Train full of people in disguise

Imposter Syndrome: What It is and How to Overcome It

70% of people will experience imposter syndrome at least once in their lives, characterised by feelings of inadequacy. But what can be done to stop it? Author and Imposter Syndrome expert Valerie Young offers three simple steps

Words: Robin Gillie Illustration: Matt Peet

Imposter syndrome can affect anyone at any age, and of any race or class – but especially affects those who “belong to a group for whom there are stereotypes about competence”, explains Valerie Young, an expert in the phenomenon, who has helped companies such as Apple and Facebook address the problem. Originally a concept unique to women, coined by psychologists Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Innes, its definition has been expanded to encompass “people who despite having ample evidence of their abilities, have a difficult time internalising and owning their accomplishments”.

“Instead of saying how good am I that I can put together a last-minute presentation that other people genuinely find useful, she asks, ‘How could they like that bullshit?’”

Through years of mentorship, Valerie, who wrote The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, has come across some creative excuses for success. She recalls meeting one young woman who was forced to put together a presentation at the last minute ahead of a big meeting at work. The woman managed to pull a presentation together and blew everyone away. However, instead of celebrating her achievement, she questioned the intelligence of the team. Valeries says: “Instead of saying how good am I that I can put together a last-minute presentation that other people genuinely find useful, she asks, ‘How could they like that bullshit?’”

With the rise of the tech society, Valerie warns that the phenomenon isn’t going to go away. “Before, imposter syndrome and comparison would happen through commercials, you would see perfect homes and bodies advertised, but now we see it every day, online and on social media. People who are always together that have the perfect home and family.” Valerie believes that this leads us to criticise our own lives, and to strive for the perfection portrayed by others, leading further to feelings of inadequacy.

So what can be done to stop these feelings? Try Valerie’s three-step plan to combat imposter syndrome.


Valerie Young’s three steps to combat imposter syndrome


Valeries says: “We think we should be confident 24/7, which is impossible. Even positive change is scary. When you start something new just remind yourself that you are going to feel off base for a while. Recognise that the majority of high achievers have had these feelings at one time or another. If 70% feel this way maybe we should be studying the other 30%. Because the other end of the continuum is narcissism, where you don’t know your limitations.”


“Realise that the people around us aren’t any better for not having imposter syndrome, they just think differently. You need to become consciously aware of the thoughts in your head.” Valerie also encourages sufferers to recognise they’re not alone. “I did a talk years ago to managers and I walked in the room, and surprisingly almost 80% were men, but what was more surprising was how shocked the men were to see people there who they respected and admired.”


Adjust your perspective on a problem by looking at it in a way that a non-imposter would. “I have spoken to a lot of people who have just been accepted into elite academic programmes or schools,” says Valerie. “Their first response is ‘Oh my God, everyone is brilliant.’ I tell them to use the same words but reframe your attitude – ‘Wow, everyone here is brilliant, I’m sure going to learn a lot.’”