Joey Davis
ThoughtsMental Models

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

Published on By Joey Davis

Almost four years ago, I sat in a mock interview with a professor that I had come to know well. A few minutes in, he kindly observed: your hand is shaking. My eyes dropped to my hands. He was right; I could have given anyone using the phrase "I'm shook" a run for their money.

At the end of the mock interview, the professor told me that I had every right to sit there with confidence. At the time, I would be graduating the next month with the Summa Cum Laude academic honor and the Dean's Award for Software Development at my community college.

It was silly. I was comfortable with the professor and had previously interviewed successfully for jobs. Nevertheless, an internal turmoil had found its way to the surface. I felt like a fraud sitting there, an actor in costume at a poorly produced play, but why?

What is impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome, also called the impostor phenomenon, is believing that:

"one's accomplishments came about not through genuine ability, but as a result of having been lucky, having worked harder than others, or having manipulated other people's impressions."


That definition resonated with me. I taught myself programming the summer leading up to my switch to a software development program. By the time classes came around, I had passed them with ease. Not only were they easy, but I had gained enough practical knowledge to be able to assist other students in class after finishing my work.

Perhaps another contributing factor to the feeling was being in the midst of a career change from graphic design to software development. Career changes can be intimidating. You're trying to support yourself with an existing career while dedicating enough resources (time, money, and effort) to make a viable change to something else. It's trying to convince everyone—possibly even yourself—that you have capabilities beyond your previous, well-known skills.


Experts in academia highlight six aspects of impostor syndrome:

  1. The impostor cycle.2 Impostors are often high achievers with a discrepancy between the ideal standards they have for themselves and the minimal standards required to achieve success. Repeated success provokes assessment of this difference, and low self-assessment can emphasize the discrepancy. Thus, the cycle of feeling like an impostor or fraud continues.
  2. The need to be special, to be the very best.2 With experience as top-performers, impostors are quick to dismiss their talents and abilities upon learning they aren't out of the ordinary in a larger setting.
  3. Superwoman/Superman aspects.2 Impostors tend to be perfectionists who set high or impossible standards. They expect to execute flawlessly. Impostors see themselves, rather than the unreasonable goal, as the failure and consequently become disappointed and overwhelmed.
  4. Fear of failure.2 Failure elicits shame and humiliation. Impostors overcompensate to make the odds more favorable. They accomplish this through overwork, overpreparation, or other means.
  5. Denial of competence and discounting praise.2 Impostors can have difficulty accepting praise or internalizing success. They may seek to prove or focus on why particular achievements do not deserve recognition. Experts note this activity is "not a display of false modesty."
  6. Fear and guilt about success.2 A byproduct of success can be a feeling of disconnect or distance from others, especially if it happens to be atypical based on environment or circumstance. Success can lead to rejection by those who are envious or do not believe the success or praise is justified.

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

Don't Fake It

"You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time." 3

In speaking with others about impostor syndrome, one of the tips I've heard is, "fake it 'til you make it." I think this is poor advice to give someone when they're already struggling with unfounded, fraudulent feelings.

If the "fake it 'til you make it" aphorism 4 is applied too broadly, then it's no longer a case of impostor syndrome so much as it is a case of deception. While it is easy to fool some, it will be blatantly obvious to others. No one likes a fake.

Beyond taking it too far, I think the activity instills a necessity for external secrecy as a corrective measure for internal factors. The feeling and belief associated with impostor syndrome are internal aspects that have outward consequences.

Embrace Vulnerability

Brené Brown is a research professor, author, and speaker on the subjects of vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. Here's what she says about vulnerability in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead:

"Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness." 5

If you don't know something, be honest about that. Do some research and ask how you can find out more. If you don't have the answer to a question in an interview, tell the interviewer the process you would go through to find and implement the solution. Focus on what you can do to improve, not on what others will think.

Embracing vulnerability is about being authentic. Instead of faking it, just be real. Being honest with yourself and others about goals and expectations is an effective means of identifying unrealistic or unreasonable standards.

See Failure for What It Is

If you haven't failed in some way recently, then you probably haven't tried something new or ventured out of your comfort zone. It means you've settled for expectations and goals set long ago. Expectations and goals evolve; they are superseded by their successors.

