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It is estimated that a high number of people experience imposter syndrome at least once in their life. Imposter syndrome is particularly prevalent in high achievers, with up to 30% of high achievers having experience of imposter syndrome.
Today, we are going to look at imposter syndrome in more detail, including the common causes and signs and the different types of imposter syndrome.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is characterised by feelings of inadequacy that persist regardless of any achieved successes. It is a form of intellectual self-doubt. Imposter syndrome is not a diagnosable medical condition; instead, it is considered a cognitive distortion. Imposter syndrome can have real implications for those who experience it.
Someone with this syndrome won’t believe their achievements are real or they may think they have failed, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. They may think that they are undeserving of their success. Regardless of what they have achieved, they won’t feel confident, competent or accomplished and will likely be unable to enjoy their success.
Imposter syndrome may manifest as anxiety, stress, depression, restlessness, nervousness or feelings of worthlessness. Many people with imposter syndrome engage in negative self-talk, where they make unfairly negative or critical thoughts and judgements about themselves. They may be afraid that people will discover the truth about them – that they are an imposter.
Typically, people with imposter syndrome are intelligent, high achievers or highly successful in their field. Even if they are held in high esteem by other people and have evidence of their achievements, they will think they are undeserving. Instead of recognising their abilities, capabilities and efforts, they may attribute their achievements to external causes or something transient, for example luck or the timing of another person’s actions.
Some areas of your life that can be affected by imposter syndrome are:
- Your academic career.
- Your professional career.
- Your perceived worth in social situations.
- Your perceived worth or value to your family.
Someone who has imposter syndrome may not have feelings of self-doubt all the time. Instead, they may have specific triggers which cause them to feel like a fraud, for example:
- Receiving a reward
- Receiving a promotion.
- Scoring well in an examination.
- Receiving praise, particularly from a superior or someone you respect.
- Setting or being set a challenging goal.
What are the Signs of Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome can manifest in different ways and different people experience different symptoms.
Some of the signs and symptoms most commonly associated with imposter syndrome are:
- Feeling like a fraud.
- Finding it difficult to take credit for your achievements.
- Praise makes you feel uncomfortable and exacerbates your symptoms.
- Consistent feelings of not feeling good enough.
- Not having a sense of belonging.
- Being filled with self-doubt.
- Feeling awkward or uncomfortable if someone praises you.
- Repeatedly minimising your achievements.
- Attributing your success to external factors.
- Focusing on your weaknesses, mistakes or failures rather than your successes.
- Being unable to realistically assess your competence and skills.
- Consistently overachieving.
- Sabotaging your own success.
- Setting challenging or unachievable goals for yourself.
What Causes Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome doesn’t have one sole cause. Instead, there are multiple factors which can cause or contribute to you developing imposter syndrome.
Some of the possible causes include:
People with specific personality traits are more likely to have imposter syndrome. This can include:
- Perfectionism – This is one of the most significant traits related to imposter syndrome.
- Neuroticism – People with high levels of neuroticism are more likely to experience anxiety, stress, insecurity and guilt. These traits are linked to imposter syndrome.
- Self-efficacy – This is your ability to succeed in any situation. Low self-efficacy is linked to imposter syndrome.
Growing up in and living in certain environments can increase the likelihood of someone developing imposter syndrome. Your upbringing and your family dynamics can play a significant role in imposter syndrome. For example:
- Experiencing intense academic pressure during childhood.
- Growing up in a competitive family or a family that values high achievement.
- Having high-achieving siblings (particularly if they are older than you).
- Having parents who repeatedly varied between praise and criticism.
- Growing up in a high-conflict environment.
Societal pressures to succeed can contribute to imposter syndrome. This may be even more likely in transitional situations or when in new situations, for example if you start a new job. Feeling the pressure to succeed whilst also feeling inexperienced and unsettled can trigger feelings of self-doubt and anxiety.
Existing mental health conditions
There is a significant relationship between certain mental health conditions, particularly social anxiety, anxiety disorder and depression, and imposter syndrome. The relationship between imposter syndrome and some mental health conditions is bidirectional, meaning the relationship exists both ways. For example, having social anxiety puts you at higher risk of developing imposter syndrome and vice versa.
Although in the past imposter syndrome was typically associated with professional women, the syndrome occurs equally in people of all genders.
What are the Types of Imposter Syndrome?
There are five types of imposter syndrome:
If you are a perfectionist, you likely set unrealistically high goals and are unwilling to accept mistakes. If you fail to reach your goal you may feel like you are a failure. Your perfectionist traits mean that unless you are 100% perfect, you should have done better. People with the perfectionist type of imposter syndrome will likely never enjoy their success or celebrate their achievements because they always feel like they could’ve done better.
