In 1978, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes published The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention, in which they gave a name to the inadequate feeling so many women experience in their professional lives. After working with roughly 150 successful women, they discovered that, despite their achievements, the women did not feel any sense of accomplishment. “They consider themselves to be ‘impostors,'” the authors reported. “Women who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”
It’s estimated that 70% of people will experience impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. It crops up after a promotion. It whispers that you just “got lucky” after you achieve success. Impostor syndrome makes you feel that you aren’t good enough—it tells you that you’re a fraud, despite your accomplishments.
Even celebrities, who in our minds have “made it,” are subject to the feeling. Rachel Bloom, an award-winning actress and star of the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, shared in 2016 that she struggled with impostor syndrome. “I’d walk into audition rooms and be like, ‘Hi, sorry, I know I shouldn’t be here,’” she said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
And Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for her role in 12 Years a Slave, claimed to feel “acute impostor syndrome”—even after winning her Oscar. “Now I’ve achieved this, what am I going to do next? What do I strive for? Then I remember that I didn’t get into acting for the accolades, I got into it for the joy of telling stories,” she told Time Out in 2016.
While impostor syndrome can still creep up at any time, there’s hope for anyone who chronically feels less-than. HelloGiggles spoke with 12 professional women on feeling like an impostor—and the moment that treacherous feeling went away.
I’d still feel like they were going to stop me and say, “You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?”
“I left the corporate world and started my own business. Even though I had paying clients and I knew we were doing great work, every day, on every call…I’d still feel like they were going to stop me and say, ‘You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?’
Until one day a client called me to tell me she had been offered the job of her freakin’ dreams. The thing we’d been working towards for weeks. She told me that she never could have done it without me and that because of the work we did together, she’s never been more happy. That was the moment I knew that I really could help, that I did know what I was doing and beyond that, that I was good at it!
After I stopped feeling like an impostor and owned my expertise, it showed in every way with my clients. I was more readily able to speak with authority and offer my insight without a big question mark underlying everything. It allowed me to confidently market myself and led to clients sending referrals my way.”
— EB Sanders, career coach
“You’re in the White House, how in the hell can you care what I think?!”
“The moment I truly stopped feeling like an impostor was when I was coaching a client who worked in the Obama White House.
She worked closely with First Lady Michelle Obama, and to have this woman—whose own resume was like something out of a movie—to hear her breathlessly taking down my advice, and hear her saying things like, ‘Well Carlota if you say it, I’ll believe it,’ and her boss was Michelle Obama…ha! Several times during our call I had to mute my phone since I was just internally screaming, ‘You’re in the White House, how in the hell can you care what I think?!’ But care she did, and she’s since gone on to another great job and a loving husband, and I’m continually happy for her. But for me, as someone who has coached men and women around the world, from actors for shows like Orange Is the New Black and CSI, who has done numerous public speaking [events] and had many bylines, that was when I stopped feeling like an impostor.”
— Carlota Zee, career coach
I stopped feeling like an impostor when Trump became president.
“I stopped feeling like an impostor when Trump became president. Despite having zero qualifications and only partial support, here was a man who believed he deserved the highest position in the country, and actually got it! I think if we as women spent more time fighting for where we want to be rather than worrying whether we really deserve to have it, we would all move up the professional ladder a whole lot faster.
Since having that realization, I launched my own lingerie company, Empress Mimi, despite having no background in design or fashion (my background is in banking). I looked at the lingerie industry and realized that behind most of the big brands are male designers and CEOs…that produce items they will never even be able to wear (kind of like Trump being a self-proclaimed “man of the people” whilst never coming down from his golden tower of privilege).”
— Galyna Nitsetska, CEO of Empress Mimi Lingerie
I remember feeling like an impostor as I boasted accomplishments to earn a role I didn’t know if I deserved.
“Impostor syndrome has been one of the biggest sicknesses I’ve suffered as a leader and entrepreneur, but having honest conversations with others about their journey has led me to reduce this feeling.
I remember the first time a former manager admitted how nervous she was when interviewing me and how excited she was about having hired her first employee—me. It threw me for a loop to believe that she, too, was nervous during our interview and it wasn’t just my emotion. I remember feeling like an impostor as I boasted accomplishments to earn a role I didn’t know if I deserved and being nervous on my first day. Now I know she was feeling the same on the other side of the table, which means the feeling is simply a lie we both were telling ourselves through our own self-judgement.
As an entrepreneur, the more I sit with others who share their authentic struggles, what they really bring in financially, and how their business runs, the less I feel like an impostor because I realize that I’m not far behind and can often be ahead of others. Those conversations help me to have a more realistic outlook and expectation for my own accomplishments.”
