What Is Imposter Syndrome?

(Last Updated On: September 2, 2021)

Imposter syndrome is a phenomenon in which people doubt their own education, competence, skill, talents, accomplishments, and knowledge. As a result, they feel less competent than how they are perceived by other people. 

They often also experience a chronic fear that their perceived incompetence will be revealed and that everyone will discover that they are actually a fraud.

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 more 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.

Signs of Imposter Syndrome

If you’ve ever felt that your achievements are largely 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 a 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

Imposter syndrome 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. 

How to Tell If You Have Imposter Syndrome?

It is important to recognize that imposter syndrome is not a diagnosable medical condition and it is not 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 this phenomenon 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?
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5 Types of Imposters

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 types of imposter syndrome:

  • The perfectionist: People with this type strive for perfection in every area of their life. However, because their goals and expectations are so unrealistic, it makes meeting those standards impossible. 
  • The expert: 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.
  • The soloist: This individual feels like they should be able to achieve success all on there own. They are left feeling like a phony if they have to ask someone for help or support. 
  • The natural genius: 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.
  • The superhuman: 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.

Causes

The exact causes of imposter syndrome are not fully understood but 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.

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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 It Impacts Your Life

Imposter syndrome 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 Cope With Imposter Syndrome

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 can 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 percent 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. 

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Yes, there may be other people who are 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 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 other people. Some things that can help include avoiding things that are likely to trigger comparison and reminding yourself that what you see in your social interactions or on social media are 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. 

Being aware of 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 the other people 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.”

Final Thoughts

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.

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.