Some people work hard to present themselves as intelligent, confident and capable while inwardly struggling with “imposter syndrome.” People with this issue secretly believe they are incompetent and have a deep fear of others finding out. Success, recognition and praise may not be internalized by people with imposter syndrome and can even worsen fears of being exposed as a fraud or imposter.
What Is Imposter Syndrome?
The term imposter syndrome was first coined in the 70’s to describe people who inwardly felt as though they had faked their achievements, attributing their success to luck, being likable, or other factors unrelated to their knowledge or skills.5 These feelings of fraudulence create additional pressure on the “imposter” to maintain the appearance of being capable, smart and competent.6, 7 It is sometimes referred to as imposterism, the imposter phenomenon, or as having a fraud complex.
Imposter syndrome could be thought of as a specific type of shame, or feelings of being inadequate or “not good enough.” Imposter syndrome describes a specific type of shame that shows up in educational or professional settings and involves not feeling smart enough or skilled enough to succeed. People with imposter syndrome assume that other people have overestimated them and their abilities and worry about needing to keep pretending to preserve their reputation.6
Working hard to appear confident and capable while secretly feeling the opposite creates a lot of stress and anxiety in people with imposterism, making them more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, professional burnout, and low self-esteem.7 While many people rely on time, experience, and achievement to build confidence in their career, this may not work for people with imposter syndrome. Because of their tendency to discredit their achievements, people with this issue can even feel more insecure, anxious, and fraudulent when they succeed.2, 7
How Common Is Imposter Syndrome?
While the exact prevalence is unknown, it is estimated that 70% of people will struggle with imposter syndrome at least once in their lifetime, making it highly common.7 Some people struggle with more pervasive and chronic forms of imposter syndrome while others will experience it situationally. Imposter syndrome can happen to anyone, even people who are seen as leaders in their industry. In fact, a number of highly successful people have admitted to struggling with imposter syndrome, including Michelle Obama, Serena Wilson, Tom Hanks, and Maya Angelou.
Are Certain People More Likely to Experience Imposter Syndrome?
Research suggests that imposterism may be more prevalent in certain populations, including racial minorities and perfectionists, as well as those with neurotic personality traits.2 Certain social and environmental factors can also increase the prevalence of imposter syndrome, including having less support, consistency and positive reinforcement from family, or being in a toxic work environment.2, 7
Imposter Syndrome Symptoms
Imposter syndrome is not considered a mental health disorder so no list of specific symptoms is used to identify this issue. However, extensive research has been conducted on people struggling with imposter syndrome and several characteristic patterns have been identified.
People with imposter syndrome often describe experiences like:2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
1. Feeling Like a “Fraud” or “Imposter”
Imposter syndrome shows up in professional, educational, and competitive settings, and involves feelings of not being smart or talented enough to be there. People with imposter syndrome feel as though they are deceiving others by pretending to be knowledgeable, competent and skilled when they are not.
2. Anxiety About Being Discovered
Because people with imposter syndrome feel like they are imposters, they are constantly worried about others discovering the truth about who they are. They fear that saying or doing something wrong will expose their incompetence. This is fairly common among new dads and moms with imposter syndrome.
3. Discrediting Contributions
People with imposter syndrome tend to take the blame for their mistakes and failures but do not take credit for their successes. They tend to minimize, discount, or invalidate their contribution during times when they are successful, and are unable to internalize their achievements.
4. Feelings of Guilt or Fear When Successful
While most people feel proud of their accomplishments, people with imposter syndrome often feel guilty or ashamed. Success can intensify feelings of fraudulence because people with imposter syndrome feel like they didn’t obtain it in unethical or dishonest ways. They often begin to worry that they will not be able to replicate this success in the future.
5. Underestimation & Overestimation
People with imposter syndrome consistently underestimate themselves and their abilities, often doing better than they expected at completing a specific task. At the same time, they assume other people overestimate them, creating a large gap between what they feel they are expected to achieve and what they feel they can achieve.
Imposter syndrome often leads people to consciously or unconsciously limit themselves and their professional growth. These self-imposed limitations may cause them to pass up promotions, only apply for jobs they are overqualified for, or generally “play it safe” in their careers. Some may even engage in self-sabotaging behaviors like quitting or withdrawing just before a major success or milestone or making an intentional mistake in a high-stakes situation.
7. Self-Criticism & Shame
People with imposter syndrome tend to be perfectionists who engage in self-criticism and shaming when they fail to meet the unrealistic expectations they set for themselves. They are hypercritical of themselves and their work, exaggerating their mistakes and ruminating on self-critical thoughts, which often results in feeling inadequate, unworthy, and ashamed.
