Impostor syndrome workshop: Instructor's or facilitator's guide

May be outdated

This advice for instructors or facilitators for the Ada Initiative Impostor Syndrome workshop was written/collected by Sumana Harihareswara. It was last substantially updated in 2014; updates are noted.

Instructor notes/facilitator's guide to accompany the impostor syndrome workshop slides

by Sumana Harihareswara


This is a one-hour workshop, whose spine is the Ada Initiative impostor syndrome slides and resources , that requires one facilitator and one helper (to hand out exercise sheets, stickynotes, and pens). I ran this at the Bangalore AdaCamp in November 2014. The format:

20 minutes: introduction (lecture by facilitator)

Split into groups for:

1) 10 minute “take a compliment” exercise

1a) then 3-minute report-back

2) 10 minute values exercise

2a) then 3-minute report-back

3) 10 minute exercise on combatting negative thoughts

3a) then 3-minute report-back

For each exercise, we aim to explain:

1) what are we about to do and why

2) what did you get out of this / how can you use it in future?


Introductory lecture

[Title slide] Impostor Syndrome is the feeling that you're a fraud, that you're not skilled enough for career, and that you will be found out and exposed as an impostor. More people than you realize—including experts whom you know and respect—have Impostor Syndrome, but you don't hear about it for a simple reason: If you're afraid of being exposed as a fraud, the last thing you want to do is tell anyone about it.

[Format of the workshop] So today I'll speak for a while, and then we'll go through a few exercises in small groups. First you'll learn to take a compliment, then you'll be reflecting on your values, and then you'll learn to combat your own negative thoughts. We've done these exercises at previous AdaCamps and people often say it's the most useful part of the weekend.

["Is this you?"] Ask people to put their hands up if they have thought to themselves that they might hear: "I'm sorry, but we've discovered your acceptance to AdaCamp was a mistake..." Ask people to look around and notice that most hands are up.

["Is this you?" 2] Another way these feelings come up: worrying that you'll hear something like: "I'm sorry, but we've reviewed your promotion packet, and you aren't even qualified for the job you're doing right now."

[Read aloud the Klawe quote.] With Impostor Syndrome, the feelings of unearned success, the self-doubt, doesn't go away if you accomplish more. You just feel anxious that people will figure out that you're an even bigger fraud.

[Read aloud the Murray quote.] So we sabotage ourselves, saying no to opportunities, even though we're capable of them. Our self-assessment is distorted.

["Why?] What causes Impostor Syndrome? Well, part of it is that in open stuff, we make our stuff openly, the end result is public, and it's open to criticism from everyone. And in some of these fields, we usually only see other people's finished work, like research papers and software, but we only see our own work, not the years of gradual improvement that goes into other people's work. As Garrison Keillor said, "we see ourselves from backstage, and everyone else from third-row center.

So why does Impostor Syndrome hit women especially hard?

["token woman" slide] We hear comments like these. If you're called an impostor over and over again, or you hear people who look like you being called impostors, you might start to believe it.

["so brave" slide]

[What results? slide - self-explanatory]

[Impostor-syndrome-proof your community slide - self-explanatory]



Ask the group to divide itself into groups of six and make little circles. It's okay to only mix with people you know but it's better if you can mingle a little.


"Take a compliment" exercise:


We are about to practice what it's like to appreciate yourself, and to accept the appreciation of others. This will help you fight impostor syndrome by balancing all the self-criticism with data on the other side of the scale. So in this exercise you will start getting used to listening and hearing and accepting compliments, without batting them away, so that you have stronger ways to fight back against anxiety.


[Helper distributes the stickynotes and pens.]

Each person writes a compliment or two on stickynotes. These can be things you appreciate about yourself or about someone else you know or admire.

Put your compliments in the middle of the circle.

Once you've all written one or two compliments, now take a compliment. Take one that you feel applies to you.

We'll put leftover compliments on the wall so attendees can take more over the weekend, or you can write and add more to the wall after this workshop.


Have the groups discuss in their small groups how that felt, for 2 minutes.

Ask: Does anyone want to share their own experience? No obligation and it's ok if no one wants to.

During the report-back, have the facilitator and helper roleplay what it looks like to take a compliment gracefully.

Sumana's note (if there's time): I know that for me, the compliments that feel the best, and give me the most help in fighting impostor syndrome, are specific genuine compliments on something I've done. Like, "You facilitated that discussion well. I felt like everyone had a chance to speak." So I try to give those kinds of specific, genuine compliments, too, and you can give that a try as well.

And one more thing I do is, when I get an email with a compliment, I save it in a special folder in my email, I call it my "yay" folder, so I can look at it later on my bad days.


Values exercise:


(Helper distributes the worksheets.)

This is an exercise to help you get stronger at everything you do.

The first part, the first few questions, are about your values. When you reflect on your values, you understand better who you really are. And when you know who you are then you know what you have to do. This will help you overcome all obstacles, whether they're obstacles from the outside world or obstacles you're generating yourself, including Impostor Syndrome.

So I'm asking you to think on this question: "When you think of the times in your life where you’ve been the happiest, the proudest, or the most

satisfied, which of the following values come to mind?" And then you'll have some time to write a few sentences on why one of those values is important to you, and to answer the question on living up to those values.

And then there's one final question, Exercise 4, which builds on that. It asks, "What was the last topic that someone asked for your advice on?" And this is to demonstrate to you that you are already a leader. You are already an expert, because one definition of an expert is someone whom other people ask for advice. You are already making change in the world, bringing value.


Everyone works individually on their worksheet.


Ask them to, when they've done their 1 sentence, anyone willing to do so, share their thoughts in their little circle.

Facilitator then stands up in the front, shares her own, and asks, is there anyone who wants to share with the whole room. Again, no obligation.


Fighting negative thoughts exercise:


[Helper distributes worksheet. It is a CC-licensed worksheet that attributes a psych website whose worksheet we've adapted.]

This is an exercise to help you notice and change your thoughts and feelings. It's based on some concepts from the field of cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Impostor syndrome makes your brain habitually respond to compliments by deflecting them, respond to opportunities by saying you aren't good enough, and respond to success with fear. So in this exercise you'll come up with some new responses, to train your brain to respond more usefully to compliments, opportunities, and success.


work solo

discuss in your small circle


(much like the values exercise. share in small groups; facilitator stands up in front of full room and shares her own; anyone want to share with the whole room?)


More resources:

Explain that there are additional resources available, and these are a few we recommend. And that this whole training is or will be online under an open license at the Ada Initiative website ( ).


(includes some links)

Denise Paolucci: “Overcoming Impostor Sydrome” ( 2013)

Julie Pagano: “It's Dangerous to Go Alone” (PyCon 2014)

Sumana Harihareswara: “Epistemology and Impostor Syndrome” (Geek

Feminism, 2009)

-- and a followup,

Mood Gym:

Additionally: if people would like to work on this more throughout the camp they are welcome to.