The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It

BOOK: The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It
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Copyright © 2011 by Valerie Young

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

CROWN BUSINESS is a trademark and CROWN and the Rising Sun colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Young, Valerie, Ed.D.
The secret thoughts of successful women: why capable people suffer from the impostor syndrome and how to thrive in spite of it / Valerie Young.—1st ed.
p. cm.
1. Women—Psychology 2. Success. I. Title.
HQ1206.Y68 2011
155.3′33—dc23      2011016330

eISBN: 978-0-307-45273-3

Jacket design by David Tran


This book is dedicated to the codiscoverers of the impostor phenomenon, Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes.
By putting a name to the feelings, they have helped free countless people—including myself—from needless self-doubt.


Women don’t give themselves enough credit for what they can do. You see it in the twenty-one-year-old senior just coming out of school, you see it in the Ph.D. candidate just coming out of graduate school, and you see it in the professional who’s been working for ten or fifteen or twenty years.

         —Director of minority-student affairs at a prestigious women’s college

ountless books promise to reveal the “secrets” of success. This is not one of them. You’re already successful. You just don’t own it. And that’s what this book is about—helping people just like you who have already achieved some measure of academic or professional success to
successful. This book exposes the kinds of hidden fears and insecurities well known to millions of accomplished women—and men—and
explores the myriad of reasons why they secretly feel undeserving of their hard-won success.

For the record, you don’t have to feel especially “successful” to relate to the dichotomy of the public face of confidence and competence on the one hand and the private voices of self-doubt on the other. You could have won the Nobel Prize in physics, an Oscar, and the respect of peers and competitors alike, and still you would wonder,
“What if they find out I’m not as smart as they think I am?” “Can I really pull this off?” “Who do I think I am?”

Fortunately, this book shows you how to, in the words of the famous Apple ad, “think different.” Not only about things like competence, luck, faking it, failure, and success, but about yourself. Will you become more successful as a result? Undoubtedly. Once you have the tools to transform your thinking, you’ll find yourself reaching new heights. In fact, this book will help you positively thrive.

Frankly, this is the book I wish I’d had in 1982. I was four years into a graduate program in education and procrastinating terribly on writing my dissertation. One day while I was sitting in class, another student began reading aloud from an article by a couple of psychologists from Georgia State University, Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes, titled, “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women.” Among the 162 high-achieving women they sampled, Clance and Imes uncovered a pervasive pattern of dismissing accomplishments and believing that their success would disappear once others discovered the awful secret that they were, in fact, “impostors.”

My head was nodding like a bobble-head doll’s.
“Oh my God,”
I thought,
“she’s talking about me!”
When I looked around the room, everyone else—including the professor—was nodding too. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I knew these women. I’d been in class with them, I’d taught alongside them, I’d read their work. To me, they were intelligent, articulate, and supremely
competent individuals. To learn that even
felt like they were fooling others rocked my world.

A group of us began to meet as a kind of informal impostor-support group, where we did what women commonly do under stress—we bared our souls. We talked about how intimidated we felt when we discussed our research with our respective faculty advisors, about how more often than not we left these sessions feeling confused and inept. How we’d clearly put one over on the admissions office, and how anyone who looked too closely would realize we weren’t scholar material after all. A few of us were convinced that certain professors had overlooked our obvious intellectual shortcomings simply because they liked us. We all agreed that these feelings of fraudulence were keeping us from finishing our dissertations in a timely fashion—or, in my case, from even starting.

The nineteenth-century English literary critic John Churton Collins was right when he said, “If we knew each other’s secrets, what comforts we should find.” Just being in the company of like-minded women was tremendously reassuring. Everything was going pretty well until about the third meeting. That’s when I began to have this nagging sense that even though they were
they felt like impostors … I
I was the only

Turning Pain into Gain

A few months later I came across a column in the
New York Times
by then ABC news correspondent and author Betty Rollin, with the headline: “Chronic self-doubt: Why does it afflict so many women?”
Despite an impressive track record, Rollin admitted to being plagued throughout her professional career by a constant fear of “screwing up.” She wondered why more men weren’t reduced to tears, as she often was, by the “I’m-in-over-my-head-and-this-time-they’re-going-to-catch-me”
feeling that accompanied each new assignment.

