Impostor Syndrome: When Successful People Feel Like Frauds

Do you feel like a fake even though you’re a successful business person? Afraid others will learn your secret? If you answered yes, you are suffering from impostor syndrome. Here are ten tips for overcoming it.

Many successful people suffer from impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome is the feeling that you’re a fraud–and that you’ll be “found out” if you don’t work longer and harder than everyone else. You may believe that others are more qualified than you, and every time you succeed, you’re not confident you can do it again.

Impostor syndrome strikes some of the most successful people. It doesn’t matter how many degrees you’ve gotten, how much money you’ve earned, how many awards you’ve been given, or how far up on the corporate ladder you are. In fact, Ed Whitacre, former chairman and CEO of General Motors, and Debra Lee, Chairman of BET Networks, are among the top executives who admit to having suffered from impostor syndrome. Based on my own and others’ experiences with impostor syndrome, here are 10 ways to overcome it

1. Don’t stay silent. 

Find a way to speak about your fears with a trusted friend, a coach, a mentor, your partner, or a therapist. Or confess your true feelings in a journal or into a recorder. One of the symptoms of impostor syndrome is isolating from one’s peers and suffering in silence.

2. Do a reality check. 

Test whether your way of seeing yourself and your abilities and accomplishments is realistic. Make a list of your special skills and the qualities you have that attract people to you and have gotten you this far.

3. See others for who they are. 

Practice seeing other people as they are, with their own needs and foibles. See their strengths and weaknesses. Learning to see and accept flaws in others will allow you to see yourself in the same way, with compassion and understanding.

4. Learn to metabolize external validation. 

The next time someone compliments you on something you’ve done well, put aside your habitual response and allow the information to sink in. Another way to practice this is to ask a trusted ally what your special gifts are; listen carefully and take it all in.

5. Look closely at your fear. 

When you look at your fear, you may realize that what you’re feeling is a perfectly natural reaction to what you’re experiencing. Feeling unfit for your position is, in part, a conditioned emotional response to stress. Learn to distinguish the stress of moving up into new levels of responsibility and influence from the conditioned response of impostor fears. 

6. Question your work habits. 

Ask whether trying to compensate for feeling unworthy by working harder than anyone else around you makes you feel less like a fake. Then, begin to consider what makes you feel truly worthy in your own eyes. 

7. Build alliances with like-minded people.

Work to clarify your own values, and build connections with people who share those values. If you feel like the “odd man out”–perhaps because you’re the youngest, you’re a woman, or you have a different race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background than your peers–don’t give power to the assumptions others may make about you. Work on owning who you are and what you believe in. Find people who see the real you.

8. Analyze your success. 

Develop a written inventory of your skills, accomplishments, and experiences to understand your success. Use logic and facts to assuage your fears. This will help you strengthen the skill of internal validation. Successful people get validation from others, but they most need it from themselves. 

9. Exercise your sense of humor. 

Try to keep a sense of perspective and to laugh as often as possible–especially at yourself. People with impostor syndrome are often unable to joke and relax in the workplace because they fear that they’ll be perceived as slackers. Enjoying your work and your life needn’t be a luxury that’s out of your grasp.

10. Live the life you want.

Ask yourself whether you’re satisfied with your life and your job, and if you aren’t, make a change. Sometimes the need to prove ourselves to others keeps us stuck in a position that’s not conducive to real growth and fulfillment. Living an authentic life will help you minimize worries about not fitting in, no matter how high you move up the social ladder.

Joyce Roché has been a trailblazer in the corporate world for 25 years, as Avon’s first African American female vice president; COO of Carson Products Company, now part of L’Oreal; former CEO of the national nonprofit Girls Inc.; and a board member on five Fortune 500 companies. Her new book about overcoming impostor syndrome is The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013). Learn more at


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