In a recent talk at TED NYC Idea Search, I spoke about this topic. Here it is in more detail along with my original ten steps.

In my more than three decades of speaking and leading workshops on Impostor Syndrome, I’ve spoken to an estimated 100,000 people.

Up until just a few years ago, I always ended my talks by giving audiences a list of ten ways to combat impostor syndrome.

Audience evaluations were overwhelmingly positive. The one criticism? “I wish she’d given us more solutions.”

Or during the Q&A someone would come up to the mic and say, “This was great… but do you have any other solutions?”

My response was always, “Of the 10 things I just gave you, what have you tried so far?”

To which they’d invariably reply, “Well, nothing – I just wondered if there’s anything else we can do?”

I spent years thinking, “I just gave them TEN things to do! Is it them? Is it me? What am I missing?”

Then one day it hit me.

What people want is to walk into the room feeling like an impostor and to walk out of the room not feeling like an impostor. 

That’s not how it works. In fact, feelings are the last to change.

So now, before I even get to the solutions, I make sure my audience understands that people who don’t feel like impostors are no more intelligent or capable than the rest of us.

The only difference between them and us is that during that same situation that triggers an impostor feeling in us, they think different thoughts. That’s it, folks.

Which is really good news — because it means all we have to do is learn to think like a non-impostor.

And because impostor feelings are indeed the last to change, today I make sure everyone understands that…

The only way to stop feeling like an impostor, is to stop thinking like an impostor.

Then I tell them how to do just that.

To be clear… it’s not that there’s no truth to my original ten steps.

It’s just that my new approach is far more useful – and lasting.

Today I give my audiences three simple but non-negotiable strategies. And they’re much happier.

I’m often asked about my original ten steps. So, here you go!

    1. Break the silence. Shame keeps a lot of people from “fessing up” about their fraudulent feelings. Knowing there’s a name for these feelings and that you are not alone can be tremendously freeing. 
    2. Separate feelings from fact. There are times you’ll feel stupid. It happens to everyone from time to time. Realize that just because you may feel stupid, doesn’t mean you are.
    3. Recognize when you should feel fraudulent. If you’re one of the first or the few women or a minority in your field or work place, it’s only natural you’d sometimes feel like you don’t totally fit in. Instead of taking your self-doubt as a sign of your ineptness, recognize that it might be a normal response to being an outsider. 
    4. Accentuate the positive. Perfectionism can indicate a healthy drive to excel. The trick is to not obsess over everything being just so. Do a great job when it matters most, without persevering over routine tasks. Forgive yourself when the inevitable mistake happens. 
    5. Develop a new response to failure and mistake making. Henry Ford once said, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” Instead of beating yourself up for being human and blowing the big project, do what professional athletes do and glean the learning value from the mistake and move on. 
    6. Right the rules. If you’ve been operating under misguided rules like, “I should always know the answer,” or “Never ask for help” start asserting your rights. Recognize that you have just as much right as the next person to be wrong, have an off-day, or ask for assistance. 
    7. Develop a new script. Your script is that automatic mental tapes that starts playing in situations that trigger your Impostor feelings. When you start a new job or project instead of thinking for example, “Wait till they find out I have no idea what I’m doing,” try thinking, “Everyone who starts something new feels off-base in the beginning. I may not know all the answers but I’m smart enough to find them out.” 
    8. Visualize success. Do what professional athletes do. Spend time beforehand picturing yourself making a successful presentation or calmly posing your question in class. It sure beats picturing impending disaster and will help with performance-related stress. 
    9. Reward yourself. Break the cycle of continually seeking °© and then dismissing °© validation outside of yourself by learning to pat yourself on the back.
    10. Fake it ‘til you make it. Now and then we all have to fly by the seat of our pants. Instead of considering “winging it” as proof of your ineptness, learn to do what many high achievers do and view it as a skill. The point of the worn out phrase, fake it til you make it, still stands: Don’t wait until you feel confident to start putting yourself out there. Courage comes from taking risks. Change your behavior first and allow your confidence to build. 