8. Faking Confidence
People with imposter syndrome are very good at masking their insecurities and giving the appearance of being confident in themselves. They may go to great lengths to present themselves and their work positively, fearing that any insecurity would allow others to see through their performance.
9. Discomfort With Praise & Recognition
Instead of feeling proud of themselves when they receive praise and recognition, people with imposter syndrome may feel more anxious and inadequate. In imposter syndrome, positive recognition and praise is interpreted as additional pressure to perform, a greater risk of failure and a higher likelihood of being exposed as a fraud.
10. Inability to Ask for Help & Advice
People with imposter syndrome often worry that having questions or needing help exposes them as inexperienced and incompetent. This anxiety can make them more hesitant to ask for or accept help from others, and more likely to decline accepting assistance when it is offered.
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Do I Have Imposter Syndrome?
Occasional feelings of inadequacy are common to experience as humans, but if you’re wondering if this applies to you, there are some elements of your life and work that you can reflect on.
If you’re wondering if you’re dealing with imposter syndrome, here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Do I feel relief when I do well?
- Do I feel luck more than achievement?
- Do I feel insecure about my achievements?
- Do I underestimate my achievements?
- Can I accept compliments?
- Do I compare myself to others?
- Do I allow myself to accept myself when I fail?
Imposter Syndrome Vs. Discrimination
People who are being discriminated against have a lower engagement rate at work, in society, or wherever they are experiencing the discrimination. Both imposter syndrome and discrimination impact women more often, and the feelings associated with imposter syndrome can be brought on and be exacerbated by discrimination.
Those who are not treated fairly may feel that their work is also less valuable and may lead them to develop symptoms of imposter syndrome as a result of a toxic work culture.
Types of Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome always involves certain core features, including a tendency to underestimate oneself, feelings of being a fraud, and a fear of being discovered.2, 5, 6 While these core tendencies remain the same, different underlying beliefs can change the way imposter syndrome manifests.
People with imposter syndrome measure their competence in five distinct ways:8
1. The Perfectionist
The perfectionist is preoccupied with how things are done and describes a person who has unrealistically high expectations of themselves and unattainably low tolerance for mistakes. The perfectionist’s imposter syndrome is triggered when there are perceived mistakes, flaws, or inconsistencies in their work. These triggers occur frequently because of hypercritical tendencies exhibited by perfectionists.
2. The Natural Genius
The natural genius cares about how and when things are done, with the expectation that they should do everything quickly and easily. Natural geniuses expect to be good at things without having studied, prepared, or practiced. Their imposter syndrome is triggered when they have to work hard to learn things, master skills, or complete tasks.
3. The Superman or Superwoman
The superman or superwoman is focused on how many things they can do simultaneously. They overcommit themselves and expect to be able to simultaneously balance all of their roles and responsibilities with ease. Their imposter syndrome is triggered when they fall short or struggle to manage all of their duties.
4. The Expert
The expert characterizes success by what and how much they know, expecting themselves to have extensive knowledge on specific subjects. The expert’s imposter syndrome is triggered when they encounter something new or unknown to them, or when they meet a person whom they assume knows more than them.
The soloist describes a person who is overly concerned with who completes a task. They only feel like they accomplished something when they complete a task entirely on their own. Receiving advice, feedback, help, or outside resources triggers imposter syndrome in the soloist.
Causes of Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome does not appear to have one specific cause. Like many personality traits and tendencies, it can develop in response to a number of internal or external factors. Internal factors that have been linked to higher rates of imposterism include scoring high on the trait of neuroticism and low on conscientiousness.1, 7 Neuroticism predisposes people to experience more negative emotions and stress (like neurotic anxiety), and conscientiousness describes the trait of being diligent and intentional.
Childhood Experiences & Family Culture
Social conditioning begins at an early age, and there is some research to suggest that early childhood experiences involving family could contribute to imposter syndrome. Children who had to assume parental roles and responsibilities at a young age have been shown to be more susceptible to imposter syndrome, as have children who did not have a strong and secure bond with their parents.3, 7 A lack of positive reinforcement and praise in childhood can also increase the likelihood of developing imposter syndrome, leading children to develop unhealthy beliefs about achievement.7
Workplace Influences on Imposter Syndrome
While there isn’t evidence that specific kinds of jobs or work environments cause imposter syndrome, certain workplace factors can decrease the likelihood of employees experiencing this issue. For example, a collaborative work culture with strong and supportive leaders decreases the likelihood of imposterism, as do work cultures that encourage risk-taking, mistakes, and controlled failure (a chance to learn from and progress after failure) in employees.2, 7
Imposter syndrome is also highly prevalent in university settings, which could be the result of overemphasis on intellectual ability, grades, and academic performance.2, 6
Need for External Validation
Unfortunately, the shame imposters feel tends to push them to withdraw and hide from others, leading them to feel isolated instead of accepted. People with imposter syndrome often struggle with shame and low self-worth and are unable to internally validate themselves, which might lead them to look for external forms of validation.4 They tend to look for this validation in their professional achievements, but unfortunately, are usually unable to actually internalize this validation when they do succeed.2, 6
Existing Mental Health Symptoms
Dealing with something like anxiety and depression at baseline is tough enough and it makes coping with imposter syndrome even more challenging. Anxiety and depression often feed off of our feelings of inadequacy, low self esteem, and low self worth. All of these are elements that exist with imposter syndrome and can fuel those feelings.
