The fear that others will discover that you have been bluffing your way through is very real.

Every day intelligent, competent people drop out of school, take jobs far below their true abilities and aspirations, and allow long-held creative or entrepreneurial dreams to wither all in an attempt to avoid detection. These are of course the extreme cases. Most people who identify with the impostor syndrome don’t give up or give in. Like you, they press on in spite of the persistent self-doubt to get the degree, advance in their field, take on the challenge, and by and large succeed, sometimes spectacularly so.

Still the anxiety of waiting for the other shoe to drop remains.

I’ve spent the last quarter of a century talking to people in the “Impostor Club.” I’ve learned so much about them that at this point I probably know these parts of yourself better than you do.

But there’s something else I know. Namely, there’s another story here too. And the other story is that deep down you really do know you’re smart – or at least smart enough. Although you may sometimes hold back or overcompensate for your feelings of ineptness, somewhere hidden deep within you is the equally certain knowledge that you can do just about anything you really set your mind to.

This other story is so well hidden that it can be somewhat unbeknownst even to you. At the same time that you feel like you’re faking everyone out, there exists a parallel secret. Namely, that buried under all the debris of self-doubt is the certain knowledge that you are infinitely capable. In your heart of hearts you know you are no impostor.

Let me explain. A widely reported study by psychologists at Wake Forest University found that sometimes people who “say” they feel like frauds are secretly more confident than they let on. The researchers came to this conclusion by asking undergraduate students to predict how well they thought they would do on a test on intellectual and social skills.

When students were told their predictions would be made anonymously, those who scored high for impostor feelings and those who scored low both thought they had a good chance of doing well. But, when students with strong impostor scores knew their test results would be seen by someone else they tended to lower their self-assessments. This led psychologists to conclude that for some, the impostor phenomenon is really just a self-deprecating strategy intended to take the pressure off. This does not deny that your impostor feelings aren’t real. They are. Even the researchers were quick to point out that it would be “unwarranted to brush impostorism aside as merely a self-presentation strategy.”

Lowering expectations in advance is a common way to save face in the event of a poor performance and take the pressure off. Political strategists worried that their candidate may fair poorly in a debate use this strategy all the time. I makes sense that if you don’t think you can live up to other people’s expectations then it makes sense that you’d try to protect yourself by minimizing expectations. “Better to play small,” you decide, “than to risk humiliation.” Plus, you get extra points for being modest.

But rather than conclude as these researchers did, that such people are in effect “phony phonies,” perhaps what we are really seeing is the other side of impostorism. What the study may have indeed revealed was the other part of you, however small and inconsistent, that secretly knows you are smart, you are capable, you can do it. It’s just that when, like the subjects in this study, you know that your abilities – and therefore “you” – will be measured and judged then you begin to second guess yourself.

That’s when your louder and more insistent impostor story line muscles its way in to say, “Wait a minute, maybe I’m really not that smart after all.” In other words, perhaps what these findings of private self-confidence and public self-doubt really reflect is the competing voices of self-judgment. And, up until now that is, you’ve let the self-doubting impostor side of story has gotten the best of you.

I would love to hear your response to the Other Impostor Secret and the other side of YOUR story!

Valerie Young

About Valerie Young

Valerie Young, Ed.D. is an internationally-recognized expert on impostor syndrome and author of the award-winning book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It (Crown Business/Random House) now available in five languages. Valerie has delivered her solution-oriented message to over 80,000 men and women at such diverse organizations as IBM, Merck, Boeing, Intel, Chrysler, Facebook, BP, Ernst & Young, McDonalds, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and many more and her career-related advice has been featured in major business and popular media on five continents.

8 Responses to “The Other Side of the Impostor Syndrome”

  1. Gilbert

    An interesting topic and post. I have been always mildly affected by such doubts but nevertheless kept being quite successfull (or fortunate as I would say).

    What I know deep down is the following: I am not an imposter BUT people still overestimate me all the time. For good reasons: I went to good schools, had a terrific start into a career and from there it’s always been a piece of cake. I never tried very hard and I am not a genius. But they kept promoting me.

    There are a million people out there who know more than I do, are better at the stuff they are doing than I am but still are not as fortunate. That doesn’t make me feel guilty but it makes me feel responsible. If they don”t have the luck but I do than it’s my responsibility to use it for the best of all of us. (That sounds big, bigger than I am.)

    Sometimes, when I am very good with myself, I even smirk and think: “Well done, Gilbert! You managed to get there with minimal effort. Not bad at all.”

    Am I an imposter? No. Do I deserve my success? Maybe. Do others deserve it more? Definitively.

    Reply
    • Valerie Young

      Thanks for posting Gilbert. So many either completely deny that they had the benefit of good schooling, parenting, social class — even race or gender — or they see these advantages as taking away from their success. There are many factors that go into making us a success. It’s what we do with advantages that matters. Look through any yearbook from an affluent community and you’ll find those who failed to take advantage of a good education, connections, or other advantages.

