I’ll never forget the day I first learned about the so-called Impostor Syndrome. It was 1983. A chronic procrastinator, I was in my fourth year of a doctoral program. Like a lot of graduate students, my status was what was commonly referred to as “A-B-D,” meaning I’d completed “all but the dissertation.”

I was sitting in class one day when another student rose to present the findings of a study conducted by psychology professor Pauline Clance and psychologist Suzanne Imes called The Impostor Phenomenon Among High Achieving Women (1978).

They'd found that many of their female clients seemed unable to internalize their accomplishments. External proof of intelligence and ability in the form of academic excellence, degrees, recognition, promotions and the like was routinely dismissed.

Instead, success was attributed to contacts, luck, timing, perseverance, personality or otherwise having “fooled” others into thinking they were smarter and more capable than these women “knew” themselves to be.

Rather than offering assurance, each new achievement and subsequent challenge only served to intensify the ever-present fear of being…


“Oh my God,” I thought, “I’ve been unmasked!”

Clearly flustered, I quickly scanned the room checking to see if anyone had caught me nodding in dismayed recognition. No one had. They were too busy bobbing their own heads in like-minded unison.

I would later learn that these feelings of fraudulence are all too common and especially among certain groups including first-generation professionals, those studying or working in another country, people who work alone.

If you are the first or among the few for example, woman or person of color in your field or organization or are a student, especially graduate students or in the so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, medicine). This alone explains why so many women scientists, IT professionals, and engineers frequently ask me to speak at their companies and why I’ve spoken at over 60 colleges and universities.

Another highly susceptible group is people who work in creative fields like entertainment, art, or writing. Of her best actress Oscar for The Accused Jody Foster said in a 60 Minutes interview, “I thought it was a fluke… I thought everybody would find out, and then they’d take the Oscar back. They’d come to my house, knocking on the door, ‘Excuse me, we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep.’”

And Mike Myers once quipped, “At any time I still expect that the no- talent police will come and arrest me.” I know how he feels.

It’s hard to describe what it was like to discover that these vague feelings of self-doubt, angst and intellectual fraudulence had a name. This, along with the realization that I was not alone, was utterly liberating.

It also proved to be a profound turning point in my life, both academically and personally. I made the life altering decision to change dissertation topics in order to study how and why so many intelligent women set themselves up to fall short.

I completed my dissertation in 1985. From here I set out to share what I’d learned with fellow “impostors” – both men and women alike – in workshops all over the country.

The people I’ve worked with come from all walks of life. They are doctors and nurses, educators and college students, lawyers and accountants, executives and administrative assistants, engineers and administrators, human service providers and human resource managers, computer programmers and program directors, architects and artists, police officers and principals.

What they share in common is a deep desire to understand why, in the face of often overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they continue to doubt themselves, their competence, and their abilities.

What they discover is, that like me, it all begins with the realization that there really is a name for these feelings… and that you are most definitely not alone.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Valerie Young is the author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It (Crown/Random House). She's spoken to over 50,000 people at organizations such as Boeing, P&G, Intel, Chrysler, IBM, Ernst & Young, American Women in Radio and Television, Society of Women Engineers, Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton. Her career-related tips have appeared around the world in More, Inc., Woman's Day, Chicago Tribune, Glamour (UK), and the Sydney Morning Herald.