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Today I want to talk about imposter syndrome. This is a condition that has affected me and affects millions of language learners every year. I want to explain it, discuss its causes and signs, and offer you all some tips on how to cope and overcome such imposter feelings!

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Imposter syndrome is a term used to describe a person “who feels they aren’t as capable as others think and fears they’ll be exposed as a fraud.” It is not an actual recognised mental health condition, but has entered our vocabulary and many people identify with feeling like an imposter.

According to the dictionary, an imposter is a person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others, especially for fraudulent gain.”

Imposter Syndrome and Me

The reason I wanted to write and talk about imposter syndrome on the podcast is because I suffer with imposter syndrome all the time. My whole life I’ve felt as though I’m not as intelligent, skilled, or capable as other people.

I always remember my first day at university. I attended a good university in the UK and had a lot of intelligent classmates. In our first class, a modern history lecture, I was so intimidated by everyone else. They seemed so articulate (good at speaking), already knew a lot of information, and spoke confidently and clearly.

I felt like an imposter – I felt inferior and like I didn’t belong. And this feeling of being an imposter caused stress and anxiety… a lot of stress and anxiety.

While this feeling of being an imposter never really went away completely, I’ve been suffering from it again over the past few weeks. Why I have I been feeling like an imposter recently? Thinking in English!

I started Thinking in English as a hobby 2 and a half years ago and had no idea or intention for it to become my job. I never thought I would have an audience. But now there are tens of thousands of people around the world listening to every episode and hundreds of people joining my conversation groups, reading my articles, and messaging me for advice.  

I have once again started to feel like an imposter. I doubt my abilities, question why people listen to me, and think that one day everyone will realise I’m an imposter and stop listening. In December I had a lot of people joining my Patreon and conversation groups – and this is what triggered my current imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome has left me doubting myself and questioning everything that I do. And I’m not alone! I know that thousands of you listening today probably have felt like an imposter before. In fact, one study found that 70% of people have felt like imposters in their lifetime. Well known figures like scientist Albert Einstein, actor Tom Hanks, and athlete Serena Williams have confessed to suffering with serious self-doubt.

Today I want to talk about the signs and causes of imposter syndrome, and some ways for us all to overcome it!

What is Imposter Syndrome?

In the 1970s, psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance were the first to describe imposter syndrome or the imposter phenomenon. In their study of high-achieving professional women in business environments, they discovered significant levels of self-doubt and imposter like feelings.

Imposter syndrome can be defined “as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.” In other words, if someone has imposter syndrome they feel as if they are not good enough or not skilled, even though they are obviously capable and successful!

No matter how successful or talented a person is, or how much proof or evidence exists of that person’s capabilities, a person with imposter syndrome suffers from constant self-doubt.

Imposter syndrome is different to other common issues like low self-esteem and lack of confidence. The reason imposter syndrome is different is because it effects successful people who are often high achieving. In fact, imposter syndrome has been connected with perfectionism (you can listen to my episode on perfectionism here).


Imposter Syndrome and Language Learners!

English learners often face situations where imposter syndrome can occur. I run conversation groups for Thinking in English learners and have had hundreds of people from around the world join, talk, and practice their English. Some of these people are incredibly talented English speakers – with great vocabularies, a good knowledge of grammar, and excellent accent.

Despite this, the same people often tell me that they don’t feel confident. They feel that their English is worse than others – they don’t feel good enough. Even though they may have evidence of their talents (for example exam results, my feedback, or the fact they can use the language everyday), these people still feel like imposters.

Some of the best, most talented, English speakers I know who use English everyday in their work life have told me they doubt themselves and their abilities. That they feel like imposters… and one day their company, friends, and families will realise that they are an imposter. Even though they are incredibly talented and successful, the feeling of doubt never goes away!

Signs of Imposter Syndrome

There are a few different signs of imposter syndrome. WebMD highlights three signs or symptoms.

First, you believe you have fooled, misled, or tricked people into thinking you’re more skilled that you are. This is where the name imposter syndrome comes from – the suggestion that you are an imposter or a fake!

As a consequence, you may also be stressed and worried that people will discover you are an imposter. Of course, this will never happen as you are successful and talented. But the sign of imposter syndrome is that you believe one day people will discover you are a fake and an imposter. This is something I struggle with a lot!

