Is the imposter syndrome generational?

images-1An imposter syndrome is the inability to see your own success.  It is chronic self-doubt about success even though the opposite is true.

We created a slack for WeFestival and I was curious what people thought.  We just began so there wasn’t a lot of people chiming in but one person made a comment that make me wonder if the imposter syndrome is generational.

Do people (particularly women) feel that if they had not lived up to their expected trajectory for themselves begin to feel unsuccessful because they took a different path or they didn’t hit their milestones.  How many people actually achieve the path they set forth at 20 years old?

I am sure that some do but I certainly took more than a few turns to get to where I am today.  I was completely disconnected from reality at 20 years old.  I didn’t think anything through.  I just assumed that I would run a major company, be tremendously successful, make tons of money and of course have three kids who miraculously would just grow up.  I didn’t even think that about how I would take care of our kids while running the world.  I just assumed it would all neatly fit into a package.

I have had an issue with the imposter syndrome until the last few years as I talked to someone to come to terms with it.  I’d be curious what other people think about this.  Is it more a female thing?  Do women in their 20’s have the feelings of imposter syndrome?  Or women in their 30’s and 40’s?  It is certainly a reality but I wonder where it comes from in different people.


Comments (Archived):

  1. pointsnfigures

    A question for you. Women are confronted with different choices than men because of babies. Do you think this situation arises out of dissonance between conflicting messages? Many women heard the “You can do it all-or Don’t waste your education do it all” or “Have a baby, but keep working because of independence, divorce etc”. Does this not living up to expected trajectory come out of that? (I have no opinion just throwing it out there)

    1. Gotham Gal

      I believe that is the core of why women have the imposter syndrome.

      1. pointsnfigures

        Totally tough on women. Their best child bearing years are between 18-30. That’s when schooling happens. That’s when first jobs happen. Plus, it’s college and grad school is often a great time to meet a person to marry. Worked for you and me ; )

  2. Lisa Abeyta

    I definitely suffered from it – but it came from knowing that I did not hold the same qualifications as others did who were in my industry. I wasn’t “qualified”. I was, however, capable – and it was a comment my husband made that changed how I saw myself. When I told him a few years ago that I wasn’t sure I could do this (run and build a startup), his comment was, “What do you mean? You ARE doing this.” It shifted something in the way I saw myself, and I stopped apologizing for not being qualified and started leading. It made all the difference. Your welcome speech at the 2012 WEF was on this topic, and when I realized that women like you faced doubts, judged themselves too harshly, unfairly compared themselves to others, I realized I wasn’t alone in it. I think it’s so important for women in leadership to articulate the journey of overcoming that mindset. As for generational? Yes, I think to some extent it is. But I mentor several women who are older than me, and they definitely struggle with it. I think the core is that women think they have to be qualified rather than capable.

    1. awaldstein

      ‘Qualified rather than capable.’A great one that I will reuse. Thanks!

      1. Gotham Gal

        Me too

        1. Lisa Abeyta

          Tonight I was sitting across the table from a woman who has invested in our company – this was her coffee cup. I love it.

          1. Gotham Gal

            that’s awesome.

  3. Cam MacRae

    I think the grad school card you included is pretty accurate. Even though I duxed my cohort during my masters I spent 2/3 of my PhD feeling like a lightweight who was taking money away from someone that actuallly deserved it. Most of my circle felt similarly. Some still do. Perhaps not entirely a good thing, but I think it is definitely preferable to thinking you’re top shit, and a million bazillion miles better than false humility.One of the (many) things that “smartest guy in the room” types need to learn is that everyone, without exception, is smarter than you about something. And the imposter syndrome types need to remember the corollary.I don’t think it is generational. It definitely doesn’t discriminate by sex.

  4. mwilkotz

    A really, really accomplished woman named Joyce Roche wrote a book called “The Empress Has No clothes” about just that. I am not doing it full justice in summing it up but what her research found was that people who are more different from the others they grew up with or others who define the average are more subject to imposter syndrome – ie, most women, men who grew up poor or with highly dysfunctional families, etc. Not sure if she looked at generational differences but she spoke to a lot of people to write the book and she might have something to add on that.

    1. Susan Rubinsky

      Wow! I grew up in a poor working class family. I always felt like I never truly fit in anywhere (I still don’t really fit in anywhere, but don’t really care anymore… The benefits of aging!).. I am going to check this book out.