— Krystal Covington, marketing consultant and CEO of Women of Denver
I had no choice but to recognize my own talent and efforts.
“I stopped feeling like an impostor when I transitioned to freelance work about one year ago. Previously, when I worked for organizations and was successful, I always felt like I got lucky or that my team or company were responsible for my accomplishments.
It wasn’t until I was left standing alone as an independent worker, still receiving accolades from my customers and continuing to surpass my goals, that I had no choice but to recognize my own talent and efforts.
I still remember the feeling I had when my first event as an independent worker sold out. It was thrilling, satisfying, and so encouraging. I’ve continued to raise the bar for each subsequent event and as they continue to get bigger and draw more sponsorship attention, my confidence grows with it.”
— Sam Laliberte, freelance marketer and Host of the “Freedom Lifestyle” podcast
I remember screaming all the way to my colleague’s house.
“I felt like an impostor as a writer, though I’d had articles and essays published in local newspapers and other publications, until I had my first book published at age 58. All the writing I’d done, including a screenplay and a short story that were recognized in writing contests, didn’t make me feel like a real author until I got published. This happens with many writers and is in part because others don’t see writing as a real job unless and until it gets published.
I remember when the shift from wanting to be a writer to believing I was a writer occurred. I had just received a call from my agent that Gurze Books wanted to publish my first book and I was driving to a meeting of eating disorders therapists. I remember screaming all the way to my colleague’s house. Good thing it was winter in Boston and I had all the car windows closed. Although I’d been writing since I was in grade school (silly poems back then) and had essays published in Boston newspapers and organizational newsletters, I didn’t really believe that I was an author until I knew I was being published. It gave me confidence in my writing to produce another book in short order after the first one.”
— Karen Koenig, psychotherapist and writer
As a woman now in my late 40s, I know the power of my voice and my value. I didn’t then.
“Very early in my career, I remember a letter I sent to local media announcing my new role. The letter was developed into a press release by a newspaper. My intention was to drum up business that resulted in new clients.
One of my colleagues, who was older and more established, shared with the owner that I was self promoting at the expense of the owner and the company. I remember being called in to speak with the owner and reprimanded for publicizing my services. I reassured her that I was only trying to build my clientele. I apologized for the misinterpretation of my efforts. I became introverted, feeling that I needed to prove myself. I was intimidated because they were older, with credentials, and I was not in a position to push back or question.
I completely forgot the impact this confrontation had on me for years. It created this underlying fear of celebrating or sharing my achievements or opportunities. I became so concerned that if I shared my success, others might misconstrue it. For years, I felt guilty. I didn’t want to appear arrogant or self promoting, especially with women. It was particularly difficult when I started my PhD program. I felt that I was an impostor and not good enough. I really thought the university made a mistake and would eventually ask me to leave. I found myself questioning in the beginning if I belonged or if I was smart enough.
I’ve been able to address this impostor experience as well as my fear of shame and feeling silenced. I realize [that] as women, we struggle with this idea of humility that I don’t see my male counterparts deal with in the same way. It is compounded even more when women reinforce the idea by silencing or shaming others for their work, ideas, experiences, or dreams. When this initially happened, I was in my 20s. As a woman now in my late 40s, I know the power of my voice and my value. I didn’t then.”
— Dr. Froswa Booker-Drew, author and consultant
I was making a valuable contribution and it was being noticed.
“Being a jack of many trades, it took me a while to believe that I wasn’t a ‘master of none’ and that in fact my expertise could be applied to any type of organization.
Originally, my ambition and my impostor syndrome met in the middle with a ‘fake it till you make it’ attitude. I proactively asked to be invited to senior meetings, requested additional responsibility, and did what I could to prove myself—as much to myself as my colleagues and managers. It wasn’t until those meeting invites and projects started coming to me without my prompting that I realized that I wasn’t actually ‘faking it,’ I was making a valuable contribution and it was being noticed.
I have since spoken at senior-level banking conferences, seen my insights published in reports, and been featured in a number of media outlets speaking about research, and while all of these things still make me nervous, I now back myself.”
— Jennifer McDermott, head of communications and consumer advocate at finder.com
I replaced my pixie dust with authenticity and well-earned expertise.