Impacts of Imposter Syndrome on Mental Health
People with imposter syndrome are more likely to experience mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. They are also more likely to experience low self-esteem and low self-efficacy—defined as confidence in their performance and ability to succeed—and are more likely to make their self-worth conditional on success in school or work settings.
Dysfunction & Potential for Suicidal Thoughts
Imposter syndrome can also have harmful effects on physical health and social functioning.7 Adolescents who reported imposter syndrome were more likely to report having suicidal thoughts or attempts, suggesting it may be especially detrimental in young people.2
Professional Issues & Work Burnout
Imposter syndrome has also been linked to higher rates of professional dissatisfaction as well as increased rates of work burnout and job stress.2, 7 People with imposter syndrome tend to have poor work habits, falling into extremes of either workaholic behavior or procrastinating on tasks, which both accelerate burnout and increase stress.2, 7
Lack of Advancement Opportunities
People who experience feelings of fraudulence may keep a low profile at work or school because any recognition, even when it is positive, can feel threatening. This disposition can cause them to pass up opportunities for advancement, limiting their professional growth. People with imposter syndrome sometimes also self-sabotage, intentionally passing up opportunities, ruining their chances, or quitting just before they accomplish their goals.4
How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
If you struggle with imposter syndrome, you might have hoped that it would go away on its own, but unfortunately, many people find that imposter syndrome doesn’t go away with time or as you gain more experience and experience more success. While imposter syndrome can be difficult to overcome, there are some strategies you can use to decrease its influence on your mental health, work performance, and quality of life.
Here are 11 tips for overcoming imposter syndrome:2, 5, 6
1. Disclose How You’re Feeling to Someone You Trust
Because everyone who has imposter syndrome is terrified of having their secret identity exposed, talking openly about your imposter syndrome can feel liberating and takes power away from this secret. Sometimes even hearing yourself say something out loud feels different from hearing it in your mind, helping you recognize how irrational some of your beliefs are. You may be surprised to learn that other people have had these same feelings and fears, even people who have been role models for you or who always seem so confident.
2. Ask Your Mentors for Help
People who struggle with a fraud complex often have a hard time asking for and accepting help and input because they assume it will expose their weaknesses or incompetence. Pushing yourself to become better at requesting help will also help you challenge your imposter syndrome, disproving the key assumption that you need to figure everything out on your own. Asking for help and helping others also helps to form collaborative relationships with colleagues which can also reduce feelings of being in competition with them.
3. Remember That No One Is Exempt From Making Mistakes
Everyone makes mistakes and making a mistake doesn’t mean that you are less qualified or less knowledgeable. Mistakes and imperfection are part of the human experience and no one is immune to this. People may have ways to hide or play off how their mistakes come off, however no one is capable of perfection all the time.
4. Change Your Definition of Failure & Success
Overcoming imposter syndrome requires people to re-evaluate their definitions of success and failure; instead of viewing success and failure as opposites, they can view them as related. Success is almost always built on lessons learned through previous failures, and often cannot be achieved without these lessons. Seeing mistakes as milestones on the road to success makes you more willing to think creatively, innovate, and take risks and to avoid giving up or becoming discouraged along the way.
5. Choose Which Thoughts You Participate in
Imposter syndrome relies upon specific negative thoughts about yourself and what you are (and are not) capable of. Often, these story lines were ones you created a long time ago, when you had much less knowledge and experience. The more you participate in these limiting thoughts and stories by repeating them, ruminating, finding proof they are real or even arguing and debating them, the more you reinforce the idea that they are true. Instead, redirect your mental energy to more helpful and productive ways of thinking such as problem-solving, encouraging yourself or using self-compassion and humor to take your mistakes less seriously.
