Imposter Syndrome: Symptoms & Tips To Overcoming It

February 28, 2024

Coping with imposter syndrome can be challenging, often leaving you feeling undeserving of your achievements. You're not alone in this struggle. At Resilience Lab, our therapists specialize in understanding and addressing these feelings of self-doubt. In this article, we offer a concise exploration of imposter syndrome's causes and effective strategies to overcome it. Our approach is tailored to your unique experience, aiming to empower you to recognize and embrace your true value in all aspects of life.

Key Takeaways

  • Imposter syndrome is a psychological condition experienced by individuals who doubt their accomplishments and fear being exposed as a fraud; it affects around 70% of people and can lead to anxiety, depression, and burnout.
  • Five types of imposter syndrome have been identified – The Perfectionist, The Superwoman/man, The Natural Genius, The Soloist, and The Expert – each with unique characteristics and manifestations.
  • Overcoming imposter syndrome involves acknowledging and challenging negative thoughts, developing self-compassion, celebrating achievements, and potentially seeking professional help, such as therapy.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome, also known as imposter phenomenon, is a psychological condition where individuals struggle to recognize their achievements. It’s characterized by a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud, causing anxiety and depression. This may sound bleak, but it’s more common than you’d think. In fact, around 70% of all people have grappled with these impostor feelings at least once in their lives, making imposter syndrome feel like a widespread issue.

The role of secrecy and shame in this phenomenon is pivotal. These emotions reinforce the cycle, making it harder for individuals to acknowledge their accomplishments and improve their self-esteem. Being open about one’s achievements, on the other hand, is a crucial step towards overcoming imposter syndrome and embracing the reality of one’s success.

Definition and History

In 1978, psychology professor Pauline Clance and clinical psychologist Suzanne Imes first identified imposter syndrome, also known as imposter phenomenon. The term was coined to describe the feelings of self-doubt and fear of exposure as frauds experienced by high-achieving women, despite evidence of their abilities. This phenomenon, however, isn’t limited to women. It transcends gender, affecting individuals from various backgrounds and expertise levels.

Imposter syndrome isn’t just about feeling like a fraud. It’s a complex interplay of mental health issues, often leading to anxiety, depression, and burnout. The syndrome also fosters an inability to internalize success, creating a perpetual cycle of self-doubt and overcompensation.

The journey to overcoming imposter syndrome starts with recognizing and understanding it.

Psychological Factors

Imposter syndrome doesn’t exist in isolation; it often manifests along with certain personality traits. Common characteristics of individuals who experience imposter syndrome frequently include:

  • Perfectionism
  • A high achievement orientation
  • Fear of failure
  • Self-doubt
  • A strong need for external validation

We cannot overlook the impact of societal pressure and family upbringing in triggering feelings of being an imposter. Societal pressures to succeed, especially when there’s a cultural or parental emphasis on achievement, can fuel imposter syndrome. These pressures often create unrealistic expectations, leading to self-doubt when individuals face challenges in meeting them.

Similarly, family experiences that foster a constant need to prove oneself can trigger feelings of being an impostor.

How Do I Know If I Have Imposter Syndrome?

If you’re feeling like a fraud, you could be battling imposter syndrome. But how can you be sure? There are certain indicators to look out for. Persistent self-doubt, attributing success to luck rather than your own abilities, and the fear of being discovered as a fraud are telltale signs of imposter syndrome. Identifying these signs is vital, as it can guide individuals towards steps to conquer imposter syndrome.

Psychologically, imposter syndrome can manifest as a continuous state of worry and dissatisfaction. Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when falling short, fearing being ‘found out’ as a fraud, and engaging in negative self-talk are common symptoms of imposter syndrome. Speaking with a mental health professional can be crucial in improving your self talk and developing tools to improve this aspect of your life.

The Five Types of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome doesn’t manifest the same way in everyone. It manifests differently in different individuals, leading to the identification of five distinct types:

  1. The perfectionist
  2. The superwoman/man
  3. The natural genius
  4. The soloist
  5. The expert

Each type is characterized by unique patterns of thought and behavior, making the experience of imposter syndrome a deeply personal one, as outlined in the diagnostic and statistical manual.

