The antidotes to imposter syndrome

Professor Sel Hwahng offers strategies for minimizing self-doubt to live, lead effectively

By Pamela Gorsuch on September 28, 2023

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It’s the voice that says you don’t know what you’re doing; the nagging thought that if others really knew you, they wouldn’t like you as much. Imposter syndrome is an insidious spiral of inferiority, self-doubt and shame that can pervade self-worth and thwart connection. Luckily, a few intentional steps can diminish its hold.

For more than seven years Department of Women's and Gender Studies Professor Sel Hwahng has studied ontological leadership, an approach that emphasizes who we are being versus what we are doing when we lead. Hwahng incorporates the insights gained into their women’s and gender studies courses as well as on- and off-campus leadership workshops. Below, they share three strategies to reduce imposter syndrome and live and lead more effectively.

Let go of perfectionism.

Imposter syndrome often feeds on perfectionism. That’s because perfectionists hold themselves to unattainable standards, creating a cycle of fear, stress, anxiety and insecurity when the ideal isn’t achieved. When you believe you must be perfect, it creates a cognitive distortion that sets the stage for imposter syndrome.

The antidote is to embrace a wider range of standards and adjust them according to your personal priorities. Maintain high standards for what you determine are top priorities, and practice setting lower (but still acceptable) standards for middle and lower priorities. For example, students may choose the pass/fail option for a non-major class so they can focus attention on coursework in their area of study without impacting their GPA.

“Perfectionists try to give 100% effort to everything, but they end up burnt out with less energy for anything,” Hwahng says. “Varying standards and setting realistic expectations is an effective and healthy way to reserve energy for what’s most important and succeed in the long haul.”

Focus on authenticity.

Rather than imitating perfection, aim for authenticity. That means aligning who you are on the inside with how you present on the outside. When there are inconsistencies between the two, notice them and talk them through with someone you trust. As Hwahng says, the path to authenticity is being authentic about your inauthenticities.

“When we hide our negative thoughts, they flourish,” Hwahng says. “Being transparent allows us to engage in dialogue so we start to see that those thoughts aren’t necessarily true.”

This type of transparency and self-acceptance opens the door to connection and belonging, diminishing imposter syndrome.

Build resiliency as a safeguard.

Whereas perfectionism attempts to avoid reproach, embracing authenticity enables us to accept life’s challenges and use them to adapt and grow. In other words, it helps build resilience. Marked by the ability to navigate adversity and learn helpful attitudes and behaviors, resilience buffers against the automatic negative thoughts associated with imposter syndrome. It’s also a safety net enabling individuals to stretch their limits without fear of failure—whether that means applying for a new job, leading a high-profile project or enrolling in a challenging course. To begin developing resilience, Hwahng advises students and leaders to focus on finding and leveraging their unique strengths (versus fixing deficits).

“I’ve seen these strategies improve self-confidence and quality of life,” Hwahng says. “They truly make a difference.”


Dive deeper into the details and research about authenticity, imposter syndrome and leadership at two upcoming workshops tailored to TU affinity groups:

  • Imposter Syndrome and Authenticity for LGBTQ+ Students  
    Oct. 12, 12:30 to 2 p.m., UU 349 | Register now 
  • Imposter Syndrome and Authenticity for APIMEDA Students
    Oct. 18, noon to 1:30 p.m., UU 329 | Register now

Both workshops are open to all students, faculty and staff. Lunch is provided.