The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It

Image of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It
Release Date: 
October 25, 2011
Publisher/Imprint: 
Crown Business
Pages: 
304
Reviewed by: 

“The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women examines a common affliction and offers tools, insight, scientific evidence, and numerous examples that aim to banish the impostor for good. Valerie Young’s diligence, passion for the subject, and belief that anyone can overcome feelings of inadequacy, duplicity, and unworthiness rings loudly throughout The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women.”

Have you ever managed to climb to the top of the academic or professional heap, all the while waiting for someone to discover that you really don’t belong there? Welcome to the club.

According to Valerie Young, millions of people—both men and women—around the globe suffer from “The Impostor Syndrome.” In this book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Ms. Young unravels the complexity of this “disorder” and promises to restore self-assurance and validation that you do deserve every accolade you receive.

Ms. Young’s fascination with this subject originated with a 1978 paper written by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. Her intrigue with the topic led her to explore impostor syndrome as her dissertation. After conducting research and numerous interviews, she learned that these feelings of fraudulence ran rampant within the broader population, particularly with women. While some men share these feelings, data show that females react differently and suffer the syndrome more frequently and with more intensity.

The author defines impostor syndrome as a “persistent belief in their lack of intelligence, skills, or competence.” She adds that those afflicted with this “disorder” feel undeserving of the praise and recognition they receive, that their achievements are due to “chance, charm, connections, and other external factors.” People—mostly women—who feel like impostors harbor the fear they will be “found out” at some point in time, regardless of the level of success they might achieve.

Each chapter comprises four sections: Key Lessons, Action Steps, What’s Ahead, and Exercises. The Key Lessons recapitulate material provided within the chapter, while the Action Steps represent “homework.” From the beginning, Ms. Young emphasizes the importance of active participation in the book’s lessons in order to overcome misplaced feelings of deception. What’s Ahead offers a teaser for information contained in the next chapter. Exercises are woven into the chapters and provide an opportunity to “try out” a suggested activity to enhance introspection.

Early in the book, Ms. Young identifies possible root causes for these feelings of inadequacy and provides examples of well known individuals who admit to feeling like an impostor and the underlying reasons for these beliefs. Who knew that writer Jonathan Safran Foer, actresses Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep, and Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor all experienced nagging feelings that the accolades they received were misplaced?

The author backs up her statements with findings from scientific studies, research, interviews, citations from related books and academic validation from professors at distinguished institutions like Wellesley College and Mt. Holyoke College. In addition to Clance and Imes, the psychologists who inspired her research, Ms. Young cites the work of Carol Gilligan, a well-known and respected social psychologist, who has done significant work in this field.

Not only does Ms. Young present credible information, but she also issues thought-provoking questions to help the reader discern her level of “impostorism.” and find viable solutions to the problem. Presented in workbook format, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women engages the reader, provides tools and insight, and imparts viable solutions. Detailed scenarios offer a glimpse into the various models this syndrome can assume.

Inspirational quotes from an assortment of statesmen, artists and other notable individuals, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Michelangelo, Bella Abzug, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Woodrow Wilson, Sophia Loren and Bugs Bunny, are sprinkled throughout the book and offer additional support and encouragement.

One of the most valuable aspects of the book comes in the form of “competence rules.” Ms. Young presents five competence types, accompanied by guidelines to reframe thinking that she calls “a competence rule book for mere mortals.”

The author links fear of failure to “impostorism” and explains how the response to shortcomings can ultimately affect future actions. Several examples support her theory. For instance, she notes that Walt Disney lost a newspaper job because he lacked ideas. Basketball legend Michael Jordan was cut from his junior varsity basketball team and Abraham Lincoln lost bids for a seat in Congress, the Senate and an appointment to the Unites States Land Office. By providing examples of individuals who eventually achieved success, Ms. Young aims to drive home the point that setbacks are mere curves in the road.

At one point in the book, the author views the impostor syndrome from the flip side, professing “Your fear of being inadequate pales compared with your fear of being extraordinary.” Assuming a coach-like persona, Ms. Young encourages the reader to embrace a can-do attitude and envision success as a hard won and well-deserved badge of honor.

The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women examines a common affliction and offers tools, insight, scientific evidence, and numerous examples that aim to banish the impostor for good. Valerie Young’s diligence, passion for the subject, and belief that anyone can overcome feelings of inadequacy, duplicity, and unworthiness rings loudly throughout The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women.