      I ‘m sure others will relate to how it feels to be over-estimated.. Women generally are familiar with the demoralizing experience of being underestimated,… of being presumed to be less knowledgeable or successful. (It happened to me at a networking event this weekend). And more than one minority student has told me of the demoralizing experience of professors presuming they couldn’t have written their own paper because it was “too good.”

      I know your experience and personal insight will make a lot of others think. Thanks again.

      Valerie

      Reply
  2. Joseann

    Hi, interesting topic and sounds very familiar. I definitely have this syndrome ( and no idea why the writing is in blue color). The question that popped up for me is related to this:
    “…and public self-doubt really reflect is the competing voices of self-judgment. And, up until now that is, you’ve let the self-doubting impostor side of story has gotten the best of you.”

    That is certainly true, but is the solution then to swing into the opposite direction and practice self praise?
    I am asking this because I wonder if judgment in general might be the problem and not so much the quality of it? I have been really pondering about it, but for me it feels that judgement in general is unpleasant, either way, when it comes from others. It creates a feeling of separation and of superiority on the side of those who judge and feeling of “becoming measurable” on my side against the scale of measurement of other people. Just curious to learn what the solution is: more positive judgment (I don’T feel that would do) or no judgment at all (feels much better)?

    Reply
  3. Valerie Young

    Joseann,

    Great insights!

    For me it’s not so much a matter of either/or. I do endorse self-praise in the sense that impostors have difficulty connecting emotionally with their accomplishments.

    Rather than continually looking outside of ourselves for validation — and then dismissing it — we need to be able to congratulate ourselves for a job well done. Even if the outcome is not 100 percent as we;d like, if you gave it your all you need to be proud of that. Think of it as you being your own best friend.

    Having said that, if you can practice not having judgement about your work — and that feels better — by all means do it! Personally I like feeling proud of myself when I do something, especially something I was afraid I couldn’t do. The key is to do what works for you.

    Valerie

    Reply
  4. Michael

    I have always felt like I was very sharp and able to do ANYTHING I set my mind to, and at the same time, out of my league, at risk of being discovered for an incompetent boob, in over my head.

    I am willing to try anything and often am in situations where I am (successfully) flying by the seat of my pants. In a limited sense maybe I am a fraud, because often I do things for which I have no training. I believe that most things in the world can be mastered by paying attention and jumping in feet first.

    For 14 years I was a tech writer for software products that I never understood, and was able to successfully write those manuals, get good reviews, and advance in the companies I worked for while only spending about 25% of my work time actually doing what they were paying me to do. The insanity of that situation eventually moved me to walk away from it, even though I was making 6 figures doing it at the end and my employers were happy with my performance.

    I have always felt like I was out of my league with in-laws and many friends, even though they are apparently oblivious to that feeling coming from me, and pose no real threat to my competence.

    I actually feel extremely confident about my abilities and competence. In my case, it seems to be more an issue of expectation that I will not succeed, that I will not be recognized, that I will not be appropriately compensated. While the software writing job was somewhat of an exception, I was underpaid for most of that 14 years, did not advance much, and only in the last 3 years of that time did things begin to work out.

    For me, I would say the impostor syndrome is not about how I see my abilities. It’s more about how I see myself as capable of success. This is irrational, I know, but it’s often debilitating. I find myself performing at a remarkable level, and still seeing no success come from it.

    Being able to rest in my accomplishments, regardless of measurability, as Joseann put it, is the thing that is most illusive to me. And when my metrics aren’t supporting my accomplishments, then all hell breaks loose.

    Reply
  5. Amy

    i have identified my self with impostor syndrome, but afterwards i think it molded to me. i become my imposter persona, darn.
    what ever, i think i’m starting to enjoy, and found the silver lining in being an impostor. at least no one will no if you fail, no one will judge you if you done something out of the ordinary. i usually spare some time to reflect and get in tune with my true personality. before i feel like an empty vessel, with no rights to live.
    i am capable, and i know i’m capable. but i always put this belief aside, pretending i dont know who i am and what i can do so i could express feelings more naturally.
    to accomplish other things, to examine my self and other people, to avoid any unecessary conflicts. its tough, but i’m getting the hang of it. but i’m now afraid that i’ll shed my own creativity, by not abiding rules and rebel againts it, being ambivalence etc etc…ugh, i always get into the habit of over thinking every thing.
    i just want to gain a sense of peace and harmony, every one doesn’t have to know who i am inside. i manage to redeem my voice. i think its for the best, for my own sake. i will not risk any more comfort being out spoken and rigid. i’m done with that. seriously.
    i’ve study archetypes, have found numerous benefits from it. i’ve now know how to welcome other people, but still uphold my boundaries. and not be so intense all the time.

    Reply

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