Do you feel you don't deserve success? It may be impostor syndrome

Many people feel their achievements are down to luck, timing, or outside help instead of their own abilities

Tilottama Barua
Published : 2 Jan 2023, 05:00 AM
Updated : 2 Jan 2023, 05:00 AM

Impostor syndrome is when people, despite the overwhelming evidence of their abilities dismiss their success as merely a matter of luck, timing, outside help, charm, or even computer error.

The impostor phenomenon was first described by Dr Pauline Clance, who first studied impostorism in female college students and faculty in 1985.

The individuals she observed experienced intense feelings that their achievements were undeserved and they worried they would be exposed as frauds. 

Valerie Young’s book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It identifies the different kinds of women who suffer from the affliction.

Though impostor syndrome is not unique to women, women are more apt to agonise over tiny mistakes, see even constructive criticism as evi­dence of their shortcomings, and chalk up their accomplishments to luck rather than skill. As such, Young highlights women and has focused her career on these feelings of fraudulence among high achievers and through that research, she has identified five types of imposterism. 

  1. The perfectionist - Perfectionists are never satisfied and feel like they could always do better. They always tend to fixate on their mistakes and flaws rather than focusing on their strengths. This leads to a constant sense of pressure and often to high amounts of anxiety.

  2. The superhero - Superheroes feel compelled to push themselves to work as hard as possible. Because they feel inadequate, they push themselves to juggle as many roles as possible and measure their competency on how many roles they can juggle and excel in. Falling short in any role often evokes shame and guilt.

  3. The expert - Experts always try to learn more and are never satisfied with their level of understanding, even when they are highly knowledgeable.

  4. The natural genius – Natural geniuses set excessively high and lofty goals for themselves and feel crushed when they don’t succeed on their first try.

  5. The soloist: Soloists tend to be very individualistic and work alone. They view seeking help as a sign of weakness or incompetence, so they often reject any assistance or help. They view their productivity as a means of measuring their self-worth and devalue themselves when they fail or seek help.

Since the first study on impostorism, the phenomenon has been identified across lines of gender, race, and age, and in a huge range of professions. Though it is popularly referred to as a syndrome, it is not referred to as one officially because it isn't a disease or an abnormality, nor is it tied to depression, anxiety, or self-esteem. It is, instead, a universal feeling, and there is often no threshold of accomplishments that puts these feelings to rest.

Everyone is susceptible to a phenomenon called pluralistic ignorance where they doubt themselves, but believe that they are alone in thinking that way because they do not hear others voicing their doubts aloud. And so, one of the most sure-fire ways to combat impostorism is to talk about it. That way we can help relieve these feelings, by knowing that we are not alone.

In her book, Young also talks about how everyone has unspoken, unconscious rules in their head that define what it means to be competent, rules which begin with should, always, or never. So, in order to tackle impostor syndrome we need to know what our rules are. If we can identify the hidden self-limiting beliefs we have around competence or success, we can directly address those rules and keep the behaviours tied to impostorism in check by putting up small red flags in our brain whenever we hear the words ‘should’, ‘always’, and ‘could’ in our head. 

We may never be able to banish these feelings entirely, but we can have open conversations about the academic or professional challenges we face each day. With increasing awareness of how common these experiences are, perhaps we can feel freer, be frank about our feelings and build confidence in ourselves, our skills, and our competence.

This article was written for Stripe,'s special publication with a focus on culture and society from a youth perspective.