Impostor syndrome: your brain's unhelpful error message

Have you ever felt like everyone but you knows what they're doing? That you're just faking your way through life and you're going to be caught out, sooner or later? The good news is that it's not just you. Impostor syndrome is the well-documented psychological phenomenon of people being unable to apply their successes and external validation to the mental model of their own competence. While the good news is that you're not alone in feeling this, the bad news is that impostor syndrome can cause massive amounts of stress and can negatively impact professional outcomes.

This feeling that you're faking it can impact your happiness and performance in a number of ways. The stress and hyper-vigilance of always looking over your shoulder can erode away your sense of belonging in a role. An early study by Imes and Clance looking at the impact of impostor syndrome on high achieving women found those impacted reported...

  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Avoiding displays of impacted skills
  • Use of soft skills to compensate for perceived gaps
  • Working harder on skills with perceived gaps

The term 'impostor syndrome' was coined by Imes and Clance in their groundbreaking study. A follow up study by Vera, Vasquez and Corona looked at the impact on high achieving women of colour. While early research on impostor syndrome focused on high achieving women and other underrepresented groups in their industries being impacted more strongly, mounting self-reported evidence and new studies suggest that impostor syndrome can be found across all demographics.

​So impostor syndrome is pretty miserable, and it can impact any of us. What can we do about it?​​

You can help reduce the impact of impostor syndrome on others by making them aware of impostor syndrome and its potential impact. Telling someone directly that they might have impostor syndrome isn’t a great way to do this. People telling you about their issues with work may be describing a work culture that doesn’t support them, real skills gaps or a number of other real issues that aren’t impostor syndrome. Instead, model vulnerability and talk about your own experiences with impostor syndrome and self-doubt when possible. By showing your peers and reports that impostor syndrome is often at the root of self-doubt you encourage them to credit their concerns —and the panic that often comes with them — to impostor syndrome over their own failings.

Unfortunately, knowing that the sinking feeling you’re faking it is impostor syndrome doesn’t get rid of it. Knowing about impostor syndrome just helps you name that panicked feeling and lets you apply a rational lens to your fears. Impostor syndrome’s core issue, an inability to accurately assess your own talents, remains. Seeking independent assessment of your skills through certifications, courses or sharing your skills with newbies can be an incredible way to combat these feelings with positive feedback on your skills. Interrupting intrusive negative thoughts that often accompany impostor syndrome can be a great way to mitigate the damage. Taking a short, rewarding break from an activity when you’re wracked by self-doubt can be a great way to reset your brain and return to work happier.

What if impostor syndrome isn’t all bad?

The Dunning-Kruger effect is like the impostor syndrome's talentless sibling. Those impacted by the Dunning-Kruger effect are unable to accurately assess their own skill sets, much in the same way as those impacted by impostor syndrome. While folks suffering from impostor syndrome aren’t able to take on board and internalise positive messages about their skills, Dunning-Kruger is characterised by a low level of measured skill and the inability to register feedback on their lack of skill. These folks are unable to take on negative feedback on their skills.

Impostor syndrome as a buggy error message

At its core, impostor syndrome is a failure of self-assessment. You’re unable to use positive external cues about your skills and ability. Accurate assessment of your current skills is an important part of learning and development. The zone of proximal development is an educational concept, marking a sweet spot for challenging material for learning that learners can engage with independently. Material that’s too easy doesn’t result in meaningful learning, while too-difficult material is incomprehensible. To best learn, learners need to engage with material just a step up from where they currently are.

People impacted by Dunning-Kruger are unable to see the external cues outlining the limitations of their skill sets. They’re not being given messages to change their behaviour. But what if impostor syndrome is the message the rest of us need that we’re dealing with challenging material that’s helping us learn? What if we looked at impostor syndrome as an unpleasant sign of competence (after all, if you were impacted by the Dunning-Kruger effect, you wouldn’t worry about it!) that’s telling you everything is going ok?

Jessica Rose spoke at the inaugural Pixel Pioneers conference in Bristol in June. Watch her presentation on YouTube

Jessica Rose


Jessica Rose is a self-taught technologist passionate about fostering more equal access to technical education and digital spaces within our industry. She's currently a technical manager at FutureLearn, founded the Open Code meetup series, co-founded TransCode and writes infrequently at She's always interested in hearing from other passionate technologists, so come tell her what you're working on.