What’s In Your Competence Rulebook?

I’ve spent close to four decades helping people who feel like impostors, fakes, and frauds.

In that time, I’ve come to an important conclusion:

If you want to truly put yourself on the fast track to feeling as bright and capable as you really are, then nothing — and I do mean nothing — will get you there quicker than adjusting your beliefs about what it takes to be competent.

Why? Because the impostor syndrome goes beyond a mere lack of confidence.

Everyone experiences bouts of self-doubt from time to time — especially when attempting something new.

But because “impostors” have insanely high self-expectations, the self-doubt is chronic.

It’s also possible to doubt your abilities without believing that you ultimately succeeded because of some sleight of hand or that you are fooling others.

A person could have normal jitters before, say getting up to give their first speech, do well, and then draw from this experience to feel more confident about the next time.

But impostors don’t think this way.

Because no matter how well you did or how loud the applause, you find a way to explain them away. 

It was a great audience. They just like me. Fooled ’em again.

So wins don’t produce any real bump in confidence.

“If I Was REALLY Intelligent… Capable… Competent”


Twenty years of well-documented research, by leading expert in motivation and personality psychology Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, confirmed what I’d discovered from my own research in the early 1980s.

Namely, your notion of what it means to be competent has a powerful impact on how competent you feel. It’s also at the core of impostor feelings.

It’s why one of the first exercises I created for my impostor syndrome workshops was called, “What’s in Your Rule Book?” Some three decades later and I still use this exercise today.

Everyone has unconscious rules in their head about what it means to be competent. These rules tend to begin with “should,” “always,” or “never.”

Whether it’s ivy league students or engineers at Boeing or IT managers at IBM — the exercise elicits the same basic rules.

If I were really intelligent, capable, competent…

  • I should know everything in my field
  • I should get it right the first time
  • I should excel in everything I do
  • I’d always know the answer
  • I’d always understand what I’m reading
  • I’d always feel confident
  • I’d never make a mistake
  • I’d never be confused
  • I’d never need help

My personal favorite was the Stanford Ph.D. student who said, “I feel like I should already know what I came here to learn.”

Which of course, is crazy talk.


I’ve done this exercise with people from all walks of life and at all phases of their careers.

Nurses, engineers, professors, biologists, Ph.D. candidates, social workers, physicians, jewelers, accountants, financial advisers, senior executives, chemists, programmers, entrepreneurs, attorneys — even romance book writers.

And each time it confirms my early findings.

Namely, because people who feel like impostors hold themselves to an unrealistic and unsustainable standard of competence, falling short of this standard evokes shame.

However, it was only after doing the rule book exercise with tens of thousands of people that I made a second discovery.

Impostors don’t all experience failure-related shame the same way. And the reason is that they don’t all define competence the same way.

What emerged from the rules exercise are five different Competence Types — each with its own unique focus:

  • The Perfectionist’s primary focus is on “how” something is done. This includes how the work is conducted and how it turns out. One minor flaw in an otherwise stellar performance or 99 out of 100 equals failure and thus shame.
  • The Expert is the knowledge version of the Perfectionist. Here, the primary concern is on “what” and “how much” you know or can do. Because you expect to know everything, even a minor lack of knowledge denotes failure and shame.
  • The Soloist cares mostly about “who” completes the task. To make it on the achievement list, it has to be you and you alone. Because you think you need to do and figure out everything on your own, needing help is a sign of failure that evokes shame.
  • The Natural Genius also cares about “how” and “when” accomplishments happen. But for you, competence is measured in terms of ease and speed. The fact that you have to struggle to master a subject or skill or that you’re not able to bang out your masterpiece on the first try equals failure which evokes shame.
  • The Superwoman/Superman/Super Student measures competence based on “how many” roles they can both juggle and excel in. Falling short in any role — as a parent, partner, on the home-front, host/hostess, friend, volunteer — all evoke shame because they feel they should be able to handle it all — perfectly and easily.

Sound familiar?

The fact that everyone else sees a highly capable individual where you see an inadequate fraud, is a pretty good indicator that you operate from a competence playbook that bears little resemblance to reality.

It doesn’t matter how intelligent or talented or skilled you are right now, I have news for you.

You are never going to consistently reach that insanely high bar you’ve set for yourself – ever.

That’s why if you truly want to beat the impostor syndrome you must adjust your self-limiting thinking as to what it takes to be “competent.” This redefining process is bar none, your fastest path to confidence.

Worth Repeating

I know you want to stop feeling like an impostor. But that’s not how it works.

In fact, feelings are the last to change.

Do you want to stop feeling like an impostor? Then you have to stop thinking like an impostor.

