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Imposter Syndrome

Are You Feeling Like an Imposter?

It may be due to faulty or nonexistent mentoring.

Key points

  • The imposter syndrome has gained mounting interest since it was first identified more than 40 years ago.
  • It has been linked to personality factors as well as broader societal causes.
  • It's time to recognize the importance of mentorship for growth and self-actualization.

Do you feel like you’re faking it at work or college? That you’re basically inadequate for tasks and any praise is undeserved? Probably everyone has, at least occasionally, but the chronic condition is known as the imposter syndrome (IS). First identified by Drs. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes as the “imposter phenomenon” more than 40 years ago in a psychotherapy journal, IS has become such a common notion in American culture that it has entered the English vernacular—akin to popularizations like “midlife crisis” and “dysfunctional family.”

Whether IS is more prevalent today is unclear, but its appeal as a psychological descriptor is undeniable. Certainly, scientific interest in this topic is surging. Google Scholar lists over 15,000 published entries since 2019, with investigations in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Romania, and Turkey.

Understanding the Imposter Syndrome

Studies of IS have focused mainly on college students and professionals in education, medicine, nursing, and other fields. Nearly all validate the original findings by Clance and Imes that many high-achieving women struggle to accept their outward success at work. They report persistent feelings of self-doubt, fear of making mistakes, difficulty in taking credit for their accomplishments, and even self-perceptions of fraudulence. Typically they attribute their attainments not to personal ability, but rather to luck or other externalities. Research now indicates that many men also experience IS. Nevertheless, the scientific consensus is that it’s more prevalent among women and underrepresented racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.

What causes people to regard themselves in the workplace as walking frauds? The first, and still active, research wave has highlighted personality deficits such as job burnout, high anxiety, perfectionism, and low self-esteem. These aspects have frequently been traced to authoritarian and especially overprotective parenting. It’s a finding that Alfred Adler would have predicted long ago in delineating the “inferiority complex.”

The more recent, second wave has focused on broader societal factors such as microaggressions, systemic bias, and racism. For example, Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, in a widely-publicized critique of IS study in the Harvard Business Review, argued that “Workplaces remain misdirected toward seeking individual solutions for issues disproportionally caused by systems of discrimination and abuses of power.”

As Abraham Maslow’s biographer, I’d like to emphasize a third factor: namely, lack of adequate mentoring. Why? Because IS often involves feelings of inauthenticity coupled with existential loneliness (“I mustn’t let myself be unmasked”). These reveal an interpersonal void or emptiness. When we’ve experienced from a mentor what Carl Rogers called unconditional positive regard, such emotions are unlikely to arise. Because Maslow strongly differentiated education designed to impart knowledge from education designed to unleash creativity, it makes sense to differentiate “skill-centered mentorship” from “growth-centered mentorship.” Yet, even the former requires empathy, warmth, and ample encouragement—qualities that American institutions may insufficiently provide. Hence, IS comes to the fore.

Growth-Centered Mentorship

True mentorship is not psychotherapy or counseling. Nevertheless, it’s a reciprocal and ideally synergic relationship—far more akin to friendship than to the supervisory model ("See me every other Thursday at 4 p.m.") ubiquitous in corporations and government bureaucracies. Indeed, in my own life, I’ve been fortunate to have had several mentors who became cherished older friends, offering their wisdom and emotional support as my career developed. They provided praise and reassurance, and helped guide my decision-making and goal-setting. Undoubtedly, this is why I’ve never contended with IS.

From the Maslovian perspective, two features are crucial in growth-centered mentorship, pertaining to authenticity and peak experiences, respectively. That is, in order to help the mentee find one’s true self, the mentor must serve as a role model for such qualities as genuineness, integrity, self-reflection, and a willingness to abandon defensive posturing and pretense. For details, read Clark Moustakas’ classic work The Authentic Teacher.

Peak experiences are vital because they forge mentorship sustained by eagerness, passion, and delight in one’s field of study or work. However, of course, the mentor must be careful to avoid conveying the message that peaks are constant or necessary for achievement. In this light, isn’t it odd that in all the media attention to IS as well as “quiet quitting” rampant in the American workplace, joylessness is rarely mentioned? Has a new taboo emerged?

Embracing Your Abilities

  1. Because the imposter syndrome includes feelings of inadequacy, you may find it valuable to write about two incidents at work when you demonstrated mastery or excellence, perhaps even triggering a peak experience. What lessons do these positive memories provide about your capabilities? And, if you underestimated yourself back then, why do you think you did so? Try to be specific.
  2. If you’re a perfectionist, you’re especially vulnerable to feeling like an imposter because perfection is impossible. Therefore, you’ve got to lower your bar in order to feel competent and praiseworthy. For this activity, describe an incident in which your perfectionism stifled your happiness after an achievement. Now, play back the memory in your mind’s eye and allow yourself to feel appropriately pleased and even joyful.


Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, research & practice, 15 (3), 241.

Fields, L. N., & Cunningham-Williams, R. M. (2021). Experiences with imposter syndrome and authenticity at research-intensive schools of social work: A case study on Black female faculty. Advances in Social Work, 21 (2/3), 354-373.

Hoffman, E. (1994). The drive for self: Alfred Adler and the founding of individual psychology. Addison-Wesley.

Hoffman, E. (1999) The right to be human: A biography of Abraham Maslow, 2nd edition. McGraw-Hill.

Hoffman, E., & Bey, T. (2023). Educating for eupsychia: Maslow’s unfinished agenda and Aldous Huxley’s role in Its advancement. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 63 (4), 459-476.

Hoffman, E., & Compton, W. C. (2022). The Dao of Maslow: A new direction for mentorship. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 00221678221076574.

Kirschenbaum, H. & Henderson, V.L. (1989) (Eds). The Carl Rogers reader. Houghton Mifflin.

Maslow, A. H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. Viking.

Moustakas, C. (1966). The authentic teacher: Sensitivity and awareness in the classroom. Doyle.

Tulshyan, R., & Burey, J. A. (2021). Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome. Harvard Business Review, 11.

Wang, K. T., Sheveleva, M. S., & Permyakova, T. M. (2019). Imposter syndrome among Russian students: The link between perfectionism and psychological distress. Personality and Individual Differences, 143, 1-6.

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