    You are welcome to reprint this post with the following attribution:

    Dr. Valerie Young is an internationally recognized expert on Impostor Syndrome. She has delivered her often humorous and highly practical approach to overcoming impostor feelings at such diverse organizations as Boeing, Facebook, BP, Intel, Chrysler, Apple, Bristol Meyers-Squibb, McDonald’s, Emerson, IBM, Merck, Ernst & Young, Procter & Gamble, Motley Fool, Raymond James, Space Telescope Science Institute, American Women in Radio and Television, Society of Women Engineers, Women in Trucking, Lung Cancer Partnership, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and many more.

     Her career-related advice has been cited in popular and business outlets around the world including BBC radio, Yahoo Financial News, CNN Money, Wall Street Journal, USA Weekend, O magazine, Entrepreneur, Science, Elle, Redbook, Woman’s Day, and The Chicago Tribune, The Sydney Morning Herald.

     And her 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/Random House) is now available in five languages.

    Click here now to learn how you can bring Valerie in to speak at your organization.



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 Publishing) now available in five languages. Valerie has delivered her highly solution-oriented and surprisingly upbeat message in the US, Canada, Japan, and Europe to such diverse organizations as IBM, Merck, Boeing, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, Intel, Chrysler, Facebook, BP, Ernst & Young, McDonald's, The Space Science Telescope Institute, Society of Women Engineers, Women in Commercial Real Estate, Cornell University's Men of Color in STEM Symposium, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and over 85 other colleges and universities. Her career-related advice has been featured in business and popular media outlets on five continents including The BBC, Yahoo Finance, Newsweek, Time, O magazine, Fast Company, Science, Inc. and many more. Valerie was one of 11 people chosen to deliver a six-minute talk at TED HQ as part of TED/NYC Idea Search 2017. Valerie was the founding coordinator of the Social Justice Education program at the University of Massachusetts where she earned her doctorate.

15 Responses to “10 Steps You Can Use to Overcome Impostor Syndrome”

  1. Jim

    Egad, can we not use clichés? Fake it ’til you make it? I would like to suggest that there’s a better narrative to describe “winging it.”

    I’m a high achiever and never experienced imposture syndrome because I entered management young (at 21) and discovered that I could think on my feet quickly and solve problems as needed. It’s not that I never made mistakes, but that I did in fact solve many difficult problems quickly and on a regular basis.

    It’s not about “faking it” or “winging it.” It’s about having problem solving skills and knowing that no plan can account for every contingency — so you need those skills to accomplish anything. Recognizing your accomplishments, which is one of the steps, becomes very useful here. It’s not about bragging. It’s about having a healthy and realistic self-perception that recognizes your successes and failures and gives them relative weight. When I started doing that, I earned my confidence, and once earned, no one is able to take it away from me. No one can discount the things I’ve already accomplished, especially if they haven’t.

    • Valerie Young

      Thanks for chiming in Jim. Agree fake it til you make it is a highly over used. I stopped using it in my talks a number of years ago.

      You’re right it’s definitely not about faking it. And there is a difference between the problem solving and contingency planning skills you describe and the need to indeed occasionally fly by the seat of our pants. I have an entire chapter that looks at the nuances of this conversation if you’re ever interested in learning more.

      Your experience is in part what I refer to in my talks Jim. Being someone who does not feel like an impostor, your thinking and therefore feelings, vary from those who do.

      My goal is to get people who — for a host of reasons — do experience impostor feelings to become consciously aware of the conversation going on in their head so they can then
      reframe it the way a non-impostor would.

      Thanks again for your comment.

      • Vin Harris

        I don’t like the phrase “fake it until you make it”. The implication is that you are not already ok and need to pretend…so feeding the vicious cycle. How about “behaving as if”. This way there is an acknowledgement of temporary blocks but a decision to think, speak and behave in alignment with how it would be if we didn’t get in our own way.

        • Valerie Young

          I totally agree Vin. These 10 steps are ones I used to share with audiences. I no longer include this recommendation. But even when I did, it very much spoke to the need to keep going regardless of how confident you feel. In other words, don’t wait until you feel 100 percent ready to start or scale your business, go for the promotion, apply for a grant or to a degree program. Expecting to know everything at the beginning — or ever — is the equivalent of trying to get to the end of the internet. It is simply not possible.

          This concept is so key that I wrote an entire chapter about why the concept of fake it til you make it is harder for women — and why we must.

          Thanks for chiming in Vin.

