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Here's what it is and how to tell whether it's holding you back.

Sarah Z. Wexler
February 20, 2015

Last week, Jon Stewart announced that he will step down as host of The Daily Show at some point this year, which sent the internet into a frenzy over who would take the reins of the beloved program.

Popular Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams was on many people's short lists, but the 25-year-old took to Twitter to quash the rumors. As she wrote on Sunday, “Fact 1: I'm not hosting. Thank you but I am extremely under-qualified for the job!” The move sparked criticism on the web that the super-talented bit player is missing out on her big break because, as one person wrote, she's "a victim of impostor syndrome."

Williams thoughtfully responded to critics by arguing that her choice not to go for the job is rooted in the fact that she knows herself well enough to admit what she's not prepared for. And other writers reminded us that while imposter syndrome is real, it wasn't a factor here: "The fact that lots of young women underestimate their professional competence doesn’t mean that Williams herself suffers from impostor syndrome," L.V. Anderson wrote at Slate, "and it doesn’t mean that a 25-year-old needs to be thrust into a job recently vacated by a 52-year-old just because she is extraordinarily good."

Whether you're a Daily Show fan or not, you may have seen this news cycle play out and read the phrase "impostor syndrome" for the first time. Here's what it is and how to tell whether it's holding you back.

What is impostor syndrome, really?

The term was first coined by psychologists in a 1978 paper, The Imposter Phenomenon In High Achieving Women. The authors defined it as a problem affecting women who “Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.” But many high-achieving women experience anxiety about performing well at work—how can you tell the difference?

People with impostor syndrome have very specific thought patterns. “You feel you don't deserve the success you've achieved, that your accomplishments are the result of luck or being in the right place at the right time instead of your talent, or that you're a fraud who will eventually be found to be incompetent,” says Alexandra Levit, author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can't Afford to Believe ($13, amazon.com) and a workplace consultant to the Obama administration.

“It's a problem if the feelings cause you to not ask for a raise or promotions, not apply for a job, or consistently pass up assignments because you don't deem yourself worthy.” But if you can push those thoughts aside and go for it, then you're not professionally crippled by impostor syndrome.

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Who does it affect?

The original 1978 study cited the phenomenon as only occurring in women, and a more recent, highly cited stat from a Hewlett Packard internal survey seems to confirm that women are more affected. As you may have read in Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: women only apply for jobs for which they feel they're a 100% match, while men will apply even if they only meet 60% of the requirements.

“Some men do suffer from the syndrome, but research has shown it is much more common among high achieving women,” Levit says. “A man and a woman might both be 80% qualified for a job, but the man goes for it because he's more confident in his abilities and likely to think, 'I'll fake it 'til I make it,' whereas the woman may not go for it at all because she's hung up on the fact that she isn't 100% qualified.” Basically, a woman is more likely to focus on the 20% of the skills she doesn't have, rather than the 80% she does.

And it really only does occur in women who are good at what they do. If you were an actual impostor, you wouldn't feel like one—you'd be too clueless about your lack of skills to obsess. “In general, under-qualified or totally unqualified people simply find themselves in over their heads and either quit or are let go pretty quickly,” says Levit. If you're still in your role and are being offered new challenges, it's likely because your team believes you're competent.

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What to do about it

To change how you talk to yourself about your skills and successes, Levit suggests trying these three strategies:

Spell it out. Write down all of your accomplishments at work and the reasons you're well-qualified for your current role. Then post them some place at home where you're forced to confront them every day. You could make a list in your phone and re-read it every day before stepping into the office.

Get a second opinion. Seek the support of a new mentor in your field who can help you see your successes in an objective light. It's important for it to be a professional contact because you may write off what a closer connection thinks—of course your mom or BFF will say you're wonderful, but the VP of marketing doesn't owe you anything.

Take time to reflect. Before you enter a high-profile situation, like a presentation or a big meeting, remind yourself why you deserve to be there—your education, your skills, and how long you spent preparing.

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