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5 Imposter Syndrome Types

5 Imposter Syndrome Types

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Imposter syndrome is a phenomenon in which people doubt their own education, competence, skill, talents, accomplishments, and knowledge. The five imposter syndrome types that have been identified are the Perfectionist, Expert, Soloist, Natural Genius, and Superhuman.

Different patterns characterize each type, but each causes people to feel less competent than how they are perceived by other people. People with these types of imposter syndrome also often experience a chronic fear that their perceived incompetence will be revealed and that everyone will discover that they are actually a fraud.

Understanding Imposter Syndrome

The term imposter syndrome was first described in the 1970s by psychologists named Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance. The phenomenon was initially believed to affect high-achieving women more frequently, but recent findings suggest that it affects women and men equally. 

It can impact people from all backgrounds regardless of their status, area of employment, level of expertise, amount of skill, or number of accomplishments.

A 2020 review of the research on imposter syndrome found that anywhere from 9 to 82% of people experience such feelings.

It may be more common after some type of academic or professional transition (such as starting a new job), but for some people, these feelings of inadequacy may be more persistent.

The 5 Imposter Syndrome Types

In her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Dr. Valerie Young described five different imposter syndrome types that people may experience. Each is characterized by certain patterns that affect how a person might feel in different situations.

The five imposter syndrome types are:

The Perfectionist

Key sign of this type of imposter syndrome: Having very high standards and criticizing yourself harshly when you fall short of those expectations.

The perfectionist strives for perfection in every area of their life. However, because their goals and expectations are so unrealistic, it makes meeting those standards impossible. 

People with this imposter syndrome type have a high risk of developing poor self-esteem and burnout. They often push themselves too hard, which is hard to maintain over the long term.

Other signs of the perfectionist imposter syndrome type include:

  • Trying to control everything
  • Obsessing over every detail
  • Having unrealistic expectations
  • Feeling afraid of failing
  • Being unable to delegate tasks to others
  • Feeling overwhelmed when you have to make a decision
  • Being inflexible and unable to change your approach

The Expert

Key sign of this type of imposter syndrome: You expect yourself to be knowledgable about everything and feel embarrassed or ashamed when you don’t know it all.

This individual can only consider themselves a success if they know all that there is to know about a subject. Because they think they have to be all-knowing and infallible, encountering situations where they feel unsure triggers imposter feelings.

Other signs of the expert imposter syndrome type include:

  • Constantly studying to try to know everything about a subject
  • Practicing excessively to master a skill
  • Being highly knowledgable but still feeling like a novice
  • Feeling like you need to obtain more credentials, certificates, or education in order to be considered an expert

The Soloist

Key sign of this type of imposter syndrome: You want to do everything on your own and feel like a failure if you have to ask for help.

This individual feels like they should be able to succeed independently. They feel like phonies if they have to ask someone for help or support. 

Other signs you might have the soloist imposter syndrome type include:

  • Struggling to ask others for help
  • Not being able to accept feedback or constructive criticism
  • Feeling like like a failure if you can’t do everything on your own
  • Not being able to work in a group

The Natural Genius

Key sign of this type of imposter syndrome: You feel like everything must come easily and effortlessly; if you have to try, you feel incompetent.

Someone with this mindset often finds it easy to learn new things or acquire new skills, often with little effort. Encountering challenges that don’t come easily or not succeeding on their first attempt can cause them to feel incompetent or incapable.

Other signs that of the natural genius type of imposter syndrome include:

  • Feeling discouraged whenever you encounter difficulty or setbacks
  • Thinking that success hinges on your inborn abilities and not your efforts
  • Refusing to practice or learn new things
  • Giving up when things start to get too hard

The Superhuman

Key sign of this type of imposter syndrome: You feel like you have to be good at everything.

Individuals with this mindset feel that they must be successful in every area of their life in order to be seen as competent. Failing to excel in any area leaves them feeling like a failure.

Other signs of the superhuman type of imposter syndrome include:

  • Only feeling valued when you are working or helping others
  • Feeling very stressed all the time
  • Not being able to relax when you aren’t working
  • Not being able to handle feedback on your performance

More Signs of These Imposter Syndrome Types

If you’ve ever felt that your achievements are primarily due to luck and that, at any moment, your peers will discover that you are a phony and that you don’t belong, then you know what it is like to experience imposter syndrome.