Winston S. Churchill has this line, "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." The duration of either success or failure may deviate wildly from the other, but both are temporary. While it may be undesired, failure can be critical to learning.

It's essential to know how to learn from failure. Here are three steps on how to do so effectively:

1. Be conscious of failure; don't be paralyzed by it.

If we allow failure to consume us, it surely will. Failures range in size, but even something small can have significant ramifications. Failures with high visibility, side-effects, or that affect the bottom line are easy to spot. Not all failures are presented in such a way that is easily identified, and some are easily hidden. It can be daunting to take on or continue forward from a failure, but it's critical to exercise due diligence.

2. Analyze failures objectively, seeking root causes.

Depending on the context of the failure, we can be so consumed by seeking a resolution as quickly as possible that we forget to conduct failure analysis in the first place. Once the immediate instance of the failure is resolved, the necessity to analyze it further may be out of the purview. In the case of impostor syndrome, we may wrongly conclude that we are the failure, thus impeding the opportunity to discern root causes.

3. Employ strategic failure through experimentation.

To be strategic about learning from failure, we must adopt an experimentation cultural mindset. We must create goals and metrics that support discovery and analysis of outcomes instead of hard-set, predetermined outcomes. This means we experiment for any result, whether it be failure or success, seeking to identify what does or does not work. As with any experiment, this process is conducted with controls and variables identified for analysis. Sometimes, strategic failure is about struggling through an issue until you arrive at the desired result.

Show up, own your value, and stand your ground

You have to show up for yourself, in spite of the fear of failure. Contrary to what we may initially think, it isn't necessarily about standing alone. Showing up allows other people to show up too. That said, if you show up for yourself expecting others to show up for you, you'll surely be disappointed at one point or another. Show up for yourself having the knowledge that you very well may have to stand alone, and that's okay.

Owning your value is similar to finding your footing. It is recognizing, having awareness, and taking responsibility for who you are, your skills and abilities, and exercising agency over yourself in broader contexts. Self-evaluation allows you to identify possible biases, weaknesses, and strengths. You must be able to assess yourself before viable assessments may be made of external actors, situations, and contexts. Also note: the ability to evaluate one's worth is itself a skill, and having this skill makes you more valuable.

After you find your footing, it's essential to stand your ground. When we subscribe to impostor syndrome, it's easy to put too much forethought and emphasis on the judgments of external critics. Consequently, we can be influenced or manipulated by these judgments, whether or not they are well-founded. Standing your ground is similar to confidence, but more closely aligned with having the grit, or courage and resolve, to dig your heels in when needed.

Pushing Forward

In many ways, impostor syndrome is when our internal critic gets a little too concerned about the judgments made by external critics. Overcoming impostor syndrome has a lot to do with getting out of one's own way. It has to do with being kind to ourselves.

There are still moments where impostor syndrome gets the better of me. Working past it is a process, and the struggle is real, as they say. I consider these opportunities to learn on the journey of continuous improvement.

Little by little, you too will have your victories. I remember driving back from an interview one time and thinking: who was that? My alter ego had been outgoing, confident, and I hadn't missed a beat. By being mindful, I managed to get out of my way and be fully present. When asked technical questions regarding an unfamiliar toolset, I indicated this was the case. Then I outlined the process I would use to familiarize myself with it. The interview went exceptionally well, despite it being long and there being a heat index of 110 that day.

In Theodore Roosevelt's famous speech, "Citizenship in a Republic," there is a passage known as The Man in the Arena. I find it exceptionally applicable to the impostor phenomenon struggle. For our purposes, think of the "critic" as your internal critic as well as external critics.

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."


  1. Langford, Joe, and Pauline Rose Clance. "The Impostor Phenomenon: Recent Research Findings Regarding Dynamics, Personality and Family Patterns and Their Implications for Treatment." Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training 30, no. 3 (1993): 495–501.

  2. Jaruwan Sakulku. "The Impostor Phenomenon." The Journal of Behavioral Science 6, no. 1 (2011): 75–97. 2 3 4 5 6

  3. Link

  4. "Fake it 'til you make it" is conventionally meant as an aphorism for imitating confidence, competence, and an optimistic mindset as a means of changing one's behavior.

  5. Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. London, Penguin Books Ltd, 2016.


Reading Time: 10 minutes
Word Count: 2000 words
Author: Joey Davis