Second, you believe that your success is not due to your abilities. Perhaps you believe you are successful due to networking, other’s mistakes or misjudgements, or luck. Believing that things you can’t control are responsible for your achievements is a sign of imposter syndrome.

Third, you may suffer from something known as “The Imposter Cycle” (this is another thing I struggle with). The imposter cycle describes a pattern of feelings and emotions every time you do a task. You may start the task with a lot of procrastination and feel a little of anxiety, then you quickly complete the task in a panic. Once you finish the task you are happy, but when it comes to the next task the same thing happens.


 Causes of Imposter Syndrome

There are a few different theories and ideas about the causes of imposter syndrome.

First, the pressure to achieve in our modern society is clear. People today often measure their self-worth on what they have done in their life. This can lead to high-achieving people not feeling good enough.

Second, research suggests that parents have a large roll in creating the conditions for imposter syndrome. One theory suggests that giving children labels (like calling one child the “intelligent” child, another child the “artistic” one, and a third child the “sporty” one) can have an effect.

Third, imposter syndrome seems much more common in people who are different from their peers. For example, women working in engineering or tech, and the first people to attend university in a family, are more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome.

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How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome?

Now I’ve talked about imposter syndrome, how can you overcome it? How can you manage and deal with these feelings? I’ve found some advice from WebMD and the Harvard Business Review than might be useful!

  • Recognise and understand imposter feelings. If you know what these feelings are like, you’ll be able to manage them.
  • Separate your feelings from reality. Once you recognise your imposter feelings, you can separate them. Think about what is real and evidence based, and what is in your mind! Focus on the real!
  • Stop comparing yourself to other people. A lot of self-doubt and anxiety is caused by comparing yourself with other people! I think this is a big cause of my imposter syndrome – and I’m trying hard to stop it!
  • Try to change the way you think. It is usual to doubt yourself – remember this!
  • Talk with others! The more you talk with other about your feelings, the better it will be!
  • Remember your successes and accomplishments!

Hopefully this small amount of advice, and the explanation of imposter syndrome, can help any of you out there suffering from self-doubt and anxiety over your English level!

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Final Thought

Imposter syndrome can be a problem for all people – and especially for language learners. We doubt ourselves and our abilities… even though we are successful!

Hopefully, by talking about imposter syndrome, sharing my experiences, and giving some topics and advice on how to cope with imposter syndrome, you can all benefit!

Have you ever felt like an imposter?

By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

7 thoughts on “197. What is Imposter Syndrome and How to Overcome it?”
  1. I had only a semblance of impostor syndrome, as several times in my life I got into such circumstances that after a sober analysis I was forced to admit the fact that this occupation was not for me, because I was not really interested in it, I did not feel drive. I once had to change university and profession for this reason (I almost became an engineer in the field of aircraft construction). And if I feel a drive and some kind of psychological feedback, then it doesn’t matter to me whether someone thinks of me that I have insufficient competence or not. Do your best and the rest will follow.

  2. This episode was fantastic. I always felt like an imposter. Actually, while I’m writing it, I just feel like an imposter because I never feel that my english is good and, in this moment, I’m avoiding to consult the translator to overcome the syndrome that you helped me to realize. Thank you so much for your work, learning us a language and skills for struggle with other problems.

  3. Let me give congratulations, you are an honest person and intelligent. You exposed part of your life in this post. I loved your podcast
    I have the same problem, I am perfectionist person so to absorb a new language has been a big challenge in my life, all the time I am feeling “an impostor” and ask to myself what I am doing here, living and working in Canada if I don’t speak English very well…but I am here. How I handle it, every day I repeat my own mantra “fake it until you make it”.

  4. I am not a psychologist, but I want to tell you that you should not doubt your abilities in the field of language teaching. I have followed many podcasts and I can assure you that yours, in terms of content, pronunciation, rhythm, and level, is the best of all. Thank you for your work, which has allowed me to go from a level where I didn’t understand anything to being able to understand 80%, listening to the podcast a couple of times. keep it up please

  5. Thank you Tom for your podcast and especially for this episode. I study English since I was a child but I always feel like an imposter. I attended a lot of english courses where teacher congratulation with me for my english. However, especially at work, I feel not capable to speak a good business english as my collegues. Listening this episode gave me an help to try to overcome this feelings and I’ll repeat your 6 advices like a mantra!!
    Thank you so much, and keep it up!!

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