Some other signs you might be experiencing imposter syndrome include:

  • A need to be seen as the “best”
  • Anxiety
  • Attributing success or accomplishments to luck or other outside forces
  • Being afraid that you won’t meet expectations
  • Being unable to assess your own competence or skills
  • Criticizing yourself and your performance
  • Extremely high goals followed by self-recrimination when you don’t achieve them
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear that other people will recognize your incompetence
  • Fear of success
  • Feeling guilty about your success
  • Feelings of self-doubt
  • Overachievement
  • Poor self-image
  • Self-sabotage

The different imposter syndrome types can often drive people to achieve a great deal in order to try to “prove’ that they are not a fraud. This can lead to success, but it can also create a great deal of anxiety.

Research has found that imposter syndrome commonly co-occurs alongside anxiety and depression.

While people who have imposter syndrome are often successful, they are unable to internalize these achievements. Instead, success leads to a cycle of anxiety and fear that contributes to feelings of greater inadequacy. 

Recognizing Imposter Syndrome Types

It is important to recognize none of the imposter syndrome types are diagnosable medical conditions. That means you won’t find these types listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

While it might not be a recognized condition, it is often accompanied by other mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression.  

However, being able to identify whether you are experiencing different imposter syndrome types can help you find ways to cope. Some questions you can ask yourself:

  • Do you often feel like anyone could accomplish the things that you have?
  • Do even the smallest mistakes make you feel like a failure?
  • Do you feel devastated when others offer suggestions or even slight criticism?
  • Do you often attribute your achievements to luck or to the help of other people?
  • Do you assume that other people are just being nice when they compliment you?
  • Are you terrified of failing and being discovered as a fraud?
  • Do you often minimize your own expertise and knowledge?
  • Do you feel guilty about your success or accomplishments?
  • Do you feel like you don’t deserve recognition for your achievements?

What Causes Imposter Syndrome?

The exact causes of the different imposter syndrome types are not fully understood. In reality, there probably isn’t any one single cause; a number of different factors may play a part. 

Family Factors

Families that place a high value on achievement may play a role in causing imposter syndrome. Because failure is seen as unacceptable, people develop a great deal of anxiety and may become overachievers.

Kids who are pressured to succeed at school or who are often compared unfavorably to gifted or high-achieving siblings may also be more susceptible.

Having a fixed or growth mindset may also play a part. Children who are often praised as children for their natural intelligence may also find it difficult when they later struggle to learn new things or perform new skills.

Because they grew up thinking they were just naturally smart and talented, suddenly facing challenges that require real effort and new learning can leave people feeling like they don’t belong.

Minority Group Status

Research has found that people who belong to minority groups are more likely to experience higher levels of imposter syndrome. People who often face stress resulting from discrimination may struggle to internalize their own talents and accomplishments. 

Personality

Certain personality traits have also been linked to imposter syndrome. People who tend to be perfectionists, for example, are more likely to feel like imposters. 

Research also suggests that people with imposter syndrome are more likely to share certain big 5 personality traits. They often score higher on measures of neuroticism and lower on measures of conscientiousness.

Low levels of self-efficacy, or the belief in your own ability to reach your goals, is also linked to imposter feelings. 

Social Comparison

Constantly comparing yourself to other people may also contribute to feelings of inadequacy and incompetence. This can be particularly problematic when it comes to social media.

Comparing yourself to other people who are portraying select moments of their lives can make you feel like your life and abilities simply can’t live up to those lofty expectations.

How Imposter Syndrome Impacts Your Life

Experiencing one or more of these different imposter syndrome types can impact your life in a number of different ways. 

Anxiety

Research suggests that people with imposter syndrome may be more likely to experience feelings of anxiety. Because they put so much pressure on themselves to avoid failure and prevent being seen as imposters, they end up creating a chronic state of anxiety.

Burnout

The constant fear of being discovered as a fraud often drives people with imposter syndrome to overachieve. The strain of trying to keep up can lead to feelings of burnout.

Low Confidence

Since they never feel like they’ve earned their success, people who have imposter feelings may have poor self-image and a lack of self-confidence

Low Achievement

While some people may overachieve to compensate for feelings of inadequacy, one 2015 study found that people with imposter syndrome tend to stay in the same job roles because they undervalue their skills.

