What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome, also known as impostor phenomenon, impostor syndrome, impostorism, or perceived fraudulence, is a series of psychological experiences in which an individual repeatedly doubts their abilities, talents, skills, feels like a fraud, and explains their accomplishments by serendipitous luck. The term impostor phenomenon was coined by Georgia State University psychology professor Pauline Clance and psychologist Suzanne Imes in 1978. The two psychologists described it in their work "The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention." Pauline Clance admitted she also felt like she was an impostor in graduate school.

Check your level of Imposter Syndrome symptoms with this accurate Imposter Syndrome Test.

This syndrome can affect anyone regardless of gender, age, and profession. In fact, even very successful, talented, or famous people who objectively have achieved a lot can suffer from imposter syndrome. Impostorism can take various forms, depending on an individual’s personality, background, and circumstances. Often it manifests as unfounded feelings of self-doubt and incompetence, sometimes accompanied by negative self-talk, restlessness, anxiety, and/or depression. By the way, if you have been having negative thoughts lately, we suggest you take this accurate Depression Test to determine the degree of your depression.

It is hard for individuals affected by this syndrome to own their success. And to counter these guilty feelings, as if they did not deserve to have what they achieved, a person suffering from the imposter syndrome may end up working even harder, which leads to many negative consequences. It is estimated that at least 25-30% of high achievers experience impostor syndrome. However, despite its pervasiveness, little is still known about this phenomenon. Imposter syndrome is not even an official diagnosis yet. But many psychologists acknowledge that it is a real thing and should be recognized as a mental disorder. According to a 2011 study, almost two thirds of adults experience this syndrome at least once in their lifetime. So if you feel like you might be its victim too, know that you’re not alone.

Fun fact: some mental health professionals think the super popular J. K. Rowling character Harry Potter had imposter syndrome. If you want to discover whether you have it too, take the Harry Potter Pathology Test. It might also happen that you associate yourself with some other character from the Harry Potter universe. This test will help you determine which one it is.

How Does Imposter Syndrome Impact People?

For some individuals, imposter syndrome can fuel their motivation to achieve their goals. Maybe this syndrome is harmless and even useful then? Not really. Because this “high motivation” usually comes at the expense of constant nervousness and anxiety. A person may work way too hard to make sure nobody thinks they are a fraud. That makes their anxiety even worse and may lead them to depression. It is a vicious cycle. An impostor thinks the only reason they survived that business presentation was that they stayed up all night over-preparing it. But even the experience of doing a great job does not change their negative beliefs. They cannot help thinking: “Do I really deserve to be where I am?” This pressure leads them to burnout from working too hard and may eventually take a toll on the individual’s work performance, emotional well-being, and even physical health.

If you want to assess your anxiety level, we recommend you take Spielberger’s Anxiety Test.

Types of Imposter Syndrome

  • The Perfectionist. Imposter syndrome is often perfectionism's “best friend”. Think about it for a minute: perfectionists set unreasonably high goals for themselves. And when they fail to reach one of these goals, they experience major self-doubt and just can't stop beating themselves up for not being as good as others think. Even 99 points out of 100 means failure to them. Control freaks who have difficulty delegating and whose motto is “If you want something done right do it yourself” also belong to this group.
  • The Expert. For this type of imposter, competence is measured on the basis of how much knowledge they have or what they can do. If they don't have all the answers or have not mastered every step in a process, they do not feel as if they deserve to be called experts. Such people are constantly doing just “one more course” to feel qualified enough.
  • The Natural Genius. A person with this imposter syndrome type firmly believes they have to be a natural “genius” to achieve something. Besides, they measure their competence in terms of ease and speed. They think success has to come quickly and easily! If they have to struggle to master a subject or skill or can’t create a masterpiece on the first try, they feel like a failure. Whenever they face a setback, their confidence starts tumbling because not performing well provokes a feeling of shame in them. Such imposters are often reluctant to step out of their comfort zone and try new things.
  • The Soloist. Some people feel like an imposter if they have had to ask for help to reach a certain level or status. They believe they have to do things on their own and only on their own, otherwise their accomplishments are not entirely theirs. “I don’t need anyone’s help” - this sounds so like the soloist.
  • The Superhuman. This type of people with imposter syndrome involves believing that an individual must be the hardest worker in the world or reach the highest levels of achievement possible. And, if someone doesn't, they are a fraud. Often, such individuals measure their competence based on how many roles they can excel in. If they fail in any role - as an employee, partner, volunteer, parent, or friend - it evokes deep feelings of guilt, shame, inadequacy, and unworthiness in them. They feel they should always be able to handle it all - easily and perfectly.
The Perfectionist

If one or more types resonate with you, it means you’re most likely experiencing imposter syndrome.

What Are Some Causes of Imposter Syndrome?

It can be caused by multiple factors. Here are some of the most common causes of this phenomenon:
  • Family background. According to numerous research, family dynamics and upbringing usually play a crucial role in the development of imposter syndrome. If a child has been raised in a family that values achievement above everything else, they could likely become an imposter as they grow. If the mother’s or father’s parenting style is too controlling or overprotective, this may also be the cause of the development of imposter syndrome in their son or daughter.
  • New study or career opportunities. Entering a new role can trigger imposter syndrome, too. For instance, starting college might leave an individual feeling like an outsider. The pressure to succeed imposed by society, combined with a lack of knowledge experience, can cause feelings of inadequacy in these new settings and roles.
  • Specific personality traits. Low self-efficacy (a person’s belief that they are unable to succeed),neuroticism, and perfectionism may mean an individual has a higher risk of experiencing imposter syndrome.
  • Social Anxiety. An individual with a social anxiety disorder may feel like they do not belong in an environment. As a matter of fact, social anxiety and impostorism often overlap. For example, people with imposter syndrome tend not to discuss how they feel with anyone and rather struggle in silence, just like individuals experiencing a social anxiety disorder.

How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome?

If you strongly feel like you are an imposter, you can reduce these negative thoughts and feelings by talking to trusted friends, family members, or your romantic partner. We all know that getting an outside perspective is always useful because it can shake an individual’s irrational beliefs and ground them in reality. Talking to a good mental health professional can help you, too.

We are also here to lend you a helping hand. If you want to overcome your imposter syndrome, here are some empowering tips for you:

1. Internalize success. Every success, even seemingly insignificant, deserves to be celebrated. By pausing and reviewing the fundamental factors that helped you in your accomplishments, you come closer to owning your success. Rather than thinking that your achievement is due to pure luck or someone’s help, acknowledge your individual contribution. Also, learn to accept recognition from others, even for small wins.

2. Focus on facts rather than feelings. Usually, the temptation for imposters is to own their failures but not their successes. Thorough and deep root-cause analysis can help you regard any outcome appropriately. Look for evidence of your successes - go back over your most recent projects and if they look fine, celebrate your achievements. And if you’ve identified a specific thing you can improve, work on it.

3. Identify the cause of you experiencing imposter syndrome. Ask yourself: “Are my feelings of incompetence really related to a lack of skills or knowledge, or is it my low self-confidence and social anxiety?” And if it is the latter, start doing something to overcome it.

4. Fake it until you make it. Visualize your success, meditate, and repeat positive affirmations like “I am successful”, “I love and approve of myself”, “I am capable of achieving anything I want”. In other words, use whatever strategies that suit you best to boost your confidence.

5. Realize it is perfectly normal to ask for others’ help. You are just a human. And you have just as much right as other people to ask for assistance.

6. Stop seeking perfection. No matter how great you are at something, you will still make mistakes. And it is okay. It’s life. So do not make perfection your goal. Happiness is a journey, not a destination, after all.