The Perfectionist

Perfectionism and imposter syndrome often go hand in hand. The Perfectionist type of imposter syndrome stems from a destructive form of perfectionism, rooted in fear. Perfectionists often set unreasonably high goals, experiencing shame or disappointment when they’re not met, affecting their self-worth.

Take, for instance, a manager who’s constantly scrutinizing a project’s progress, criticizing the process, and insisting on doing things perfectly. Despite the effort and time put into the task, they may still feel like an imposter, doubting their competence and fearing a loss of control. This relentless chase for perfection, fueled by the dread of failure, can intensify imposter syndrome feelings.

The Superwoman/man

The Superwoman/man type of imposter syndrome is characterized by individuals who feel fraudulent when compared to their competent colleagues. They frequently exert excessive effort to validate their competence, exhibiting traits such as perfectionism and procrastination. The fundamental emotion driving this type of imposter syndrome is the fear of taking time away from work or having free time, as they may be driven by a need for constant achievement without personal fulfillment.

An individual who takes on extra work even during holidays or scheduled time off, demonstrating a commitment to work beyond normal expectations, is a typical example of the Superwoman/man behavior in the workplace. This relentless pursuit of validation and proof of competence can lead to burnout and reinforce the imposter cycle.

The Natural Genius

The Natural Genius type of imposter syndrome manifests in individuals who believe they should excel in everything they do effortlessly. When faced with a challenge or a task that requires effort, they perceive it as a failure on their part, leading to feelings of shame and inadequacy.

A recent graduate who excelled academically but struggles in the workplace exemplifies this type of imposter syndrome. Despite being asked to learn from colleagues, they might feel uneasy and offended by the suggestion, reinforcing their imposter feelings. This type of imposter syndrome can drastically affect an individual’s performance at work, leading to self-doubt, anxiety, and burnout.

The Soloist

The Soloist type of imposter syndrome is characterized by individuals who prefer working alone, finding it challenging to seek assistance or support. They perceive the need to handle everything independently, viewing seeking help as a display of weakness. This type of imposter syndrome can significantly impact personal relationships, leading to:

  • Poor communication
  • Difficulty in sharing true feelings
  • Misinterpretation of situations
  • Feelings of being offended
  • Persistent worries about being discovered as not good enough.

Notable individuals like Michelle Obama and Maya Angelou have identified as having Soloist type Imposter Syndrome, highlighting how widespread and relatable this phenomenon is.

The Expert

The Expert type of imposter syndrome is characterized by a fear of inadequacy. Individuals with this type perceive themselves as imposters due to their perceived lack of comprehensive knowledge in a subject, incomplete mastery of a process, or a sense of continuous learning, leading to doubts about their status as ‘experts’ despite their achievements.

Typical behaviors of individuals with the Expert type of imposter syndrome involve:

  • Experiencing feelings of fraudulence despite possessing expertise
  • Minimizing their accomplishments
  • Persistently seeking validation and reassurance from others

The Expert type of Imposter Syndrome involves individuals feeling they must understand every aspect of their work before they consider themselves competent. Consider, for example, a scientist who delays sharing research findings until fully understanding them, or individuals who doubt their own expertise and feel inadequate in their field, despite having significant experience and achievements.

The Impact of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome can take a heavy toll on a person’s mental health, possibly resulting in social anxiety disorder, anxiety, and depression. It can significantly affect behaviors in the workplace, leading individuals to:

  • Refrain from active participation in meetings
  • Avoid contributing
  • Experience feelings of incompetence
  • Often fear being exposed as a fraud

Imposter syndrome or imposter phenomenon isn’t just a personal issue; it also has a societal impact. Biases exacerbate imposter syndrome by fostering a culture that promotes second-guessing and self-doubt, resulting in heightened stress. Inadequately implemented diversity initiatives can lead to tokenism, which may induce individuals from under-represented groups to perceive themselves as unqualified and compel them to strive for higher standards to validate their competence to themselves and their community.

The imposter syndrome cycle, often linked to low self esteem, can lead to individuals disregarding compliments and overlooking chances to form connections, potentially causing harm to their personal relationships.

