article7 min read

How to overcome imposter syndrome at work

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” – W. B. Yeats

You’ve all heard the sort of stuff he comes out with.

“All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me – consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected.”

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

“My IQ is one of the highest — and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure; it’s not your fault.“

What’s the key to confidence? Well, one thing we can say is Donald Trump, the most talked about megalomaniac since that kid who became an evil king in Game of Thrones, has it in abundance. He harbours no doubts regarding his likeability, authority, intellect, and endowment (both monetary and otherwise). He displays extreme hubris, a self-confidence that hardens into rigid, unbending rectitude.

Opposed to someone like Trump we find Emma Watson. After her role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series ended, the vertiginously successful actor confessed serious self-doubt;

“At any moment, I feared someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud. I can’t possibly live up to what everyone thinks I am.” 1

Despite these doubts and anxieties, she has gone from success to success following the Potter films. It seems odd, logically speaking, that Trump is more confident than Watson, right?

While Trump is assured in his all-around excellence, Watson fears being found out, anxious that all along she’s been overrated and her actual abilities don’t match her position or others’ perception. We could say that Trump and Watson sit on either side of a ‘confidence continuum’. But two questions beg an answer here: 1) Why is it that some people overrate and some people underrate their abilities, their skills, and their successes? 2) Is there anything we can do to improve our self-perception to boost confidence, achieving a sort of optimum middle ground?

This is best tackled by forgetting Trump for a second and assessing Watson. Her fear of fraudulence is such a commonly expressed sentiment amongst successful people that it has been dubbed the ‘Imposter Syndrome’.

Imposter syndrome

In the late 1970s, clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes’s found that many high-achieving individuals fail to internalise their successes and instead attribute successes to external contingencies and ‘luck’. 2 This is also known, in psychological terms, as the perception of an ‘external locus of control’, meaning Watson doesn’t view herself as the controlling factor in positive outcomes. This externalisation torments individuals with a persistent fear, like Watson’s, of being ‘found out’ as not so smart or unable in one way or another since they perceive their own effort and abilities as lacking. The California Institute of Technology defines the ‘imposter’ as having “feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the face of information that indicates the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.” 3 The telltale sign lies in the suffers disconnect between perceived and actual performance.

Watson isn’t alone. Many celebrities express similar symptoms, including Kate Winslet, Denzel Washington, Renee Zellweger, Meryl Streep, Maya Angelou, Michelle Pfeiffer. Imposter syndrome is often most prevalent in high-achieving women and people from minority groups. Negative self-beliefs instilled by societal marginalisation and various gradations of prejudice fertilise notions of inferiority. These are often encoded during one’s younger, more formative years, becoming core beliefs that act as a mental filter, rejecting evidence of adequacy and personal accomplishment and admitting only information that supports one’s hypothesised inferiority. This not only perpetuates feelings of inadequacy but, because these self-beliefs bruise confidence and increase levels of distress, they can limit the ‘imposter’s’ capacity to perform well, installing a glass ceiling on their hopes and aspirations.

But imposter syndrome is not exclusive to minority groups. A 2014 study found that the syndrome has affected approximately 70% of the worldwide population. It is a universal psychological phenomenon – a toxic byproduct of the human condition, rather than an isolated illness. 4 You might be reading this now and thinking, ‘imposter syndrome doesn’t apply to me, I’m not successful enough, and, in any case, the successes I do have aren’t anything special.’ If you are, then you’re likely one of the 70%.

Although widespread, there are techniques of self-reappraisal we can adopt to combat imposter syndrome. If the syndrome persists and an individual keeps setting their internal bar exceedingly high and creating unrealistic notions of what competency is, they may develop enduring and inhibiting fears of failure and exposure. Such a ‘misreality gap’ is based on an inaccurate assessment of one’s own abilities in relation to those of others, misjudging their relative position within a group. In today’s world, where competition and competitiveness are practically atmospheric, opportunities for misjudging ourselves in comparison to others only increase.


Now, whizzing down to the other end of the confidence spectrum, where Trump’s wondering how his face will look on Mt. Rushmore, let’s take a look at why some people believe they’re better than they actually are.

In 1999 researchers Dunning and Kruger revealed a pattern of cognitive bias that leads some relatively unskilled people to suffer ‘illusory superiority’, erroneously assessing their abilities as higher than they really are. 5 Trump’s narcissism is likely due to illusory beliefs he holds about himself, but whether this is a defensive mechanism to protect a fragile ego or just plain ignorance is up for debate. More generally though, in Dunning-Kruger’s notion of ‘illusion’ we find an unexpected point of commonality between the self-deprecator and the self-aggrandiser, between Watson and Trump.

Both the imposter and the over-estimator misjudge themselves because of beliefs they hold about their abilities. Both will only accept information that aligns with their view of themselves as inferior or superior; their mental filters reject knowledge to the contrary, even when it’s blatant and valid. The problem, for both, stems from inaccurate and illusory self-perception. As Dunning observed, “people aren’t very accurate at identifying how well or how poorly they’re doing." 6

But, does this mean that we’re bound to be an imposter or an over-estimator?

Healthy confidence

No. And there are steps we can take to ensure we are not and do not appear to others as either. The hallowed middle-ground between these two poles can be reached by cultivating a healthy sense of self-efficacy and confidence in one’s ability to perform a task successfully.

Psychologist Hendrie Weisinger believes “confident people grew up with a realistic appraisal of their abilities and thus knew where they stood”, which strengthened their perception that they can influence outcomes, a perception that reduces anxiety when you enter pressure moments. The important aspect here – and something we can teach ourselves – is ‘realistic appraisal’.

We must recognise both our strengths and or weaknesses, dampening the biased opinions we have of ourselves, understanding that failure is okay and success is possible with effort (see Dweck’s growth mindset), enhancing our sense of having an ‘internal locus of control’. This ‘dampening’ can be achieved through understanding that biases are driven by our ‘emotional brain’, which takes neurological primacy. By employing our ‘rational brain’ to re-evaluate these biases we deconstruct our self-perception of inferiority by acknowledging our successes, revealing our abilities as they really are. It takes time and practice to be able to do this effectively but it can be done. Positive has developed tools to help relieve biases of their potency and construct new, positive thinking styles that enhance self-confidence and diminish anxiety.

Remember one thing, whether you’re overconfident or under-confident: neither feelings nor thoughts are facts. The most effective way to ensure we develop a healthy, confident understanding of ourselves is to self-perceive as objectively and rationally as possible. Think about what a respected friend or colleague might say, or what you would say to them, offering a compassionate, constructive, but ultimately rational assessment. By reframing and objectively weighing achievements in this way we can shift unrealistic thinking, relax cognitive rigidity and strengthen flexible mindsets that support rational confidence. Under these conditions, in the light of truth, we can flourish uninhibited by falsity.


  1. 'Emma Watson feels like she's an imposter. She's not the only one.' The Telegraph

  2. Clance, P.R.; Imes, S.A. (1978). “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention.”.Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 15 (3): 241–247.

  3. California Institute of Technology definition

  4. Clark, M.; Vardeman, K.; Barba, S. (2014). “Perceived inadequacy: A study of the impostor phenomenon among college and research librarians”. College & Research Libraries 75 (3): 255–271.

  5. Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (1999). “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77 (6): 1121–34.

  6. Dunning, ibid.

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