And rewriting your inner rule book is hands-down the best place to start.

An extensive description of the 5 competence types, including solutions for each, can be found in Chapter 6: The Competence Rulebook for Mere Mortals in The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It*, Valerie Young, Crown Business, 2011

About Valerie Young

Impostor Syndrome Institute co-founder Valerie Young, Ed.D. is widely recognized as the leading expert on impostor syndrome, Starting in 1985 Valerie has delivered her highly solution-oriented and surprisingly upbeat message to over half a million people around the world at such diverse organizations as Google, Pfizer, IBM, Boeing, YUM!, Carrier, Microsoft, Intel, Chrysler, PWC (UK), Facebook, BP, TRowe Price, McDonald's (Europe), Liberty Mutual, Dell, NASA, and the National Cancer Institute as well as at over 100 universites in the US, Canada, Japan, Europe, and the UK including Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and Oxford. Her career-related advice has been featured in Time, Newsweek, Science, The Wall Street Journal, BBC radio, and other business and popular media around the world. 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 Business) is available in six languages.

15 Responses to “The 5 Types of Impostors:”

  1. Pooneh

    First of all Merry Christmas, and wish you a great new year. Finding your book made my holiday in a way the best holiday ever. I finished reading it today. i could see myself almost in every page you have written. You have done a briliant job. Yes, we have been waiting for your book, thank you.
    As for the rule book, I found myself to assume the position of the 1) natural genius 2) expert and 3) superwoman. That is just because i had suffered from perfectionism and rugged one before and have kind of overcome them. I have been so devestated by the consequence and agony of my mindset recently that could not take it anymore. i was looking for a solution but didn’t even know what kind of solution it could be and then thought about “women in male dominated work place”, was looking on internet for some tips, one click after another got to your book, bought it at once and started reading.
    I was surprised how much someone else had known about my thoughts :), I seriously believe this was my savior, I know as you have mentioned, it is not a change over night, but considering i had never looked at my anxieties from this angle, and had no tools before and now I do, it will set me on different path, some kind of playful and exciting one. Looking forward to go back to office in one week and start enjoying my work and interactions and seeing everything in a different light. Thanks again!

    • Valerie Young

      Hi Pooneh,

      You’re so kind to take the time to write. I’m thrilled to know how much the book spoke to you and has helped you to change course.

      I’m curious what field you’re in and where? I ask because you say you were doing a search for women in a male dominated workplace.” So many of my corporate speaking engagements come at the request of women in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and medicine.

      That’s not to say women in HR, marketing, customer service, social services, teaching, etc., don’t identify with the impostor syndrome because they very much do. Just that whenever you’re in a minority situation based on race or gender and where stereotypes reinforce the notion that you’re not quite as competent as those in the majority group, impostor feelings are more likely to set in.

      Thanks again Pooneh,

      I appreciate your help in spreading the word to other women — and men as well – who might benefit from the book.


      Valerie Young

  2. Valerie Young

    It sounds to me like you’re doing GREAT under tough conditions.

    You can’t control what other people think — only what you think of yourself.

    If the promotion furthers your career then take it. But if you prefer to stay in the technical work then you should do that.

    You are definitely no impostor!

    Hang in there.


    p.s. What country are you in?

  3. Lidewij

    Hi Valery, I’ve just found your website so I haven’t read the book yet, but reading through the site and particularly this blog was an incredible ‘aha-erlebnis’. I completed the sentence :”I’ll know that I’m competent when I…know everything there is to know about a relevant subject, when I’ve mastered every skill, when I’ll make no mistakes anymore,” clearly the Expert Competence Type. And then I realized: by nature I’m the opposite of an expert, I am a generalist. I love to learn about different subjects and to acquire different skills and combine them in a creative way in my work. But, at the same time I expect myself to be an Expert at all these different subjects and skills – flawless and ‘all-knowing’. And this creates enormous stress, I’m continuously anxious I will be exposed as a fraud and always feel I should know more, take another course, read another book…..a never ending story. My perfectionism is sometimes paralyzing. As a self-employed woman this really is an impediment: I’m shy to promote my business, have trouble with charging adequate fees, am doing work for free that I should be charging for, am spending far to much time on preparation, etc.
    So, true to my nature, I’m happy to bring something new into my life, which will be your book , and I am grateful in advance!
    Kind regards,
    the Netherlands.

    • Valerie Young

      That’s a really powerful Aha Lidewiji!

      I’m also self-employed and agree that it can be a huge and costly challenge. The good news is, the way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like one!

      Look forward to hearing how you enjoy the book and thanks for taking the time to write.

      Hope to get back to your beautiful country one day soon.




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