course, it is essential to assist those experiencing imposter syndrome when they frequently and intensely struggle with it. However, as long as imposter syndrome remains within reasonable limits, it plays a healthy role for the entire culture and each of us personally. Sometimes, a slight boost of self-confidence and self-criticism can be beneficial. Humility holds value, and the thought that we are not necessarily the best in the room, that there are people better than us, that we have room for growth, is positive for those seeking progress in life.
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