What is Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome (IS) refers to an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. While this definition is usually narrowly applied to intelligence and achievement, it has links to perfectionism and the social context.

To put it simply, imposter syndrome is the experience of feeling like a phony—you feel as though at any moment you are going to be found out as a fraud—like you don’t belong where you are, and you only got there through luck. It can affect anyone no matter their social status, work background, skill level, or degree of expertise.

Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome can take on many different forms depending on the person who experiences it. There are several imposter symptoms a person may exhibit. Some of these include:

– Feeling like success is impossible

– Feeling incompetent despite demonstrating competency

– Fear of not meeting another person’s expectations

– Feeling like past successes and hard work were only due to luck

– Feeling incapable of performing at the same level every time

– Feeling uncomfortable with receiving praise or congratulations

– Feeling disappointed over current accomplishments

– Feeling doubtful of successes

– Feeling constant pressure to achieve or be better than before

– Feeling stressed, anxious or depressed from feelings of inadequacy

Due to repeated feelings of inadequacy, a person struggling with imposter syndrome can develop other mental health conditions. For instance, negative feelings could lead to anxiety or depression associated with imposter syndrome.

What causes imposter syndrome?

Personality traits largely drive imposter syndrome. Those who experience it struggle with self-efficacy, perfectionism, and neuroticism. Competitive environments can also lay the groundwork. For example, many people who go on to develop feelings of impostorism faced intense pressure about academic achievement from their parents in childhood.

Impostor syndrome could be thought of as a specific type of shame, or feelings of being inadequate or “not good enough.” Impostor syndrome describes a specific type of shame that  shows up in educational or professional settings and involves not feeling smart enough or skilled enough to succeed. People with impostor syndrome assume that other people have overestimated them and their abilities and worry about needing to keep pretending to preserve their reputation.

Working hard to appear confident and capable while secretly feeling the opposite creates a lot of stress and anxiety in people with impostorism, making them more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, professional burnout and low self-esteem. While many people rely on time, experience, and achievement to build confidence in their career, this may not work for people with impostor syndrome. Because of their tendency to discredit their achievements, people with this issue can even feel more insecure, anxious, and fraudulent when they succeed.

The Childhood Experiences & Impostor Syndrome

Social conditioning begins at an early age, and there is some research to suggest that early childhood experiences involving family could contribute to impostor syndrome. Children who had to assume parental roles and responsibilities at a young age have been shown to be more susceptible to impostor syndrome, as have children who did not have a strong and secure bond with their parents. A lack of positive reinforcement and praise in childhood can also increase the likelihood of developing impostor syndrome, leading children to develop unhealthy beliefs about achievement.

The Workplace Influences on Impostor Syndrome

While there isn’t evidence that specific kinds of jobs or work environments cause impostor syndrome, certain workplace factors can decrease the likelihood of employees experiencing this issue. For example, a collaborative work culture with strong and supportive leaders decreases the likelihood of impostorism, as do work cultures that encourage risk taking, mistakes and controlled failure (a chance to learn from and progress after failure) in employees. Impostor syndrome is also highly prevalent in university settings, which could be the result of  overemphasis on intellectual ability, grades, and academic performance.

The Functional Causes of Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome is driven by a desire to preserve a positive professional reputation, preventing people from acting in ways that they believe will lead to rejection or criticism from other people. Everyone wants to be accepted, liked, and respected, and impostor syndrome is deeply connected to these social and emotional needs, suggesting it might have prosocial origins. Unfortunately, the shame impostors feel tends to push them to withdraw and hide from others, leading them to feel isolated instead of accepted.

Impostor Syndrome

Different Types of Imposter Syndrome

There are several different types of imposter syndrome. Dr. Valerie Young, an expert on imposter syndrome, categorized this condition by subtype. Each subtype is defined by a unique type of individual that falls under the umbrella of imposter syndrome. Most people who struggle with this syndrome fall into one or a mix of these subtypes. Imposter syndrome examples include:

1. The Perfectionist

The perfectionist represents a person with imposter syndrome that strives to be their absolute best, no matter the cost to their mental health. These individuals may be identified as typical “perfectionists” who set impossibly high standards for themselves.

2. The Superwoman/man

The superwoman/man represents a person with imposter syndrome that often struggles with work addiction. This person may feel inadequate relative to colleagues and continue to push themselves as hard as possible, regardless of the consequences on mental, physical and emotional health.

3. The Natural Genius

The natural genius represents a person with imposter syndrome that not only struggles with perfectionism but also sets out to achieve lofty goals on their first try. These individuals feel unworthy, guilty and shameful if they cannot easily complete a task or achieve a goal on their first go.

4. The Soloist

The soloist represents a person with imposter syndrome that has extreme difficulties asking others for help. Perhaps they may feel that others are not as competent as themselves or that they must prove their own worth through their productivity.

5. The Expert

The expert represents a person with imposter syndrome that never feels good enough despite being extremely knowledgeable. This person may feel like they are less experienced than their colleagues if they do not know an answer or have knowledge on certain topics.

How to Deal With Imposter Syndrome

How can a high achieving person overcome imposter syndrome? Like other mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, it may be beneficial for people who struggle with imposter syndrome to pursue psychotherapy or talk therapy. 

Most people begin their search for mental health treatment online by searching for a counselor, therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist near them. 

However, there are many other ways in which a person can deal with imposter syndrome. Some helpful tips for treating imposter syndrome include:

– Discussing feelings of inadequacy with others (e.g. with friends and family or at individual or group therapy)

Helping others going through a similarly difficult time

– Taking things one day at a time

– Setting clear, measurable and realistic goals

– Questioning negative thoughts and beginning to replace them with positive thinking

– Stopping comparing abilities to that of other people

– Focusing on face-to-face situations versus the virtual world (e.g. social media)

– Performing meditation exercises and learning to accept thoughts, feelings and emotions, even if they are negative

– Moving forward despite negative feelings

Remember that if you are feeling like an impostor, it means you have some degree of success in your life that you are attributing to luck. Try instead to turn that feeling into one of gratitude. Look at what you have accomplished in your life and be grateful.

If after doing all these things , you still feel like you are a “fraud” , we are ready to help you. Get in contact with one of BAC therapists now!