Have you ever set an ambitious goal and reached it, only to discover that the feelings of pride and accomplishment you'd hoped for were nowhere to be found? Instead, your mind was crammed with thoughts of self-doubt: Do I really deserve credit? Am I as smart as people seem to think I am? Or am I just a fraud - someone who will never measure up to expectations and who's bound to be exposed sooner or later? 

As someone who spent years in the fast-paced, hyper-competitive world of Silicon Valley startups, I've experienced this inner turmoil again and again - from gnawing self-doubt to full-blown self-incrimination. And I'm not alone. This phenomenon is so common that there has long been a term for it in the psychological literature: imposter syndrome. While definitions vary, imposter syndrome is generally described as "a feeling that your accomplishments (no matter how impressive) are unearned, along with a persistent fear that you will be exposed as a phony."

While imposter syndrome can affect anyone, it's especially prominent among high-achieving women (for reasons we'll explore shortly). I recently moderated a panel discussion during Nashville's 36|86 conference with several leading ladies who, despite their remarkable careers, have felt the pangs of imposter syndrome at some point in their professional lives. What I learned from them was invaluable, and I hope their words of wisdom offer insight to anyone "suffering" from this particularly insidious form of anxiety-- one that often spoils what should be moments of triumph and transcendence.

We can't all be imposters

If the mere feeling that you're an imposter is a reflection of reality, this means a whole lot of people are faking it. Pauline Rose Clance is a clinical psychologist who published a 1978 paper (along with Suzanne Imes) that first articulated the imposter syndrome concept, which she describes as the "imposter phenomenon." In later research with Gail Matthews, the pair found that 70 percent of people have felt like imposters sometime in their professional lives. 

This problem cuts across industries and demographics. According to 2018 survey of more than 10,000 employees in the tech industry, almost 58 percent of respondents said they had "suffered from imposter syndrome" at some point in their careers. A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Research in Medical Sciences reports that a staggering 93 percent of medical students surveyed felt moderate or severe effects of imposter syndrome - almost 55 percent of whom fell in the "severe" category. 

Meanwhile, women continue to be especially vulnerable to imposter syndrome. A 2011 report on women in astronomy found that female students in "graduate school in astronomy or astrophysics do tend to feel more like imposters than men." According to a 2019 study published in Studies in Higher Education, there were "elevated levels of IP (imposter phenomenon) amongst our female academic sample," and this had a statistically significant effect on "measures of motivation."

There's no question that imposter syndrome is a phenomenon that affects millions of people, but what causes it? That depends on each person's unique circumstances. 

A battle on many fronts

Just ask the ladies who shared the stage with me in Nashville. If you take a look at their resumes or spend a few minutes in conversation with any of them, you'll see poised, accomplished, brilliant women in the prime of their careers. But like so many of their female colleagues, they've had to contend with feelings of inadequacy and isolation. 

Take Olivia Owens: At just 27 years old, she's the business development and partnerships manager iFundWomen, a crowdfunding platform for female entrepreneurs. But when she graduated from the University of Maryland and took a job at Under Armour, she says she "felt immediately like an imposter." She explains that she was "really young" and didn't know much about her new field (human resources), which led her to question the value of her contributions. And she's not the only one: A 2018 survey found that "64 percent of Millennial women have felt imposter syndrome compared to 46 percent of older women."​

Nikki Smith-Bartley is the Vice President and Special Counsel of diversity and inclusion at Asurion. Throughout her legal career (she received her J.D. from Vanderbilt in 2002), Smith-Bartley says she was "often the only woman or African-American in a room," moments in which she "felt the tug of 'do I fit in?'" 

In their landmark 1978 paper about imposter syndrome, Clance and Imes emphasize the effects of childhood experiences on how women perceive themselves later in life. Smith-Bartley echoes this observation, pointing out that she had to "fit in as the only 'black' student in many circles," while "in my extended family I was accused of 'talking white' - always a balance of not being too black or too white." Although imposter syndrome is universal, it's vital to acknowledge the ways in which gender, age, and race can make anxiety and self-doubt even more intense. 

The good news about overcoming the odds

So what are some of the universal characteristics of imposter syndrome? In her 1985 book The Imposter Phenomenon, Clance points to perfectionism, an inordinate fear of failure, the refusal to take credit for your accomplishments, and feelings of guilt about success (which can be particularly burdensome to women whose success is atypical among family members or friends). These feelings can lead to anxiety, stress, and depression. 

While it would be impossible to summarize the full range of causes and consequences of imposter syndrome, there are many ways to fight back against all of them. For example, you can follow Owens's lead and reframe your attitude toward your "weaknesses" - instead of surrendering to the fear that her inexperience made her an imposter, Owens recognized that her ability to work in many different and unfamiliar environments is a unique strength: "Had I let my lack of knowledge stand in the way," she explains, "I wouldn't be here."

Owens is now a mentor to entrepreneurs who work with iFundWomen: "I work daily with entrepreneurs, and explain why they are uniquely qualified to run this business." As the leader of diversity and inclusion at Asurion, Smith-Bartley serves in a mentoring capacity as well, helping to create a "culture of belonging" and an "environment where people can bring their whole, best selves to work every day." Mentorship has a proven record of helping people overcome imposter syndrome, and it can be an encouraging and confirming experience for the mentors as well. 

Beyond reframing your weaknesses and seeking (or serving as) a mentor, the clearest remedy for imposter syndrome is to acknowledge what's likely a gaping chasm between your anxieties and reality. You can even use the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale to see if you might be judging yourself too harshly. Feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy are unavoidable, but if you reflect on your achievements and listen to your friends and colleagues when they tell you how much you're valued, those negative feelings won't last. 

Next time you're feeling like an imposter, remember that millions of brilliant and inspiring people have felt exactly the same at some point in their lives - even when everyone in the world could see they were the real deal.

Published on: Oct 14, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.