Imposter Syndrome

The dictionary definition of Imposter Syndrome is the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.

So, just to be clear, this isn’t about being afraid to do stuff due to self-doubt, or putting things off thinking you’re not good enough – no, this is when you are doing stuff, when you are being successful, and yet still you’re worrying that you’ll be found out. That somehow your success has been down to dumb luck and you’ll be shown to be a charlatan, rather than someone who has worked hard and deserves their success. Crazy, right?

Yes, it is crazy, but it’s remarkably prevalent. Something I use to tell that annoying little inner voice to get lost, is the knowledge that some truly remarkable people also suffer from Imposter Syndrome.

My particular favourite is a little story about two rather famous blokes called Neil. Neil Gaiman – successful author – told of this gathering he attended many years ago now. He described it as a gathering of the great and the good – artists, scientists, writers, discoverers of things – where he was absolutely convinced they’d soon realise he didn’t qualify to be there.

Then one night, while standing at the back of the room, he began chatting to someone he described as “a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman, who shared his first name”. That gentleman said to him “I look at all these people and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.” Mr Gaiman’s response? “But you were the first man on the moon, I think that counts for something.”

You see, that nice, polite, elderly gentleman was Neil Armstrong. In a world where even the first man to walk on the moon feels like an Imposter, I feel in good company.

What do you think about Imposter Syndrome? Do you have any theories about why people suffer from it? If you suffer with Imposter Syndrome, do you have a role model to remind yourself you’re doing just fine?

© Debra Carey, 2022

26 thoughts on “Imposter Syndrome

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  1. I think people can’t believe their good fortune. While you can study, work hard, do all the right things, no matter how you look at it, sometimes you need a little luck, or right place right time. My friend who is a Patriots (American football) fan always wonders what would have happened if their star quarterback didn’t get hurt, would Tom Brady have become Tom Brady (Brady replaced their big star in a game and just was phenomenal) or would Tom Brady be retired, living a quiet life as a salesman for some finance firm with a wife who wasn’t a famous model

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  2. FYI…sometimes I don’t feel worthy of commenting on someone’s exceptional blog post, because what right do I have to add to it…

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  3. I’ve seen less imposter syndrome, unfortunately, than the opposite: people, white males especially, promoted or given jobs far beyond their experience and qualifications. Often out of nepotism, especially in the entertainment industry and politics. And do these men ever question their success or expertise? No. They believe they are entitled.

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  4. I have a lot of self-doubt, but as you say, that’s different. What always surprised me is the number of people at work who weren’t as good as they thought they were, who probably should have had imposter syndrome. But somehow they go places and make life miserable for the rest.

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  5. I never know what to think about this term. I know I was encouraged to “fake it until you make it” and that did work for me. But was I an imposter during those times? And then I see the opposite, a sloppy incompetent person who thinks they’re great and does nothing worth noting. Beats me…

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  6. That’s a great story about Neil Armstrong. Decades ago, I read an interview with the singer Dean Martin, who apparently suffered from a bit of what you’re describing here. He described his pre-concert ritual of talking himself into just faking his way through the performance and getting through it. Somehow that spoke to me. So whenever I felt overwhelmed, my way of overcoming it was to just agree with myself that I would fake my way through it until it was over. I think it worked, but I’m not 100% 🙂 – Marty

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  7. I believe in the imposter syndrome not so much that it holds the “sufferer” back but that it grounds them. The first time I heard about it was years ago when I read a quote by either John Lennon or Paul McCartney marveling at the fact that this person the world talked about was really just a kid from working-class Liverpool who sang. He had trouble believing it himself. It actually helped me to realize that famous/talented people could feel that way. In that respect, I think it’s actually healthy.

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  8. That’s a good question. I wonder how Tom Brady would answer it.

    For clarity, I do agree with you that fortune plays its part, although – of course – only after you do the work so you’re in the right place at the right time.

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  9. I remember the first time I heard about the Dunning Kruger effect, where the quite obviously not very bright tell everyone how bright they are because they’re just stupid enough to believe it. While this might have some small impact in the scenario you mention, of course it is predominantly down to how you’re prepared for life and what you see modelled in the world (patriarchy and white privilege). For me, that makes these examples of imposter syndrome by two white males reassuring of their humanity.

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  10. Absolutely Donna, far too much of that about (see my reply to Autumn about the Dunning Kruger effect). As someone who has self-doubt and constantly feels the need to load up on more & more qualifications, I take reassurance that some of the great and the good also felt this way, and yet managed to push on through. I have to push on through, so I chose to model them in that aspect.


  11. The true imposters are those who think they’re great despite doing nothing of value. It’s the ones who push through a lack of confidence or self-doubt to achieve and do good – possibly even great – things, and can still believe they’re nothing special or not as great as others. I wondered whether it was just humility with a new brand name. But was still unsure, hence this post.

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  12. I didn’t know that about Dean Martin, so thanks for sharing it Marty. Any and all stories of the great and the good having to find a way to overcome their (unnecessary) doubts are most welcome. I’ve struggled with the concept of faking it till I make it, as I have difficulties getting past the idea that somehow I’m faking my abilities rather than my confidence. But every story I hear of people who’ve struggled with it do give me strength to do what needs to be done.

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  13. Thanks for that perspective Jane, which does seem to take it back to the concept that it’s humility with a new brand name (see my response to Ally).

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  14. Oh lucky you, I’d love to have met him. That said, the only authors I have met have been lovely and totally grounded.

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  15. Oh, I just love the story about the Neils. I confess I do suffer from Imposter Syndrome at times, especially when it came to my career. I was in senior management and frequently worried I didn’t truly belong there, even when the evidence suggested otherwise. Since I’ve retired, several of my employees have told me I am truly missed and my absence is felt–not just my skillset but my temperament.

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  16. Christie, I just love it too, and it really resonated with me. I think you may have nailed it on the head there, that temperament is a huge part of the make-up of those who suffer with Imposter Syndrome. I’m so pleased that you got to hear how much you were valued after you retired.


  17. I’d add a third Neil (Young) to the list of imposters. Somehow he has succeeded despite that voice and his insufferable me-first attitude.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love his music. “On the Beach” is pure musical genius.

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  18. I agree with some of the earlier comments. For a number of years we’ve worried that children might lack self-confidence, so we’ve taken great efforts to tell them how great they are. Might we have overdone it? Especially with some people who then expect the world to reward them beyond what they deserve.

    I can see why Neil Armstrong might feel like an imposter. He was a good astronaut who was in the right place at the right time. He may have been first, but it was definitely a group effort.

    I can think of times when you might say I felt like an imposter. I’ll just mention one. The first time I taught kindergarten. I still couldn’t picture myself as a teacher. I wasn’t very good at it. I knew I had a lot to learn, but I just had to do my best until I truly fit the role of a good kindergarten teacher.

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  19. Funnily enough Mark, I seem to remember a picture of three Neils together, although it wasn’t Neil Young but – I think – Neal Stephenson (science fiction author).


  20. It’s that good old happy medium thing isn’t it Nicki?

    I agree with you about Neil Armstrong. Doubtless a clever and driven individual, but well aware that he was but the tip of a talented team.


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