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Sherman, R.O. (2013). Imposter Syndrome. American Nurse Today, 8(5), 57-58.

Authors: May 2013 American Nurse Today 57
COLLEEN JACKSON recently was promoted to a clinical
manager position on her unit. At first, she was thrilled
with the opportunity to advance her leadership skills,
but now she’s having second thoughts. She doesn’t feel
confident in her new role and worries how her team
views her. She confesses to her manager, “I keep think-
ing someone will figure out how much I really don’t
know and question whether I should’ve been given the
position. Sometimes I feel like an imposter. When I men-
tion this to my friends, they tell me to ‘fake it until you
make it.’ But I’m not so sure about that!”
Colleen isn’t alone in feeling like an imposter. In im-
poster syndrome, a person doesn’t feel good enough,
is unsure of what she’s doing, and feels she can’t live
up to others’ expectations. She may be afraid she’ll be
found out as an imposter at any moment. The syndrome
is most common among women leaders who feel they
don’t deserve the success they’ve achieved despite exter-
nal evidence of their competence. It’s more likely in per-
fectionists who constantly compare themselves to others.
Certain situations, such as taking on a new role, can
lead to imposter syndrome. For instance, Colleen may
think that because she was deemed qualified for her
new role, others expect her to immediately have expert
knowledge. If, like Colleen, you feel you don’t deserve
the career success you’ve had, you may experience
deep feelings of inauthenticity and fear you’ll be found
out as a fake. (See Inside the imposter syndrome.)
In small doses, feelings of inadequacy may not be a
bad thing, because they remind us to work on building
our competency. But people with imposter syndrome
feel a level of self-doubt that can lead to overwork and
a paralyzing fear of failure. The fear of being unmasked
causes incredible stress. Colleen and others like her may
have unrealistic expectations of themselves in a new
role—expectations that can compromise their success.
Overcoming imposter syndrome
For people with imposter syndrome, the response to
their success may rest too heavily on others’ approval,
recognition, and opinions. A wise mentor once told me
we can easily overestimate how much time others spend
thinking about us and our behaviors. Most people, she
observed, are self-absorbed. This is important to consid-
er, because the idea that Colleen is an imposter probably
has never crossed her team members’ minds.
Imposter syndrome can create performance anxiety
and lead to perfectionism, burnout, and depression. So
learning how to manage these feelings is important.
Cathy Robinson-Walker, MBA, MCC, who coaches nurse
leaders, provides advice to help cope with imposter
syndrome. Her recommendations include the six ac-
tions steps below.
Discuss your feelings with a trusted mentor
Sharing your insecurities with someone you trust and
Imposter syndrome: When
you feel like you’re faking it
By Rose O. Sherman, EdD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN
Leading the Way
People with this syndrome
lack confidence and think they
don’t deserve the success
they’ve achieved.
58 American Nurse Today Volume 8, Number 5
respect can help you separate what’s real from your
perceptions of insecurity. A trusted mentor might in-
form Colleen she’s making good progress as a begin-
ning leader and that no one expects her to be an ex-
pert at this point. The mentor can provide guidance
about specific areas where Colleen might need addi-
tional growth and how to best go about this.
Pay attention to your own self-talk and consider
whether your thoughts are empowering or disabling
Do you often say to yourself, “I achieved this only be-
cause I work harder than anyone else, not because I’m
more competent”? Valerie Young, author of The Secret
Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People
Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive
in Spite of It, makes a strong case that your internal
script is a well-rehearsed pattern that serves as a key
to feelings of being an imposter. She cautions that in-
dividuals with imposter syndrome may sabotage them-
selves as a way of holding back, due to feelings of be-
ing a fraud.
Instead, choose a different script and talk yourself
down during times of self-doubt. Instead of thinking,
“I’m the wrong person for this job,” retrain yourself to
say, “I have a lot to offer in this position.”
Make of list of your strengths
Take the time to make a written list your strengths and
what you contribute. Ask others for input, and refer to
the list in times of self-doubt. If you’re in a new role,
remember that you were chosen for a reason. In
Colleen’s case, her supervisor saw her leadership po-
tential. Also realize that most people overestimate their
abilities; people with imposter syndrome underestimate
Accept that perfection is unrealistic and costly
Trying to be perfect and feeling you need to “know it
all” is unrealistic and can be costly on a personal level.
Perfectionists typically believe anything short of a flaw-
less performance all the time is unacceptable. But none
of us can live a mistake-free life; we all make errors.
Those with imposter syndrome hold themselves to im-
possibly high standards and feel shame, insecurity, and
low self-esteem when they don’t meet their own ex-
pectations. But progress, not perfection, is what really
Know you’ll need to develop your competencies
at certain times in your career
Throughout your career, you’ll go through periods
when you’re on a steep learning curve and will need
to further develop your competencies. You may feel
like a novice and have to work hard to build new
Be honest about what you know and don’t know,
and seek advice from experts on your unit or in your
organization. The simple act of saying, “This is new for
me, and I’m working hard to learn this role” can be
empowering. Colleen, for instance, might be surprised
at others’ reactions to hearing this from her. They might
perceive her as a more authentic leader.
Be willing to be uncomfortable and move through
your fear
In Fear of Flying, author Erica Jong urges readers en-
gaging in new experiences to feel the fear and do it
anyway. Fear is a useful emotion, as long as it doesn’t
escalate to the level of paralyzing behaviors. Practice
and preparation can help ease new nurse leaders’ fears.
The fear of new challenges will never truly go away,
but it can be managed.
Building competence leads to competency
Those with imposter syndrome generally are intelligent,
thoughtful, and capable but lack self-confidence. Over
time, nurses like Colleen will grow out of feeling like
an imposter as they build their competency and be-
come more comfortable in their roles. Eleanor Roo-
sevelt said, “I believe that anyone can conquer fear by
doing the things he fears to do, provided he keeps do-
ing them until he gets a record of successful experi-
ence behind him.” If you feel like an imposter, this is
good advice to ponder. O
Visit for a list of select-
ed references.
Rose O. Sherman is an associate professor of nursing and director of the Nursing
Leadership Institute at the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic
University in Boca Raton. You can read her blog at w
Inside the imposter syndrome
The term imposter syndrome was coined by researchers
Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes at Georgia State Universi-
ty in 1978. These psychologists observed that some high-
achieving individuals have a secret sense that they can’t live
up to others’ expectations. Instead of seeing their failures
and mistakes as performance feedback, they deeply person-
alize them. They may think their success is based on luck or
timing, not their own experience, skills, or other qualities.
In many cases, feelings of imposter syndrome can be
traced to early family or school dynamics, when a child re-
ceived mixed messages about competency and individual
achievements. According to Clance and Imes, imposter syn-
drome is most likely to occur in:
persons for whom success came quickly
first-generation professionals
people with high-achieving parents
members of minority groups
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.