state of cringing denial when called an
expert. It is associated with a constant
feeling that there is so much more
to know, so much more to do. There
is a deep fear of being found out as
not knowing everything in the area of
work. This can lead to feeling like one
doesn’t deserve the job one has.
• The Perfectionist. Perfectionism
underlies a feeling that one could have
(and should have) done better. No
matter how well the task was done,
there is no accepting of compliments
and no celebration of achievements.
Sometimes there isn’t even a noticing
of success, so it is no surprise that self-confidence does not develop.
• The Super woman/man. Some
people can’t stop working, taking on
every task they can. Young argues
that this kind of workaholism is the
expression of a need for external
validation and can be countered only
by focusing on setting one’s own
metrics for personal success.
• The Natural Genius. This behavior
involves judging one’s worth on the
basis of raw ability as opposed to
effort. Tendencies toward ridiculously
high expectations are coupled with
and amplified by the expectation
that one will be successful on a first
try—the perfect setup for feelings of
inadequacy and failure, especially in
• The Rugged Individualist. Rugged
individualism demands that all tasks
be performed alone, and little to no
help is sought. Projects are always
framed in terms of their requirements,
and personal needs are pushed aside in
honor of project demands.
I am sure we all recognize some of
these tendencies, and clearly they are
linked. One may also feel one kind of
anxiety one day and another the next.
My hunch is that people who are
“What do you do about stress?” she asked.
“What do you mean by stress?”
“Well… I feel like I will never fit in,
like I’ll never be smart enough.
And that makes me stressed all the time.
Does that make sense?”
The young woman with whom I was speaking is the first in her family to enter a Ph.D. program. She excelled in her computer science undergraduate degree.
She was admitted to an elite university
to study with a key figure in HCI. By
all accounts, she is doing extremely
well. But she has doubts. Not about
the institution, or her supervisor, or
her topic, about which she is deeply
passionate: She has doubts about
herself and her worthiness to be in the
program at all.
This is a conversation I have too
frequently. It’s a conversation I have
with people at all stages of career,
sometimes even with my peers. In
these conversations, people express
fears that they don’t really belong, that
they are interlopers who aren’t really
“clever enough” or “good enough”
or “well-rounded enough” or “deep
enough” in their discipline. The fear
is that they will be discovered to be
in some way wanting, and that they
will then be cast out, let go, fired from
their positions—the fear of discovery
that they are not good enough
sometimes overwhelms them.
Over four decades ago, this feeling
was found to be very common among
high-achieving women; it was given a
name, impostor syndrome, by clinical
psychologists Pauline Clance and
Suzanne Imes in the late 1970s [ 1].
Follow-on research has shown that
impostor syndrome is very real and
very prevalent, and that its effects
are undeniably negative. Impostor
syndrome is associated with overwork,
with an overly keen focus on pleasing
others, and with an almost desperate
drive to constantly achieve more. It
is therefore also unsurprising that
there is a strong correlation between
impostor syndrome and anxiety,
stress, depression, and burnout, the
debilitating condition of exhaustion
that can result in talented individuals
giving up on promising careers.
While the initial work that led to
the coining of this term focused on
women’s experiences of non-belonging
and of “impostoritis,” and much
published work since has also focused
on women, men are not immune to
impostor syndrome. I asked some of
my male colleagues whether they also
experience impostor syndrome and
got a resounding yes. In researching
the topic for this column, I read an
article that suggested even Albert
Einstein felt this way at times.
In her book The Secret Thoughts of
Successful Women: Why Capable People
Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome
and How to Thrive in Spite of It,
Valerie Young breaks down impostor
syndrome and adds nuance, describing
different kinds of impostor and their
• The Expert. This manifests as a
Is There a Fix for
There is a strong
syndrome and anxiety,
Elizabeth F. Churchill,
COLUMN Ps AND Qs