Someone with the perfectionist type will likely:
- Feel like everything has to be 100% perfect all the time.
- Over-plan, over-prepare and over-think.
- Micromanage other people to ensure perfectionism.
- Have difficulties delegating.
- Fixate on their perceived failures for days or even weeks.
The expert believes they know everything there is to know about a specific topic or area. They measure their competence and worth based on their knowledge. They will fear other people viewing them as inexperienced or as lacking in knowledge. Someone with the expert type of imposter syndrome may exhaust themselves trying to learn everything there is to know. Ironically, they may dislike being referred to as an expert as it makes them feel like a fraud.
Someone with the expert type will likely:
- Feel like they don’t know enough, or other people are more knowledgeable than they are.
- Constantly try to expand their knowledge, for example by seeking out new training and qualifications.
- Avoid situations where their knowledge could be put to the test, such as examinations and presentations.
The Natural Genius
People with this type of imposter syndrome feel like they need to be naturally good at things. They may be the type of person for whom everything came naturally easy or they naturally excelled, particularly in childhood. They may judge their worth based on how easy they find an activity or task or how quickly they are able to do something or learn a new skill. They focus on both external and internal judgements of their natural competence. The natural genius may feel anxious at the thought of not being naturally intelligent or naturally skilled.
Someone with the natural genius type will likely:
- Have typically achieved highly at school and in extra-curricular activities.
- Expect themself to excel with little effort.
- Judge themselves very harshly if they don’t achieve something on the first try.
- Avoid trying new things.
The soloist feels like an imposter if they have to accept help from another person or if they can’t reach their desired level alone. This causes them to question their own intelligence, skills or competence and feel like a fraud. Asking for help can make them feel like a phony; instead, they like to do things alone.
Someone with the soloist type will likely:
- Feel like they need to accomplish everything on their own.
- Feel uncomfortable with the idea of having a mentor or receiving help from others.
- Refuse to ask for help.
- Refuse help when it is offered to them.
The Super Person
The super person has unrealistic expectations for themselves and believes they must achieve the highest possible level of achievement, be the most intelligent or be the hardest worker. They want to be good at everything. If they don’t achieve their goals, they will feel like a fraud. They may feel like they don’t live up to other people or overwork themselves to try and live up to their expectations. People with this type of imposter syndrome may be more likely to become workaholics.
Someone with the super person type will likely:
- Want to be perfect in their personal and professional life – the perfect employee, partner, parent, friend etc.
- Find it difficult to relax and do nothing.
- Sacrifice their hobbies and interests for their work.
- Overexert themself at work, e.g. by staying later than everyone else.
- Feel like they need to work harder to prove their worth.
What is the Imposter Syndrome Cycle?
The imposter syndrome cycle consists of the cycle of social anxiety, over-preparation and procrastination. The imposter syndrome cycle usually involves a reoccurring pattern of negative thoughts, beliefs, feelings and behaviours.
The stages of the imposter cycle can occur before, during and after a goal or task has been undertaken. It often consists of the following stages:
- The cycle begins with an achievement, success, accomplishing a goal or receiving praise or recognition.
- They then attribute their success to external factors, e.g. luck, timing or help from others.
- They will also discount or disbelieve positive feedback from others.
- They will experience fear of exposure as a fraud – they worry other people will discover they are not as competent, intelligent or knowledgeable as they think.
- They may then over-prepare or procrastinate to distract themself from their feelings of self-doubt and anxiety.
- They will overwork and strive for perfectionism in order to maintain the perceived façade of competence and avoid people discovering they are a fraud. They set high standards for themselves and work excessively hard to try and achieve their goals.
- They set unrealistic goals which can perpetuate the cycle.
- Before the next achievement-related task begins, they may have feelings of self-doubt, stress and anxiety.
- After achieving the task or goal they will then experience an increase in self-doubt because they have discounted the previous achievement or positive feedback they received, and so, the cycle continues.
What is the Impact of Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome can affect many areas of your life, including your mental and emotional well-being and different aspects of your personal and professional life.
Some of the most common areas of your life that can be impacted by imposter syndrome are:
Your mental health
Imposter syndrome is associated with negative mental health outcomes. You may experience constant anxiety and stress and find yourself working too hard, all of which can have a significant impact on your mental health. If you do not achieve your goals, feelings of worthlessness and despair can lead to feelings of depression. Many people with imposter syndrome also develop a mental health condition, such as:
Your professional life
Imposter syndrome can significantly impact your professional life, including your career advancement. Feeling like you aren’t good enough can stop you from taking risks at work and being ambitious. You may not pursue promotions or new job opportunities and may shy away from leadership roles. Imposter syndrome can also result in reduced job satisfaction.