6. Don’t Qualify Your Success – Recognize Your Accomplishments
People with imposter syndrome tend to qualify their successes with statements like, “I only,” “I got lucky,” or, “it wasn’t that hard.” These qualifiers help to feed your imposter syndrome by discrediting your success, minimizing your achievements and negating your contributions. Try to catch yourself before you qualify your achievements, and work on becoming more comfortable with talking about the hard work and effort you invested. Work on just saying, “thank you” when you get a compliment or praise instead of trying to cancel it out or shift the credit to someone or something else.
7. Enrich Your Non-Work Life
In America, one of the first questions people ask is “what do you do?” The centrality of work can become unhealthy, especially for “imposters,” who tend to attribute too much of their self-worth and identity to their jobs. Instead of letting work become your life and your job become your identity, make an effort to enrich your life outside of work by dedicating time to the hobbies, personal interests, activities, and relationships you care about. These help you stay well-rounded, reduce your stress, and help to remind you that there is more to life—and to you—than what you do for work.
8. Limit Your Social Media Use
Social media is a great way to fuel your anxiety and imposter syndrome. Social media is only the highlight reel of people’s lives and accomplishments. If you are looking at social media and seeing endless achievements, what is not shown is how many more times that person likely failed first before making that achievement.
9. Test the Confirmation Bias by Finding Evidence of Your Competence
Confirmation biases describe the tendency to find evidence to support your beliefs, discounting any evidence that conflicts with your beliefs. Test the power of the confirmation bias by actively working to find evidence that you are intelligent, talented, capable, and good at what you do. Do this daily for at least a week, writing down the evidence of your competence and reflect back on what you noticed. You might be surprised at how much this one exercise can change your perception, helping you to see strengths, talents, and achievements you have previously overlooked because of your imposter syndrome.
10. Don’t Let Fear Hold You Back
Make a list of all of the things you have said, done, or not said and done recently because of your fear of others discovering you are not good enough. You may have kept quiet in a meeting, avoided your boss, hid a mistake, or worked late on a project to avoid appearing incompetent, and these should all be included on the list. Each time you acted on your fear of being exposed as a fraud, you reinforced the belief that you are a fraud, strengthening your imposter syndrome. In moments where you are about to act on your fear, ask yourself, “what would I do if I wasn’t afraid?” to help identify other, more helpful choices.
11. Engage in Creative Problem-Solving
When people feel fear and shame, they tend to retreat into rigid patterns of thinking instead of being open-minded, curious, and creative. Instead of being paralyzed by the idea of making a mistake, failing, or doing things wrong, try to brainstorm on your own, writing down all of the ideas that come to you, no matter how silly or unrealistic they seem. Without having to worry about other people criticizing or judging your ideas, you are more inclined to explore options besides the ones that seem safe or reasonable to others.
When to Seek Help for Imposter Syndrome
If imposter syndrome is impacting your mental or physical health or interfering with your ability to function at work or in another setting, it is important to seek professional help. People struggling with imposter syndrome may also struggle with low self-esteem and high anxiety which are issues that can often be improved in therapy. Sometimes, medication is used to help people struggling with more severe forms of imposterism or those with underlying conditions like anxiety.
Some additional signs that may indicate the need for professional help include:
- Frequent panic attacks or high levels of anxiety that occur most days
- Debilitating self-esteem issues or constant self-criticism
- Feeling down, tired, or completely unmotivated most days for more than two weeks
- Having thoughts of suicide, death, or self-harm
- High levels of stress or burnout at work that prevent you from doing your job
- Inability to form or maintain relationships because of personal insecurities
- Stress or anxiety that makes you feel physically ill or causes headaches, GI problems, and so forth
- Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol and feeling unable to cut back or stop on your own
- Frequent feelings of guilt, shame, worthlessness or hopelessness
How to Get Help for Imposter Syndrome
Most people begin their search for mental health treatment online by searching for a therapist near them. Some also use online therapist directories to help narrow their search to professionals who accept certain types of insurance, specialize in different issues, and use specific approaches in their practice.
People with health insurance can also go through their insurance company to get a list of in-network therapists near them. These same search strategies can be used to find psychiatrists and other licensed medical professionals who can prescribe medication.
For Further Reading
Those interested in learning more about impostor syndrome can do additional reading at these sites:
- Feel like a fraud?
- Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
- The Clance IP scale is one of the most widely used assessment tools to identify impostor syndrome
- Self-compassion exercises can improve many of the core features of impostor syndrome including reducing fears of failure, anxiety, stress, and self-criticism.
TED talks on impostor syndrome:
- How you can use impostor syndrome to your benefit
- Dena Simmons: How students of color confront impostor syndrome<
- Defeating the inner imposter that keeps us from being successful
- Online Therapist Directory: Sort therapists by specialty, cost, availability and more. Watch intro videos and see articles written by the therapists you’re considering working with. When you’ve found a good match, book an online therapy appointment with them directly.