Woman standing in front of a door accepting a trophy and standing in fear on the other side.
Impostor syndrome (IS) refers to an internal belief that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be, and you only got there through luck. It can happen to the most successful among us. Imposter syndrome is like a self-fulfilling prophecy that can ultimately hinder success, and it’s common. For example, in spite of publishing a best-selling book, a writer feels like their own success is only based on luck. It can affect anyone no matter their education, social status, work background, skill level, or degree of expertise. It is estimated that 70% of people will experience at least one episode of this mindset in their lives. The term was first used by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s. When the concept was introduced, it was initially thought to apply mainly to high-achieving women. Since then, it has been recognized as more widely experienced.
Some of the common signs of IS include an inability to realistically assess your own competence and skill, fear that you won’t live up to expectations, self-doubt, setting very challenging goals, and feeling disappointed when you fall short. While for some people, IS can fuel feelings of motivation to succeed, this usually comes at a cost in the form of constant worries, doubts, or anxiety. For example, you might over-prepare or work much harder than necessary to “make sure” that nobody finds out you are a fraud. This sets up a vicious cycle in which a person thinks that the only reason for surviving that class presentation was that the person stayed up all night rehearsing.
Certain factors can contribute to the more general experience of IS. In the earliest studies on the phenomenon, researchers found that IS was connected to factors including early family dynamics and gender stereotypes. Parenting styles characterized by being controlling or overprotected may contribute to the development of IS in children. We also know that entering a new role can trigger impostor syndrome. Finally, certain personality traits, such as low self-efficacy and social anxiety, may have also been linked to a higher risk of experiencing imposter syndrome.
Types of Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome can appear in several different ways. Leading imposter syndrome researcher Dr. Valerie Young describes five main types of imposters in her 2011 book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive In Spite of It.
Here’s a closer look at each type and how they manifest.
- The perfectionist: Perfectionists are never satisfied and always feel that their work could be better. Rather than focus on their strengths and success, they tend to focus on any flaws or mistakes.
- The superhero: Superheroes push themselves to work as hard as possible, because they link their competence to their abilities to succeed in every role they hold in their lives: student, friend, employee, partner, or parent.
- The expert: Experts are always trying to learn more to increase their level of understanding. Even though they are often highly skilled, they underrate their own expertise.
- The natural genius: These individuals set excessively heavy/hard goals for themselves and then feel failed when they don’t succeed on their first try.
- The soloist: Soloists tend to be very individualistic and prefer to work alone. They believe they should be able to handle everything solo. They tend to see asking for help as a sign of weakness or incompetence.
Coping With Imposter Syndrome
To get past IS, you need to ask yourself some hard questions. They might include:
- “What core beliefs do I hold about myself?”
- “Must I be perfect for others to approve of me?”
To overcome these feelings, you need to become more comfortable confronting some of those false beliefs you hold about yourself. Here are some strategies you can use:
- Share your feelings with others, talk about your thoughts.
- While this might feel counterintuitive, try to help others in the same situation as you.
- Don’t focus on doing things perfectly, but rather, do things reasonably well and also reward yourself for taking action.
- Assess your abilities, and redefine your goals.
- Stop comparing yourself to others, and use social media moderately.
Finally, college freshmen, as well as successful CEOs, can experience this syndrome. Remember, if you are having an imposter mindset, it means you have some degree of success in your life that you might be attributing to luck. While you may experience the IS, that doesn’t mean you will be living with it for the long haul. Try instead to turn that feeling into one of gratitude.
I have to admit that I was pushed back by my own doubts, negative thoughts, and high levels of competition in my social life and work field at certain moments in my life. Reading about Imposter Syndrome has changed my whole life and drove me to focus on my own worth, knowledge, core beliefs, and capabilities rather than focusing on challenges, critiques, negative thoughts, and comparing myself to others. Everyone should read about Imposter Syndrome and pass the knowledge and experience gained to others. Changing your behavior and your thoughts pattern will help you let your guard down and let others see the real you. It is great to feel more confident, spend less time worrying about how you were perceived for your actions, focus more on where you need to be next and how you would leave a positive impact as you go.
Bravata, D.M., Watts, S.A., Keefer, A.L., et al. (2020). Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: A Systematic Review. Journal General Internal Medicine, 35(4), 1252-1275. doi:10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1
Clance, P.R., & Imes, S.A. (1978). The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241-247. doi:10.1037/h0086006
Cuncic, A. (2021). What is Imposter Syndrome? Very Wellmind. https://www.verywellmind.com/imposter-syndrome-and-social-anxiety-disorder-4156469
Sakulku, J., & Alexander, J. (2011). The Imposter Phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science, 6(1). 73-92.
Li, S., Hughes, J.L., & Thu, S.M. (2014). The Links Between Parenting Styles and Imposter Phenomenon. Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, 19(2). 50-57. doi:10.24839/2164-8204.JN19.2.50