Who Do You Think You Are? The Impostor Syndrome


My friend Rob Dee, writer, fly fisherman and depression survivor, wrote this comment on a post a while back, To Build Self-Esteem: Take a Compliment. He said:

I like reading your stuff because it always makes me think.

As an example, I write mostly for myself and if I can help people
along the way, then yay me. I really don't consider myself a writer at
all, let alone a good one. Of course one thing I strive for is for
people to enjoy reading my stuff, whether it be about fishing, suicide
or working out. Writing for myself helps me get it out. Why does it
make me uncomfortable when people tell me how much they love reading my
stuff and how much they consider me a good writer? Why do I feel like a
fraud? It used to be the same way when I played in a band that used to
travel overseas too. Signing CD's,and hanging out with and taking
pictures with fans is what I strived to do, but when it happened, it
made me feel odd. Why is that?

Take care and thanks for writing the things you do,


Rob, thank you for this comment and for the idea for this post.

Feeling of like a fraud can hit the best of us. Therapists are not immune, at least not this therapist. On and off throughout my life I have wrestled with that feeling Rob describes, the "If only they knew I'm not that person they think I am," feeling.

You won't find Impostor or Fraud Syndrome in the DSM-IV. It is not a diagnosable mental illness. It is, however, a collection of feelings or symptoms that together may serve to hold you back from fulfilling our potential.

Take this Impostor Syndrome Quiz*

  • Do
    you secretly worry that others will find out that you're
    not as bright and capable as they think
    you are?   

  • Do
    you sometimes shy away from challenges because of nagging

  • Do
    you tend to chalk your accomplishments up to being a
    "fluke,"  “no big deal” or the
    fact that people just "like" you?

  • Do
    you hate making a mistake, being less than fully prepared or
    not doing things perfectly?

  • Do
    you tend to feel crushed by even constructive criticism,
    seeing it as
    evidence of your "ineptness?" 

  • When
    you do succeed, do you think, "Phew, I fooled 'em
    this time but I may not be so lucky next time."

  • Do
    you believe that other
    people (students, colleagues, competitors) are smarter
    and more capable than you are?

  • Do
    you live in fear of being found out, discovered,

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you are not alone. In fact, many very intelligent, successful, accomplished people feel exactly the same.

Personally, the Impostor Phenomenon has gotten in the way of my development, especially regarding my career as a writer. It slowed me down because as soon as I pushed myself beyond my comfort zone, a little voice inside my head said, "Who do you think you are, you're not the Almighty you know," and I'd pull back.

Where did it that voice come from? Before I answer, I want you to know, I'm not about blaming the parents. I believe we need to take responsibility for ourselves in order to change. For some of us, though, there is no denying that our possibly well-meaning parents did a number on us. Without realizing it, my Dad expected perfection from his kids. He built me up with praise with one hand and kept me in my place with the other. That left my self-esteem feeling confused and diminished. 

For example, about fifteen years ago I started dabbling in writing. This was before the blogging age, so my target was regional and national magazines. A few of my pieces got published and I was excited. I showed them to my Dad with all the prideful anticipation of a five year old. His response was,

"In these articles you set yourself up as an authority by telling people what they should do. You shouldn't do that. You are not an authority."

The article was advice to parents about how to deal with the Pokemon craze!

To be fair he probably said something positive too, but of course I don't remember that. All I heard was "you're not who you think you are…" and like a nit wit, I let it get to me and stopped writing.

There were plenty of other reasons not pursue writing seriously at that time, young children to raise primary among them, but really the wind had gone from my sails. Years later I told this story to my wise older sister who told me that my Dad had a bit of an inferiority complex himself, even though he was accomplished and successful in his field. He would have loved to write only he didn't have the confidence. Her guess was that he was projecting all that onto me.