Imposter syndrome can affect your relationships in multiple ways. You may have less confidence in your relationship and feel like you are not good enough for your partner, your family or your social group. Many people with imposter syndrome also fear being rejected and may view their relationships as being less stable.
One of the most significant impacts of imposter syndrome is the impact on your confidence. Many people with imposter syndrome experience low self-esteem and a lack of confidence. Low self-confidence can affect many areas of your life, including avoiding things you find challenging, avoiding trying new things, avoidance of social situations and can lead to negative thoughts and feelings.
How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
There are many different things you can do to help you overcome your imposter syndrome. You can implement strategies to help you overcome your feelings of self-doubt and anxiety and prevent any negative thoughts and feelings from taking over.
Some strategies are most effective when you implement them long term, meaning you engage in them regularly on a long-term basis, not only when you are faced with situations that trigger your imposter syndrome. These strategies are most effective when you incorporate them into your daily or weekly routine. They can help to reduce the frequency and severity of the symptoms of imposter syndrome.
Some of the most effective strategies for overcoming imposter syndrome are:
Identify your areas of self-doubt
This is the first step in overcoming imposter syndrome. Identify the areas of your life where you feel inadequate and doubt your own skills and achievements. Consider what it is about these situations that triggers your feelings of inadequacy and try and identify the thoughts, feelings and beliefs that are causing your imposter syndrome and the root cause of your feelings. For some people, their negative thoughts are connected to a specific person, situation or activity. It can also be helpful to identify areas of your life where your imposter syndrome doesn’t manifest and what makes these situations different.
Build your self-confidence
Building your self-confidence and self-esteem can help to reduce the likelihood of experiencing feelings of being an imposter. Some ways you can build your self-confidence include:
- Practise self-acceptance.
- Ensure your inner voice is kind and compassionate when thinking and talking about yourself.
- Identify achievable goals.
- Celebrate your achievements.
- Surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself.
Think of failure as an opportunity
Many people with imposter syndrome find the idea of failure stressful and anxiety-inducing. Focusing on the positives of failure can help to alleviate some of this anxiety. Learn to think of failure as an opportunity to learn and improve. Reframe failure in your mind – failing at something does not make you a failure. Remind yourself that perfection is not possible.
Talk to your support network
Many people with imposter syndrome experience feelings of embarrassment. They may hide their feelings of self-doubt because they don’t want others to think less of them. However, this can actually be more harmful. Telling the people close to you, such as your family, friends and trusted colleagues, can ensure they understand your fear and are aware of any situations you may find difficult. If your imposter syndrome manifests in a professional environment, telling your manager about your condition allows them to offer appropriate support.
Identify strengths and achievements
Get into the habit of acknowledging your strengths and achievements. Some ways you can do this are listed below:
- Write down any achievements, such as promotions.
- Write down any compliments, praise or positive feedback you receive from others and read it back if you are struggling.
- Write down your strengths, for example what you are good at, what you do well and what you have achieved in the past.
Accept that perfection isn’t possible
If you are striving for perfection every day, there’s a good chance you will fall short. Accept that mistakes are normal and that perfection isn’t possible. Focus on more achievable goals and tell yourself that it is okay to fail.
Make lifestyle changes
Because imposter syndrome is closely associated with mental health, focusing on lifestyle factors that could decrease your feelings of anxiety and stress can help to reduce the impact of your thoughts. Some of the lifestyle changes you could make are:
- Implement a successful sleep routine.
- Reduce your daily stress.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
- Implement an exercise routine.
- Avoid caffeine, sugar and other stimulants.
- Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs.
- They set unrealistic goals which can perpetuate the cycle.
- Stop smoking.
Implement relaxation techniques
Stress reduction and relaxation techniques can be beneficial for alleviating stress and anxiety and easing bodily tension. This can reduce the occurrence of negative thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Various relaxation techniques can be incorporated into your daily routine, including:
Deep breathing exercises
Deep breathing can effectively reduce your stress levels and help you manage feelings of anxiety and self-doubt. Organised deep breathing sends a message to your brain to relax. Deep breathing exercises can effectively reduce your stress levels, relieve tension in your body, and reduce your anxiety over time. If you experience negative thoughts and feelings, practise deep breathing for at least 10 minutes, or until your symptoms abate. You could also incorporate deep breathing exercises into your daily routine.
Mindfulness teaches you how to accept your thoughts and feelings and overcome your fear and anxiety. Mindfulness teaches you how to focus your breathing and attention, which can reduce your stress and anxiety and teach you how to be more in control of the connection between your mind and body.
Meditation can be a helpful tool to teach you how to control your breathing and manage your body’s responses to stress and anxiety. It can also help you to direct your attention away from any disruptive thoughts. Meditation can facilitate both physical and mental relaxation and reduce your cortisol levels, which are associated with heightened stress.