      1. LE

        There is probably a correlation between people (women or not) who have grown up “poor working class” as well as people who haven’t graduated from college that would make them more likely to feel the way that you do. So I don’t think you are only a single data point and I don’t personally feel that it is a women “thing”. I have seen the same thing with men. Many times.It goes like this. If person didn’t go to college (or even to a good college) they tend to be way more self conscious as a result of that. My observation over many years.I went to a good college and as a result if my grammar or dress isn’t great (I wear a tshirt and dungarees always) it doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t feel self conscious about it. After all, I went to a good college so I got my stamp of “approval”, right? Doesn’t even matter if that is right. It’s the way I feel! No validation needed! Otoh if I hadn’t graduated from a Ivy League college, say I went to community college, I would be totally self conscious if I made the same mistakes. Feeling that if I had bad grammar or spelling that (the lack of a good college) must be the reason why that was the case. I would be in a constant state of grass is greener as an explanation.My wife is a doctor and she can from time to time do stupid things (like anyone can). I can, to her face, make a disparaging comment to her and it rolls right off. Why? Because she made it through medical school so who cares if she puts the tags wrong on the luggage. She just laughs it off. Otoh if she hadn’t achieved that, say she worked as a secretary in the water department and never went to college I am pretty certain I would never be able to “make fun of her” for lack of a better way to put it.

    2. Gotham Gal

      That is interesting data.

  5. Col. Leopold Swindle

    i always thought ‘imposter syndrome’ was a phenomenon that was specific to programming.i’m not totally on board with it being applied more broadly to career / family life trajectory vs. expectations… but i’m just nitpicking about vocabulary. What you’re describing overall is probably accurate.there is not a very viable historical model out there for women being “career moms.” I’m sort of reminded of Marissa Mayer, yahoo CEO, who was able to build some kind of nursery attachment onto her office. However, as CEO she did not extend any kind of mom-friendly or dad-friendly policies at Yahoo for the rank and file.So my point is that “CEO mom” or “high earning mom” is not impossible, in the same way it’s not impossible for me to be Warren Buffett. But it is a position of social and economic privilege that shouldn’t be seen as a standard expectation for the middle class.

  6. Sofia Papastamelos

    As a woman in my 20’s I don’t personally think it’s generational, I think it’s something that we all experience and is more common in women. I think sometimes we pay too much attention to small details, overanalyzing and (as Lisa mentioned below,) judging ourselves too harshly and assuming that others are seeing what we are seeing. Sometimes you need to stand back and see the big picture of all that you are accomplishing.I frequently feel disorganized and like I am not getting enough done in one day. I recently received written feedback from my team that said just the opposite. They saw me as motivated, hardworking, and very organized. It was a wake up call. I am no imposter.

  7. Ella Dyer

    Very interesting question and one that needs to be discussed. We at Startup Chicks have discussed this often; whenever I coach/mentor female founders I make it a point to touch on this subject.It amazes me how this feeling can be found in a variety of women despite demographics. For me, the feeling comes and goes at various times in my life; I can be very confident about a project real time or, not. And, have even had less of this syndrome when talking about a “failure”. The proverbial “let go/you can’t control everything or, even anything” has helped me when the impostor feeling arises.Fortunately, I do feel that my two granddaughters are growing up with a feeling of empowerment and if I can help set an example for them by overcoming the impostor feeling then I certainly feel accomplished.

  8. Inna Raykhman

    i think being a woman is a contradiction in itself ) it is this unique combination of strength and weakness. the first one allows one to carry,nurse, perform the bulk of the parenting (even with the best husband) while doing a multitude of other things, while the second makes you much more dependent on the opinion and approval of others. this dependence on the outside is very dangerous since the world we live in skews to the negative. so, yes, full on “impostor syndrome” in my early 40’s.

  9. Susan Rubinsky

    This is a fascinating topic. When I worked in a software startup back during web 1.0, I used to joke around that I was writing a book called, “Underachiever By Choice.” Like Lisa Abeyta noted, I was capable but “unqualified,” a young woman who had dropped out of college (I had studied poetry writing and art, way to go!) who had started, built, and sold or cashed out of a couple of businesses by then. Yet here I was, mid-30’s poetry chick, coding and running a software marketing department. How the heck did that happen? Oh yeah, and my husband had left me so I was single Mom too.There was no real template for any of us women to follow. So we were all winging it. Of course we felt like impostors because we were not doing what we were supposed to be doing. Here’s to being impostors!

