Imposter Syndrome illustration

Feeling Like A Fraud? You're Not Alone.

Yes, imposter syndrome is real. And common. Here’s how to make peace with it.

Story by Julie Deardorff Illustrated by Özge Samanci

Her résumé can only be described as stellar: Cofounded a nonprofit in high school. Got into Northwestern. Won a Fulbright scholarship. Earned a PhD. And she currently works as a pediatric psychologist—a job she loves—while running a small consultancy. 

Yet for all her professional success, Aria Fiat (BS13) can’t shake the feeling that she’ll eventually be found out. 

“When does imposter syndrome end?” she recently mused on Twitter. “Asking for a friend.” 

The outpouring of responses to Fiat’s tweet—ranging from “Maybe never” and “Not until you get your second PhD” to “When you stop marching to other people’s drum and start marching to your own”—reflected both the syndrome’s near-universality and the promise that opening up about it can provide some relief. 

The online conversations have been eye-opening and even life-changing for some, who say they once believed their suffering was a personal failing. But growing evidence from psychologists and human resource management experts suggests that imposter syndrome flourishes in particular environments—a finding that may lead to strategies for preventing it in the first place. 

Who is susceptible? 

Imposter syndrome—that unsettling feeling that you’ve landed a plum job or opportunity because of an oversight and that you’ll be outed any day now—was first described in 1978 by psychologists Paulene Clance and Suzanne Imes, who called it “imposter phenomenon.” Describing the feeling as “intellectual phoniness,” they noticed it in a sample of high-achieving women professionals—women not unlike Fiat. 

But over the last few decades, the syndrome has been documented in both men and women, among multiple ethnic and racial groups, and in many settings from academia to medicine, according to a Journal of General Internal Medicine literature review published in 2020. 

Fiat says her imposter syndrome flared up after arriving at Northwestern. She kept telling herself it would vanish if she just cleared one more hurdle. But the hurdles kept coming: “First it was ‘If I just get into Northwestern,’” she says. “Then it became ‘If I win this award, if I graduate with a 4.0 GPA, if I start a PhD program,’ and on and on.” 

Meanwhile, celebrities from Tom Hanks and Michelle Obama to Maya Angelou have also reportedly wrestled with it. 

“No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here?’” Hanks said in an interview on the NPR program Fresh Air. “When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?” 

Feeling like an imposter is not identified as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of psychiatric illness, and there’s no evidence that it can be treated or that it declines with age, according to the Journal of General Internal Medicine review. 

Yet there’s no shortage of self-help books and breezy online articles on how to get over imposter syndrome and the worst problems associated with it—burnout and impaired performance. 

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, cites studies suggesting that women experience imposter syndrome in part due to their generally lower self-confidence. She tells women, “Give yourself credit for your achievements rather than brushing them off,” “stop internalizing failure,” and “be yourself in the office.” 

Other advice and purported solutions typically focus on fixing the individual and treating coexisting conditions such as depression or anxiety with therapy and coaching. 

However, in their February 2021 Harvard Business Review article, “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome,” Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey contend that the concept of imposter syndrome “took a fairly universal feeling of discomfort, second-guessing, and mild anxiety in the workplace and pathologized it, especially for women.” 

You have imposter syndrome

The self is not to blame 

In the article “Contextualizing the Imposter ‘Syndrome,’” which appeared in Frontiers in Psychology in 2020, an international team of psychologists and human resource management experts argue that imposter syndrome is not a dysfunction that arises within people. It’s not a diagnosis. Instead, it’s a response to one’s surroundings. 

They go on to suggest that “examining the role of society, culture, organizations, and institutions [in perpetuating imposter syndrome] has the potential to lead to systemic change, which will create an environment where everyone feels as though they rightly belong.” 

Lower-income and first-generation college students often have to cope with not just imposter syndrome but also a related phenomenon: achievement guilt. 

When people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds begin to experience success and move upward, they can grow more uncertain about where they belong. Mesmin Destin, associate professor of human development and social policy at SESP, calls this destabilizing feeling “status uncertainty,” and his work suggests that, like stress, it can affect everything from motivation to physical health. 

“Even temporary shifts in how people construe their status-based identities predict changes in thought, affect, motivation, and behavior,” he says. “The greater the uncertainty people experience, the more negatively it affects their well-being.” 

Graduate student Julissa Muñiz, the first in her family to graduate from college, has wrestled with both imposter syndrome and achievement guilt. It was only after receiving two major national awards—the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship and the Spencer Dissertation Fellowship—that imposter syndrome began to wane, she says. 

“I feel like I should have realized the strength of who I am as a scholar before that,” says Muñiz, now a postdoc at the University of Texas at Austin. “Clearly, external eyes were recognizing that. So when was I going to?” 

Muñiz, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, was the first teenage mother to return to her high school; two years later she became the first student at her high school to be accepted to the University of California, Berkeley. She earned a master’s at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she was selected as her cohort’s Intellectual Contribution Award recipient. 

Along the way, however, imposter syndrome loomed large. Muñiz questioned whether she belonged and wondered if she was seen as a token student. 

“Is my story so exemplary that they feel like, ‘Yeah, OK, she’s someone we can let in?’” she asks. 

“But I realized that was also unfair of me. I’m not a token, even if others try to make it out that way,” she says. “I’ve also worked really hard for a long time for these moments, the accomplishments, and the trajectory I’m on.” 

At Northwestern, imposter syndrome workshops and webinars are routinely held by students, schools, and divisions, from the Feinberg School of Medicine and Counseling and Psychological Services to the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Support Circle. 

Laurice Shelven Adegunwa (MS18) and Jen Allen (MS16), both consultants at Slalom consulting, gave a workshop on imposter syndrome during the class Learning and Organiza-tional Change in the Field. Their workshop was funded by a Northwestern University YourLife Wellness Grant. 

“Organizations need to take ownership of the culture and settings they create,” says Michelle Albaugh (PhD15), associate director of coaching in SESP’s Master’s in Learning and Organizational Change Program. To combat imposter syndrome—whether it’s where you work or where you learn—“focus on learning over pure performance, visualize success, and have a growth mindset,” she says. 

So does the feeling ever end?

Fiat loves what she does at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center—providing behavioral health prevention and intervention services to young children and their families. Supplies for Dreams, the nonprofit she cofounded in her teens, is thriving, and she serves in an advisory capacity as vice president of its board of directors. 

There are still times when she wonders to herself, “Do I belong here? Am I a phony? Will they realize they made a mistake in choosing me?”

To Fiat’s credit, she says she is learning to regard her self-doubts not as symptoms of a chronic syndrome but as “occasional imposter thoughts.” 

And it helps a great deal, she says, to have supportive colleagues and mentors who “remind me that discomfort is a sign of growth.” 

Institutional and social contexts matter

Everyday racial microaggressions, such as the presumption that one is less intelligent or accomplished, can play a role in imposter syndrome, says SESP professor Emma Adam, a developmental psychologist whose research suggests that stress associated with racial discrimination adversely affects both physical and mental health in adolescents and young adults. 

Helping adolescents develop positive feelings about their identities can reduce the stress from discrimination and improve both their health and their success in school. “A strong ethnic or racial identity may be an important source of feelings of social acceptance and belonging,” Adam says. 

Institutions that help young people recognize their backgrounds as strengths rather than liabilities encourage more equitable student experiences, according to research by SESP’s Mesmin Destin and Shirin Vossoughi, associate professor of learning sciences. Their study “Elevating the Objectives of Higher Education to Effectively Serve Students from Diverse Socioeconomic Backgrounds” appeared in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.