It helped to hear that but what helped me more was using cognitive behavioral therapy techniques that I learned in my therapy and my own training to built self-esteem on sound evidence and reasoned thinking. Now whenever I get that nasty, 'Oh God, who do I think I am?' feeling, I breathe through it, to calm down my fight/flight response. Then I ask myself if it is reasonable, given my experience and training, to assume a level of expertise. With a relieved sigh, I can say yes.

Your reason for feeling like a fraud may be different from mine, but the antidote may be the same. It sounds simple, but, of course, it's not. Being reasonable with yourself and breaking through the habit of putting yourself down takes exercise and work. If you think Impostor Syndrome is keeping you from getting out of life what you deserve and what it deserves from you, you may want to find a supportive therapist who can help you break through.

Trust me, you genuinely are smart, capable, competent, even a rock star! If you listen closely you will hear your heart telling you the same.

Related links and articles:

The Impostor Syndrome Quiz

Why do you feel like a fraud?

Feel like a fraud? At times maybe you should.

Impostor Syndrome via Feministing.com

*From Dr. Valerie Young's website impostorsyndrome.com

Photo courtesy of Rickydavid via Flickr


  • Hmmm….
    Although I’ve become a better writer over time, I guess I don’t really feel like a “true” writer. My former girlfriend is a fantastic writer and always wanted to do THAT as a profession rather than write grants for causes she didn’t care about. I guess I always compared my writings to hers and felt like they didn’t stand up next to hers. That’s why I really started writing was to show her that if I could do it, she wouldn’t have a problem…..Often times, when “real” writers are critical and refer to me as “a blogger”, that’s when I feel that I’m not a true writer.
    But who cares really. I enjoy doing it. I do it for me and my 3 readers. I may never be a household name, but what I do comes from the heart…..and I’d rather read that any day.
    Thanks Dr. Aletta for mentioning me in your post.

  • Uh, it looks like maybe I was doing a bit of projecting of my own. I’m glad you don’t mind.
    A good friend of mine likes to say true power is in not caring. Looks like you have the power, Rob.
    I’ll never be Virginia Woolf either, but I’m with you. I enjoy writing and it comes from the heart. That makes it good.

  • Barbara

    Here’s another story along these lines. In 1996, I was selected as the New Jersey recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching. It was an incredible honor and included three days in DC with all the other winners. At the opening reception/meet and greet, we were encouraged to just introduce ourselves to one another and describe what we had been doing. I was awed by how incredible all these people were, the amazing things they had done,far more, it seemed, than I had. Did I really belong?
    After some time, we went into an auditorium for the official opening. The presenter got up, looked around and said “First, I want to welcome all of you impostors out there!” It started as a a giggle and then erupted into relieved laughter and applause. She had found us out – each and every one of us. With that, we all relaxed and really began to enjoy the weekend.

  • Rob,
    I hear what you are saying. However I want to tell you that I work with allot of Blogger’s and I have to tell you that anyone who does not think that a Blogger is not a writer is an idiot.
    There is a reason that all the publications have blogs. Its because people read them and love them. As a writer or a blogger I don’t think you can ask for a whole lot more then that!
    Keep blogging!

  • Oh Gosh, so many of us suffer from this, especially women. And it keeps us from competing in the marketplace because if you cannot be your own strongest advocate, you are your biggest obstacle. This really speaks to me because I am launching a new business. It’s exciting and it’s really scary to step out there. Each time I am in a social situation where it would be beneficial to whip the new business card out and announce my new endeavor, I hesitate and have that little tweak of fear and uncertainty. Sometimes, frankly, it stops me and the card stays in my pocket. But I am getting better about taking a deep breath and moving forward–my success depends on it, for Heaven’s sake!
    Thanks of talking about this. It is a very real hurdle for many of us. I think there are lots of folks who might be surprised to hear me say it’s a challenge for me, too!

  • Nice questionnaire. It is a nice way to understand oneself and reduce depression within. I think I am a sufferer in some way. The analysis was brilliant. Well written and published. Was very informative and useful. Thanks for sharing a great content here.


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