  2. Nancy Knettell

    Thank you as always Valerie for your sage advice. I am definately a poster child for Imposter Syndrome. After all I am a woman in tech. We are not supposed to be competent in that field. (PS I never believed that) Never-the-less CEO of my own technical company thanks to you. Fake it until you make itm Oh yeah…And oh boy have I had humiliating failures. Pick yourself up…dust yourself off…start all over again. Doesn’t get any easier but I keep reminding myself if anyone can do this why can’t I. Read her book. It is excellent.

    • valerie young

      Thanks for the kind words about my book Nancy.

      No easy task to start your own business, and all the more impressive that you did it in a field with so few women

      The fact that you have such a healthy response to failure is why you’ve been able to be successful. I tell my audiences that you can disappointed if you fail — crushingly disappointed. But not ashamed. The only time you should feel shame is if you didn’t try.

  3. Nancy Knettell

    Thank you as always Valerie for your sage advice. I am definately a poster child for Imposter Syndrome. After all I am a woman in tech. We are not supposed to be competent in that field. (PS I never believed that) Never-the-less CEO of my own technical company thanks to you. Fake it until you make itm Oh yeah…And oh boy have I had humiliating failures. Pick yourself up…dust yourself off…start all over again. Doesn’t get any easier but I keep reminding myself if anyone can do this why can’t I. Read her book. It is excellent.

  4. john wick

    Thanks for an awesome post, I recently struck out on my own as a freelancer and have been fighting Imposter Syndrome SO much. It made me feel better to know it’s a common feeling.

    • Valerie Young

      There are many perfectly good reasons why someone would feel like a fraud John and working alone is one of them. Unlike in a job-job, the only performance review you get is the one that comes from you — and it’s impossible to consistently measure up to our unrealistically high standards.

      Add to that the fact that you’re starting something new and it makes perfect sense that this is when impostor feelings would rear their ugly head.

      I know you said you’re a freelancer, but I encourage you to think of yourself as an entrepreneur? Why? Because the entrepreneur mindset with it’s emphasis on constantly trying new things and learning from what worked and more importantly, what didn’t, can be tremendously helpful in battling impostor syndrome.

      Finally, remember – the only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor.

      Best of luck with your new freelance career. I’m a huge fan of self-bossing!

  5. Daniel

    I recently received a promotion at work. You would think I should be excited, but because I did better than my best friend I don’t feel that way. Initially I said, he should get it, but my supervisor emailed me and asked my intention of the position. I said yes during follow up meeting. I was very nervous and not confident in there because I could only think about my friend. He still thought I was ready. Everyone is congratulating me, but all I can think about is that I’m a fraud and don’t deserve it and everyone will find that out. From this point I spiral down a path that I’m going to lose everything, most important my kids and wife. I’m trying to accept and believe that this was the right thing to do.

    • Valerie Young

      Dan — First, a BIG congratulations on your promotion.

      Second, what you describe is actually pretty common.

      Sometimes when we hesitate in the face of success it’s not a matter of confidence or impostor syndrome. The fact of the matter is, success is complicated. And no one ever tells us that.

      What I mean by that is that the same situations where impostor feelings are most likely to come up — a promotion, relocating for a job or school, job interviews, talking about our accomplishments — are all times when there are consequences either on or in our relationships with other people.

      I wrote an entire chapter on the role that care and concern play in achievement which can make it harder to parse out where the fear or hesitation is coming from.

      In your case, you get a promotion over not just your co-worker, but your BEST friend. Suddenly instead of being work pals, you may be his boss. Even if there is no reporting relationship, the fact is you “won” and he lost. It’s normal to feel empathy for your friend.

      If you’d given up the promotion for your friend you may have felt like a good friend in the short-term. But over time you may have come to regret it both professionally and financially. After all, not taking the promotion means less money not just for you, but for your family. It may help to ask yourself, what advice would you give your wife if she were in the same situation with a friend at work…

      There are lots of reasons why one person is chosen over another — reasons that don’t always have to do with how good you look on paper. Back in my corporate job I hired a number of people and can tell you that if it’s a choice between two candidates, and one has more personality or otherwise feel like a fit style-wise — even if they have FEWER qualifications — you’re going to go with the person you feel comfortable spending 40-50 hours a week with.

      Let’s say in your case, personality or “fit” was a factor. Often people with impostor syndrome will dismiss their accomplishment by saying, “It’s JUST because they like me.” They fail to realize that likeability is itself an actual skill!