  10. Emily Parsons

    How serendipitous this post comes. Just today I’m chatting with a friend about what to plan for a service project We have mostly not discussed the service project, and touched on Coffee, tiling the floor, rape, masquerade ball, children, polite children (and they are fictional), cancer, and scuba diving. Good meeting, ladies! I’m leaving and our final conversation returns to 3 minutes about the service project and (she is a physical therapist) and says, if I could just tell my sister (12 years younger) to widen, straighten up, have good posture, to present yourself… you’ll feel better! I think, Oh my goodness I saw a Ted Talk addressing this exact issue (by Amy Cuddy – ‘Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are’ :…. At the end of the talk she explores her imposture issue related to her research about nonverbal communication. Power poses (just posture!) elicit increases of testosterone and decreases cortisol, which lead to changes in our brains and changes in how we interact with people. But how is this related to this post?? Her research is based on women in MBA programs and how they are underachieving. If you feel like an imposter and don’t belong then that’s how you behave. This is a way to fight back and say, yes I belong, yes I have value, yes I’m amazing. It made me happy to watch it again today. Not going to lie… tears at the end of the presentation.

  11. LE

    I think the imposter syndrome is merely a situation whereby whatever you have achieved exceeds what you think you actually deserve or more importantly have worked for.I think this is also a reason why some people are workaholics. By working all the time you get to feel as if you have justified your good fortune. “I work hard and I deserve what I have received!” is the idea. And that makes sense, right?The other thing that gets people with success is when they realize the luck that was involved in whatever they have achieved. [1]The good news is that everyone is in the same boat. Just like a particular person might feel that luck played a big role in their success, the truth is that it also played a big role in anyone else you look at’s big success as well. So it’s all relative anyway.[1] And by working harder you are also able to have an easier time not thinking as much about the fact that if you hadn’t had a particular lucky break you might not be where you are today.

  12. JLM

    .I doubt we even begin to know ourselves until we are about 35.I realize that is heresy as we are supposed to be so full of ourselves that we are coming out of the cradle with our first “big thing” in hand. Sorry. Not true.Some might say that I personally lived that life but here’s the rub — I had absolutely no idea of what I was doing, other than having a damn good time and engaging in a lot of adventures.I was following my nose.I would never give back the adventures even the incredibly stupid, painful ones (well, maybe one or two of the painful ones, OK).We are all in a little too much of a hurry. Thirty five.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

  13. LE

    This topic interests me, so I just turned up this book, which appears to have received excellent reviews on Amazon:”The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It”…Seems like Valerie would be a good speaker for wefestivalIt’s only because they like me. I was in the right place at the right time. I just work harder than the others. I don’t deserve this. It’s just a matter of time before I am found out. Someone must have made a terrible mistake. If you are a working woman, chances are this inter­nal monologue sounds all too familiar. And you’re not alone. From the high-achieving Ph.D. candidate convinced she’s only been admitted to the program because of a clerical error to the senior executive who worries others will find out she’s in way over her head, a shocking number of accomplished women in all ca­reer paths and at every level feel as though they are faking it—impostors in their own lives and careers. While the impostor syndrome is not unique to women, women are more apt to agonize over tiny mistakes, see even constructive criticism as evi­dence of their shortcomings, and chalk up their accomplishments to luck rather than skill. They often unconsciously overcompensate with crippling perfec­tionism, overpreparation, maintaining a lower pro­file, withholding their talents and opinions, or never finishing important projects. When they do succeed, they think, Phew, I fooled ’em again. An internationally known speaker, Valerie Young has devoted her career to understanding women’s most deeply held beliefs about themselves and their success. In her decades of in-the-trenches research, she has uncovered the often surprising reasons why so many accomplished women experience this crushing self-doubt. In The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Young gives these women the solution they have been seek­ing. Combining insightful analysis with effective ad­vice and anecdotes, she explains what the impostor syndrome is, why fraud fears are more common in women, and how you can recognize the way it mani­fests in your life. With her empowering, step-by-step plan, you will learn to take ownership of your success, overcome self-doubt, and banish the thought patterns that undermine your ability to feel—and act—as bright and capable as others already know you are.

    1. Gotham Gal

      i will take a look at this book. speaker…good idea.