So one day Rollin decided to put the question to a young male producer she worked with at ABC, someone who, she was quick to point out, “is as competent as he thinks he is.” Here’s how Rollin described the exchange:

“When you’re on a story,” I asked him, “do you ever think it’s not going to work out?” “Sure,” he said merrily. “All the time.”

“Do you worry about it?” “Sometimes,” he said, not sounding sure

“When it doesn’t work out, do you usually figure it’s your fault?”

“No,” he said, sounding sure

“Suppose it is your fault. Does it make you feel terrible?”

“Nah,” he said

“Why not?”

He looked at me. “Aren’t I entitled to make a mistake once in a while?”

It’s been decades since I first read those words, but I still recall how this simple rhetorical question stopped me cold. Entitled to make a mistake? This was new information to me—and, as I came to learn, to an awful lot of other women too. I was beginning to see that even if the myriad of occupational obstacles facing women at that time vanished altogether, our own inner barriers might well prevent us from taking full advantage of opportunity.

I realized then that I had a choice, I could let my own secret fears continue to stand between me and my goals, or I could channel my energy into trying to understand them. I chose the latter. The impostor phenomenon or the impostor syndrome, as it is more commonly referred to in the popular media, became the impetus for my doctoral research, in which I explored the broader question of why so many clearly intelligent, capable women feel anything but.

My search for answers entailed in-depth interviews with a racially
diverse group of fifteen women: executives, clinicians, social service providers, and academic advisors. I wanted to hear from them about the kinds of internal barriers to success they’d observed in the women they managed, counseled, or advised. What I learned became the basis for a daylong workshop called “Overcoming the Imposter Syndrome: Issues of Competence and Confidence for Women,” which I co-led with fellow grad student Lee Anne Bell.

Lee and I booked a small meeting room at a local hotel, put up some flyers, and hoped that at least a few people would come. When forty women showed up, we knew we’d hit a nerve. We facilitated several more packed workshops before Lee relocated to pursue a career in higher education. I continued to speak on the impostor syndrome and in 2001 renamed the program “How to Feel as Bright and Capable as Everyone Seems to
You Are: Why Smart Women (and Men) Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and What to Do About It.”

Taking impostor feelings out of the realm of therapy and into an educational arena has proved tremendously successful. To date, more than fifty thousand people have attended this workshop. Simply giving people an alternative way of thinking about themselves and their competence has yielded some amazing results. Women reported asking for—and getting—raises. Corporate execs who had participated in a workshop as students told of being so transformed that years later they asked me to address their employees. Writers who had played small for years became prolific. People who had lacked the confidence to start or grow a business suddenly found the courage to go for it.

The core of what you’ll learn stems from my original research. Now and then I draw from the professional and management experience gained in my own seven years in a Fortune 200 company and sixteen as an entrepreneur and pioneer in Profiting from Your Passions
career coaching.
However, most of what you will discover here comes from the collective experience and wisdom of my workshop participants over a quarter of a century.

During that time I’ve led workshops for tens of thousands of students, faculty, and staff at more than sixty colleges and universities including Harvard, Stanford, Smith, MIT, and Cal Tech. Unfortunately, the impostor syndrome does not end with a diploma. Some of what you’ll learn comes from working directly with employees in such diverse organizations as Intel, Chrysler, Ernst & Young, UBS, Procter & Gamble, EMC, Bristol-Myers Squibb, IBM, the Society of Women Engineers, and American Women in Radio and Television, and with numerous groups of Canadian women entrepreneurs.

In addition, I’ve run seminars for groups of nurses, psychologists, optometrists, administrative assistants, jewelers, cancer researchers, social workers, and attorneys—all of which has been incorporated in this book. Despite their various situations and occupations, the women and men I’ve worked with have one important thing in common: They are not impostors. And, as you will soon discover, neither are you.

The Impostor Syndrome Then and Now

Clearly a lot has changed for women since 1982. I wish I could report the same with regards to women and the impostor syndrome. In fact, of the four overarching themes in this book, the three that emerged from my initial research are no less apt today:

BOOK: The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It
3.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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