“The moment I stopped being an impostor happened while I sat at a boardroom table full of men. Throughout my career I’d often found myself in these situations. While working in the field of workforce development, I was often the only woman in a room full of local business leaders, university deans, and politicians, all of whom had their own ideas on how to ‘fix’ the workforce shortages our country was facing in trade and high-tech job markets. At these tables of big wigs, I’d become a master at diplomatically sowing the seeds of my ideas into their brains. I’d learned that making a high-ranking guy think that your idea was actually his idea would mean that the idea got implemented at a much faster speed. I knew how to question the room until it led them where I needed them to go. I downplayed my own expertise and instead asked them to share theirs until they’d finally come to the conclusion that something was a good idea, or a bad idea. I was a master manipulator of the big oval tables. My female colleague said I would come into a meeting and ‘sprinkle pixie dust’ to get men agreeing with me.
But then one day this all changed. I was sitting there with the mayors of two large municipalities, the CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, the head of a regional manufacturers’ association, the presidents of two colleges, the superintendent of the public school system, and a handful of other prominent local leaders. All men. No women. This same group had been having the same conversation for weeks with no decision ever being made. And I finally lost my diplomatic cool. I was done trying to play a game of inception by sprinkling pixie dust around the room. So I said, ‘You know what I think, fellas? I think you’re all a bunch of candyasses who can’t make a simple decision on one of the most important issues facing our region.’ And I proceeded to tell them my idea on what we should do and why every other suggestion they’d been toying with for the last month wouldn’t work. And they agreed with me.
And from then on, I replaced my pixie dust with authenticity and well-earned expertise.”
— Tracey Carisch, author, international speaker, and leadership professional
I started seeing my status in a new light.
“My impostor syndrome began to wane as I saw the role I was playing in the careers of those just entering the field.
I’ve been privileged to work with great students, interns, and researchers just starting out, and even luckier for them to allow me to play a mentoring role. When I started shifting from being the one asking for letters of recommendation and connections to getting to play that role of connector for other talented early career professionals, I started seeing my status in a new light. No one tells you that you have become a mentor—I sure didn’t tell my mentor when I picked her, it just naturally happened. There are still times and places where I feel like an impostor—entering a meeting on something totally new to you can do that, but it’s also not a bad feeling now and then—but realizing how others I work with see my experience is both exciting and humbling.”
— Megan Carolan, director of policy research at Institute for Child Success
I started seeing myself as a success story, and this in turn changed the way I felt about myself.
“I think for me the time I really started to feel like I had ‘made it’ and that people actually believed in me and what I was doing was when I landed my first industry speaking gig at the Idea Factory in Las Vegas. It was that moment right before I got on stage and I remember I had this feeling of sheer panic thinking, ‘Who’s going to want to listen to me?’ But then this was followed almost immediately by a feeling of absolute elation when I realized that I had been chosen to speak about this subject and I knew what I was doing. It was this moment when I no longer felt like a fraud or impostor, but knew instinctively that I could do this. I had what it took and I had something to say that was valuable. This was quite a turning point for me.
The big thing about being an entrepreneur is mindset, and when you don’t believe in yourself nobody else is going to either. It’s about having the right mindset and self-belief to push your career forward, and that is exactly what that speaking gig did for me. It changed my mindset. I started seeing myself as a success story and this in turn changed the way I felt about myself. I found people started to feed off my energy, belief, and confidence, and when you let that happen, you start to see a shift in your business and things start to move forward in the direction you want them to.”
— Kylie Carlson, founder of CEO School and the International Academy of Wedding and Event Planning
I realized that I was the common denominator.
“I definitely struggled with feeling like an impostor, even as recently as in my early 30s. I wanted to have my own business, but I felt that I was still too young or inexperienced to do so. I struggled with feelings of not being ready yet, which is why it took me several years to launch my first venture. Even when I did finally start my first business, I still didn’t fully put myself out there because I was constantly questioning myself. I kept thinking, ‘Who am I to be giving out this advice?’ I just didn’t feel comfortable declaring that I was someone who could help people in my own way.
When I sold my first business and started my next venture as a Facebook ads coach and strategist is when I really began working on my mindset so I could stop holding myself back. My confidence started to grow as I started seeing great results from my services that yielded amazing results for my clients. Not only that, but I immensely enjoyed the work and we were having amazing success. That’s when I realized that what I was experiencing is what I always wanted my ideal career and workday to look like.
I had multiple clients in various niches, using different marketing strategies and targeting different audiences, and they were all getting great results. I realized that I was the common denominator. Realizing and understanding this allowed me to grow my confidence and continue getting great results with my services. That’s when I stopped feeling like an impostor and began really taking ownership of my unique ideas and ability to help online businesses.”
— Monica Louie, Facebook ads strategist