What’s the Impostor Syndrome and how to get comfortable with it ?

Anais N.
5 min readOct 18, 2017


Feeling fake

For his entire life, the world’s most recognized and revered painters Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890) was deeply insecure about his talent.
He constantly had deep doubts about his own abilities and, above all, was uncomfortable with the flattery.
In January 1880, after art critic Albert Aurier wrote a favorable review in a leading art magazine, praising the artist of his swirling lines, explosive colors, inspired forms and special symbolism, Van Gogh wrote a response letter to Aurier, in which he exposed what he would have liked to have achieved. According to Van Gogh, there was only one artist deserving of such praise : the French painter Paul Gaugin.

In recent years, celebrities including Neil Gaiman, Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Renée Zellweger, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg — and a lot of ordinary people too — have outed themselves as having felt like big fakes or even been identified as having impost syndrome.

What leads intelligent people to doubt their competency ?

An article published in Psychology Today Magazine, (December 2016 edition) determines the “Impostor syndrome” as follow :

“It’s itself a misnomer as it’s not a syndrome in the clinical sense — there’s no disorder, no diagnosis, no cure. What’s commonly called a syndrome is more accurately known as impostor phenomenon (or IP), a term coined in the late 1970s by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. It is characterized by a high level of anxiety, worry and insecurity. Intelligent people tend to be surrounded by other intelligent people, leading to skewed social comparaisons. In a study of 150 highly accomplished women, Clance & Imes noticed that women frequently confessed to feeling unintelligent and unworthy of their success, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Research has shown that it’s not a fixed trait but something that exists on a continuum and that about 70 percent of people experience it at some time.

In the mind of the self-declared impostor, compliments have a short half-life and achievements feel unearned, criticism cuts deeply and failures linger.
Despite clear external affirmations of their worth — a raise, promotion, acceptance into a prestigious university — they feel intellectually or professionally incapable.

Kate, who is graduated with high grades and now works at Google, reveals that she has been haunted by the gnawing notion that she was not good enough. In every step of her way, she thought she was bound to be exposed as the impostor she really is — or rather that she thinks she is, constantly chalking up her success to luck, she nevertheless worked hard, not wanting to leave anything to chance.

Insecurity can hold you back, but can also be a driver for self-improvement

Katy’s self-doubt makes her feel annoying and insecure. Insecurity is often viewed as a problem, something that we need to overcome. Paradoxically, it pushes Katy to work harder and to excel. People who are confident and seem so sure of everything, seem to go the farthest in life. But, this unjustly dismisses insecurity as an inferior value, while actually there are plenty of benefits to a good dose of self-doubt every now and then. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Professor of Business Psychology at the University College London, UK, notes that it’s actually the less self-assured people who have the most success — people who doubt themselves are more open to feedback than people with spades of self-confidence. They work very hard — much more than necessary — and appear less arrogant : all characteristics that may not make life easier, but can lead to higher quality results.

Ask the question…

Is it the right job for me ? Is he the man I want to spend the rest of my life with ? Am I a good mother ? You can be unsure of almost anything such as your own competences, the choices you make, the reactions of other people…. Insecurity and self-doubt are parts of being human.

These things form your level of self-confidence and are even broad concept. In fact, many great novelists and philosophers such as René Descartes and Friedrich Nietzsche have encouraged us to value doubts over self-assuredness.

Buddha himself suggested one’s should remain skeptical and rely on questioning and checking the teachings based on one’s understanding. One can, then, have trust and confidence in the teachings.

Asking questions is healthy. It enables us to clarify doubts and gain new information says Philosopher Jannah Loontjens, who also encourages to be suspicious and always dare to ask questions and prevent dogmatic thinking.

When in doubts, we look at something from a different angle. Doubts help to take someone else’s viewpoint and understand how other see life

…until a certain point :

Self- doubt might be good, but when it becomes a chronic state, all those doubts result in superficiality. Insecurity can hold you back and prevent you from reaching your goals and works against you.

Daring to choose things despite all your insecurities will give your life more depth and meaning.

Play the scene you’re in. Being yourself makes all the difference. Speaking about “playing a scene”, Daria Muse, describes how she displays with different personalities and how effective communication varies into strinkingly different environments.

“I act one way in school which is different from the way I act with my parents, which is different from the way I act with my than put on character masks for our different roles in life. All people are guilty of acting differently at work than at play and it differently with coworkers than with the boss. There’s nothing wrong with having different personalities to fit different situations : the trick is knowing the real you from the characters” she says.

Put your doubts on the table

An initial step forward combating impostorism is to show your doubts and vulnerability. Insecurity becomes far more bearable if you open up about it.

“There are an awful lot of people out there who think I am an expert. How do these people believe all this about me ? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know”. Margaret Chan, CEO of the World Health Organization.

Find new ways of looking at things

The Belgian psychiatrist Damiaan Denys recommends we try to see our fears and insecurities not as negative emotions but as opportunities.
Part of being human is taking on roles, it’s not about getting rid of impostorism syndrome, it’s about getting comfortable with it.

Sources :
The Fraud who isn’t, by Carlin Flora, Psychology Today, Dec. 2016 edition,
A little doubt is good for you, Flow 15 (Edition 2016),