Fake It Till You Make It

Imposter syndrome, which occurs when a person doubts their accomplishments or attributes them to luck, can be destructive at every level.


illustration by Kristen Kinzler

When someone experiences imposter syndrome, self-sabotaging thoughts often plague their mind.

It’s a familiar situation for many high school students, particularly those who go to competitive schools. You look around the classroom, noting all your peers achieving the extraordinary. You see how much talent everyone around you seems to have. You feel inadequate. You feel you don’t belong. You feel like an imposter.

This phenomenon, suitably known as imposter syndrome, occurs when a person doubts their accomplishments, has an internalized fear that they don’t belong, and is terrified of being revealed as a fraud. An estimated 70% of people have felt like an imposter at some point in their lives, but, naturally, the impact this feeling has can range. Sometimes, the sensation can only last a day or even a single class period. Other times, this fear can stick around like a plague, tainting everything a person does for weeks on end.

Imposter syndrome isn’t an actual disorder, but rather a pattern of behavior. In 1978, psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes used the term to describe when, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, a person just cannot believe they deserve the success they’ve earned. Clance even created an imposter syndrome test.

Since then, it’s been found that this sensation affects both men and women equally, but those who consider themselves to be high achievers are much more likely to experience it. 

Being a high achiever may mean different things to different people, but some psychologists have actually narrowed it down into subcategories. These specific groups may be impacted by imposter syndrome to a greater extent. There are the Perfectionists, who require everything they do to be impeccable and therefore feel like failures if they mess up even one little thing. There are the Experts, people who need every piece of information to feel qualified for a task. Soloists are often self-sufficient, so they feel incompetent if they need to reach out for help. Finally, Superheroes feel the need to overwork themselves in order to prove that they belong.

Other factors like personality and childhood upbringing can also influence a person’s chances of feeling like a fraud. A person who is naturally anxious or ambitious can easily fall victim to those insecurities. Additionally, someone who never felt like their childhood grades or achievements were enough for their parents can feel like they don’t fit the mold for success.

From a student’s perspective, imposter syndrome can be as simple as feeling like you only did well on a challenging test because you made some lucky guesses. It can mean assuming that the only reason you answered that question in class correctly is that it was embarrassingly easy. It can be believing that, although you’ve earned your way into a certain class and worked hard to succeed, you’re inferior.

Oftentimes, these feelings arise when an already high-achieving person is placed into a competitive environment, like an AP class. Since AP enrollment has increased by 70% in the past 10 years, it’s likely that the number of students who feel those insecurities has also become larger– and will continue to grow.

This can be concerning because studies show that students who suffer from these feelings can become socially isolated and more prone to burnout.

For many, combatting imposter syndrome can feel like an uphill battle, but there are things you can do to lessen its impact.

One way, psychologists suggest, is to remind yourself of your past accomplishments. This helps to reinforce the fact that you’ve worked hard to get to get where you are and that you are just as qualified as anyone else.

It can also be helpful to talk about your insecurities with someone you trust. Odds are, they can help guide you through some scary emotions.

Experts suggest that another way to tackle imposter syndrome is to actively change your inner-monologue. As silly as it may seem, the words that automatically run through your head can trigger insecurities. If you’re presented with a challenge, instead of thinking, “I have no idea what I’m doing,” try to tell yourself, “I’m smart enough to figure this out.”

However, sometimes the most effective way to succeed in spite of imposter syndrome is to push through it.

On a recent podcast, Little Women producer and business executive Amy Pascal said that the key to not feeling like a fraud in her career was simple. 

“Do your homework,” she said. “Know your [stuff]. That makes you feel less like an imposter.”

In fact, if it’s channeled correctly, imposter syndrome can even be an advantage. 

Michelle Lee, editor-in-chief of Allure Magazine, said, “I think sometimes imposter syndrome can fuel you. I think there’s something about feeling like an underdog and feeling like I have to constantly prove myself that keeps me kind of hungry.”

While the side-effects of imposter syndrome may vary, acknowledging its presence has never been more important. It places a name on an experience many people may believe is isolated. No one is likely to admit in public that they feel like a fraud or that they’re terrified they may not be good enough. But by establishing imposter syndrome’s place in our everyday lives, we can normalize it, and we can see that almost everyone, no matter how qualified, has felt it. 

Perhaps there is comfort, and even a little power, in that solidarity.