      It’s your friend’s job to ask for specific feedback on what he needs to do to be ready for the next promotion — or if possible to find out why he was not chosen. They may be looking at him for another role. Or for reasons you can’t see, you were the better fit.

      If it’s important to you, you can also ask what was it that caused them to select you over other candidates. Not in a way that positions you as hesitant or unsure of yourself, but more in an effort to continually grow professionally.

      As for whether accepting the promotion was the right thing to do… imagine you were in a track meet competing with your friend. Would you pause before you got to the finish line to “let” him win? Hopefully not, because no one wants to win that way. And it’s definitely not healthy for you.

      Finally, as you start your new position give yourself permission to feel off-base for the first 3 months (at least). You’re in a learning curve and can’t expect yourself to hit the ground running and pick everything up immediately. When you can normalize the anxiety of a new role you’re less apt to judge yourself as an impostor.

      If I were going to recommend two chapters of my book it would be Chapter 6: The Competence Rulebook for Mere Mortals and Chapter 8: Success and the Female Drive to Care and Connect. Don’t be too concerned about the title. Men who have a high level of emotional intelligence as you do will also identify.

      Bottom line: Everyone has setbacks in life; it’s how you handle them that count. Your best friend may be disappointed, but he’ll survive. You earned your promotion. Just because you feel like an impostor, doesn’t mean you are. Now go out and celebrate with your family!

  6. Kathy

    Hi, I don’t even know where to star, but I will try. I have this felling for a very long times ( like from high school) and just now everything is fooling in place. Like is not only one reason are many of them, from been a woman to been and emigrant, and all of the voices that I sometimes believe; that are a big wall that are separating me from my dreams. I hope find my way through and becaming complete how I want to be.
    English is my second lenguage and probably my gramar is not good.
    Thanks for give me tools to bring down this wall.

    • Valerie Young

      Hi Kathy,

      First, you are no impostor. And what you’re feeling is really normal. There are lots of reasons why capable, intelligent people feel like impostors. Family messages and expectations are one. There are also situational factors like being a student or working alone. For different reasons, people in fields like medicine, technology, the law and creative fields like acting, writing, etc. are more susceptible.

      It’s also true that having a sense of belonging fosters confidence. Think about walking into a classroom or a workplace or the halls of power. Once there, the more people who look like you — or when English is not your first language, who sound like you — the more confident you feel. This is even truer when you belong to a group for whom there are stereotypes about competence and intelligence. For instance, we all know what it’s like to be the youngest person in a work setting and feel underestimated based on our age.

      I speak at a lot of universities including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and Oxford. International students always come to my talks in droves. After all, they have the same pressures as all of the other students but they’re doing it in a different culture and often in a second language.

      I am pointing out the sources because it’s important that we have a context for them. That we realize there are external factors that lead to internal feelings.

      Try to not over psychologize or over personalize your impostor feelings but instead remind yourself that it is a normal response.

      If you have not read my book Kathy, I do think you’d find it useful. If you learn better by listening than reading, it is also in audiobook form.

      I hope this is helpful and remember, everyone loses when bright people play small!

    • Valerie Young

      I’m sure I could have worded it better Sofia. As I originally wrote: If you’re one of the first or the few women or a minority in your field or work place, it’s only natural you’d sometimes feel like you don’t totally fit in. Instead of taking your self-doubt as a sign of your ineptness, recognize that it might be a normal response to being an outsider. 

      The point being, we often over-psychologize impostor syndrome when in fact, there are many perfectly good reasons why someone might feel like a fraud. Some, like being a student or working alone are situational. People in certain fields are more prone to impostor syndrome, like for instance people in creative fields, in medicine or technology. You could be working in an organizational culture that fuels self-doubt — medical school and academia being two.

      When I made the point about recognizing there are situations when you “should” feel fraudulent the example I gave was related to situations familiar to many women, people of color, people with a disability, first-generation as well as international students or professionals, where you either feel pressure to represent your entire group and/or are on the receiving end of societal stereotypes about competence.

      In all of these situations, it’s important to normalize impostor feelings. How? By doing less personalizing and more contextualizing. In other words, how could you NOT feel like an impostor in certain situations.

      Does that answer your question Sofia?


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