How to Manage Imposter Syndrome Types

When you’re feeling like an imposter, your first instinct might be to just work harder so that you feel more knowledgeable and capable. The problem is that this strategy won’t really change the underlying feelings that are fueling it.

Some strategies that might actually help you cope:

Acknowledge How You Feel

The first step toward managing imposter syndrome is to recognize when you are feeling like a fraud. When you experience these feelings, take a serious look at some of the other emotions and thoughts that lie behind them. 

  • Why are you being so hard on yourself?
  • Is it necessary to be perfect in order to be worthy of love, success, and recognition?
  • Would you judge someone else as harshly as you judge yourself?

Talk About It

Sometimes sharing what you are feeling with trusted people in your life can help. In many cases, you may find that other people are very familiar with this phenomenon. One study suggested that around 70% of all people experience imposter syndrome at least once in their life.

Research suggests that labeling what you are feeling can reduce the intensity of the emotion and make it easier to manage. In other words, labeling your feelings as imposter syndrome may make you feel it less acutely.

Recognize Your Expertise

When you are comparing yourself unfavorably to others and feeling like you don’t measure up, remind yourself of your skills. You have expertise and experience that others do not. You were chosen for this role, and you have the ability to do well. 

Yes, other people may be more knowledgeable or experienced, but remind yourself that no one is perfect. Look at how far you have come in your own learning, and let yourself appreciate your talents and hard work.

Rethink How You Think

Imposter feelings are often fueled by cognitive distortions that lead to negative, unrealistic thinking. For example, all-or-nothing thinking can contribute to an inability to accept anything less than perfection.

Learn more about these distortions, work on identifying your own distorted thinking patterns, and then actively work on changing how you think.

Stop Comparing

While it may take some time, try to stop comparing yourself to others. Some things that can help include avoiding things likely to trigger comparison and reminding yourself that what you see in your social interactions or on social media is just a glimpse of a person’s entire life. 

Instead, focus on being compassionate to yourself and use your desire to improve as motivation to seek things that serve your happiness and well-being.

Remember That Environmental Factors Play a Role

While imposter syndrome is often framed in a way that focuses on individual characteristics as the cause, some research has suggested that shifting the focus to the environmental variables that contribute to these feelings is important.

Feeling different in some way from others—either due to race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or ethnicity—can trigger these imposter feelings. 

Knowing how these environmental factors can fuel such feelings can be helpful. Realize that feeling like a fraud has less to do with your abilities and more to do with feeling as if you are different from others in the same role.

“Our perspective outlines the importance of addressing the contextual roots of this phenomenon—by tackling persistent stereotypes in society, increasing diversity across occupations and hierarchical levels, and assuring equal treatment for all group members,” explain the authors of the study.

“Such contextual interventions—as opposed to more individualized treatments—might also have the benefit of preventing impostor feelings, as opposed to merely combating them once they emerge.”

Key Points to Remember:

Imposter syndrome can make it difficult to appreciate your talents and expertise. Feeling like a fraud can also damage your self-image, impede personal growth, and make it more difficult to achieve your goals.

Recognizing the imposter syndrome types affecting your life can help you better understand how to address the problem.

If it feels like imposter feelings are holding you back from living the life you want or if you are also experiencing feelings of anxiety, depression, or other mental health symptoms, talk to your doctor. 

Sources:

Bravata DM, Watts SA, Keefer AL, et al. Prevalence, predictors, and treatment of impostor syndrome: a systematic review. J Gen Intern Med. 2020;35(4):1252-1275. doi:10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1

Clance PR, Imes SA. The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Group Dyn. 1978;15(3):241-247. doi:10.1037/h0086006

Cokley K, McClain S, Enciso A, Martinez M. An examination of the impact of minority status stress and impostor feelings on the mental health of diverse ethnic minority college students. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development. 2013;41(2):82-95. doi:10.1002/j.2161-1912.2013.00029.x

Kolligian Jr. J, Sternberg RJ. Perceived fraudulence in young adults: is there an “imposter syndrome”? Journal of Personality Assessment. 1991;56(2):308-326. doi:10.1207/s15327752jpa5602_10

Vergauwe J, Wille B, Feys M, De Fruyt F, Anseel F. Fear of being exposed: the trait-relatedness of the impostor phenomenon and its relevance in the work context. J Bus Psychol. 2015;30(3):565-581. doi:10.1007/s10869-014-9382-5

Young V. The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. 1st ed. Crown Business; 2011.