Imposter Syndrome: What It Really Means, and How to Overcome It

By: The Humphrey Group

Maya Angelou, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Michelle Obama, Albert Einstein. Most of the world agrees that these are exceptional people, yet they’ve all admitted to feeling like an imposter or fraud, or as though their work doesn’t stack up to its acclaim.

It’s hard to believe they would feel that way, but it goes to show how “imposter syndrome” can strike anyone. If you’ve ever felt like you don’t deserve to be in your role, or like your success has just been a fluke, then you’re in the company of some objectively successful people who have felt the same way.

That’s because the phenomenon of imposter syndrome isn’t really about what’s reflected in reality, but rather what is felt within. Let’s unpack imposter syndrome, find out how to identify it, and discover some key ways to overcome it.


Defining Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is when someone believes they’re not as competent as others perceive them to be – even in the face of demonstrated ability and evidence of success. This term was first coined by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in their 1978 paper, The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. They observed a pattern among high-achieving women, who, despite their accomplishments, felt like frauds and doubted their own abilities.

To unravel this, let’s dive into some of the psychological underpinnings. Underneath the exterior, those who struggle with imposter syndrome are typically battling with the following:

  • Perfectionism. This includes (often impossibly) high standards and the belief that anything less than perfection equates to failure.
  • Externalizing Success. A tendency to attribute success to external factors, such as luck or timing, rather than recognize our own skills and efforts.
  • Fear of Judgement. A persistent worry that our level of competence will be scrutinized.
  • Internalizing Criticism. Interpreting even constructive criticism as confirmation of our own perceived incompetence.
  • The Comparison Trap. Comparing ourselves to peers or societal expectations, often leading to a distorted self-perception.


How to know if you have imposter syndrome

Wondering if what you’re experiencing is imposter syndrome? We invite you to grab a journal or notepad and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I often attribute my achievements to luck or external factors?
  • Do I find it difficult to accept compliments or positive feedback without downplaying them?
  • Do I worry that others will eventually discover I am not as competent as they think?
  • Do I set extremely high standards for myself, where anything less than perfection feels like failure?
  • Do I often overwork to prove my worth?
  • Do I frequently compare myself to others and feel inadequate when I perceive them as more successful?
  • Am I hesitant to take on new challenges due to a fear of failure?
  • Do I often feel like a fraud despite evidence of my expertise?

This exercise is meant to be a push-off point, so take some time to reflect on your answers. If you find yourself answering yes to many of them, this could be indicative of imposter syndrome.


How to overcome imposter syndrome

So much of the experience of imposter syndrome is rooted in negative thought patterns, so acknowledging them is the first step. Try to discern whether feelings of self-doubt accurately reflect your competence or accomplishments in the moment.

This means actively challenging negative thoughts and self-critical beliefs. Practice self-awareness so that you can catch yourself in a negative loop pattern, and then consciously reframe that thought by recognizing your skills and contributions.

It’s important to also establish a realistic standard for yourself. Accept that perfection is unattainable, for anyone, and shift your focus to more realistic and sustainable goals. Get into a practice of celebrating progress as it occurs, rather than fixating on big outcomes – or worse – shortcomings.

Get comfortable seeking feedback from others. Take time during a one-on-one with your leader to ask how you are performing or ask a trusted colleague what it was like to work with you on a project. And when you are met with positive feedback, practice accepting it graciously. Resist the urge to say anything other than thank you.

Last, it’s important to cultivate a growth mindset. Afterall, at its core, imposter syndrome is a mindset issue. Begin to reframe your experiences. For example, learn to view challenges as opportunities for learning, rather than as threats to your competence.


Move beyond imposter syndrome to leadership

The process of overcoming imposter syndrome is a journey of moving toward self-trust. By actively challenging negative thought patterns, setting realistic standards, accepting feedback, and cultivating a growth mindset, you can gradually build trust in your own abilities.



Ready for the next step? After building a foundation of self-trust, true leadership can begin. The next step is to cultivate a leader’s mindset, which consists of six basic principles that we dive into in our Speaking As a Leader Learning Experience.