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Examples of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome manifests in various ways, often tailored to an individual's personal and professional context. Imposter syndrome is marked by a continual sense of self-questioning and a nagging worry of being unveiled as an 'impostor,' in spite of clear indications of your abilities and accomplishments. This condition, deeply understood and addressed at Resilience Lab, often shadows even the most successful individuals with unjustified doubts about their own worth. Here is a list of real life examples that illustrate how imposter syndrome can appear in different scenarios:

  • A Successful Business Leader: Despite having led her company to its most profitable quarter, a CEO constantly fears being exposed as inept, believing her success is due to luck rather than her leadership skills.
  • An Award-Winning Author: After receiving a prestigious literary award, an author struggles with the next book, convinced that their previous success was a one-time stroke of luck and they will never be able to replicate it.
  • A Graduate Student at a Top University: Even after being accepted into a highly competitive program, the student feels like they only got in due to a clerical error, not their academic prowess.
  • A Renowned Artist: Despite critical acclaim and a strong following, an artist continually doubts their creativity and fears being judged as untalented.
  • A Seasoned Software Developer: Working in a leading tech firm, this developer feels like they don’t know enough compared to their colleagues and fears being perceived as unqualified.

Imposter syndrome can affect anyone regardless of their job, career level, or social status. For instance, a highly praised and skilled software engineer might still feel like they don’t truly understand technology, fearing others will eventually "unmask" them. A student accepted into a prestigious university might attribute their admission to luck rather than their own merit, constantly fearing that they don't belong there. These feelings can cause significant anxiety and can limit one's ability to pursue new opportunities or achieve their full potential.

Understanding these examples is the first step towards recognizing imposter syndrome in oneself or others. At Resilience Lab, our therapists work to help individuals identify these patterns, understand their root causes, and develop strategies to overcome these limiting beliefs. By addressing imposter syndrome, individuals can learn to value their achievements and develop a more realistic appraisal of their abilities and contributions.

Potential Causes of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome doesn’t suddenly materialize out of thin air. It’s often rooted in early life experiences and societal pressures. Childhood experiences, particularly adverse ones, can lay the foundation for the development of imposter syndrome. Addressing underlying beliefs originating from childhood can be crucial in overcoming imposter syndrome.

The impact of social pressures on the development of imposter syndrome is significant. Emphasis on achievement and success can lead individuals to feel like frauds. Additionally, high levels of anxiety and increased social pressures, especially among young people, can contribute to the experience of imposter syndrome. Certain personality traits like perfectionism, high-achievement orientation, and a tendency to push oneself hard to prove that they are not imposters are frequently associated with imposter syndrome.

Strategies for Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Despite imposter syndrome being a persistent and challenging issue, strategies exist to combat it. Here are some effective strategies to overcome imposter syndrome:

  • Acknowledge and challenge negative thoughts
  • Develop self-compassion
  • Celebrate achievements
  • Seek professional help

By implementing these strategies, you can work towards overcoming imposter syndrome.

Acknowledge and Challenge Negative Thoughts

Acknowledging and challenging negative thoughts is one of the primary steps in overcoming imposter syndrome. This can involve:

  • Understanding thought patterns
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Starting a thought diary
  • Disputing negative thoughts
  • Cultivating self-awareness

Cognitive restructuring techniques have been found to be highly effective in reframing negative thoughts related to Imposter Syndrome.

Techniques like meditation train the brain to disrupt cycles of negative thinking and focus on the present moment, which is a key aspect of mindfulness. They assist in recognizing and confronting negative thoughts, fostering self-awareness, and diminishing anxiety and stress. Recognizing and acknowledging these negative thoughts is crucial as it allows individuals to address their emotions and take proactive measures to cultivate self-assurance.

Develop Self-Compassion

Developing self-compassion is another effective strategy in combating imposter syndrome. Self-compassion serves as a valuable and impactful tool in developing resilience against imposter feelings and addressing the distressing sense of inadequacy.

Mindfulness significantly contributes to the development of self-compassion by:

  • fostering mindful awareness of negative thoughts and emotions
  • enabling a balanced and equanimous approach to them
  • aiding in emotional development
  • overcoming negative self-judgment

By practicing self-compassion, individuals can learn to treat themselves with the same kindness and understanding they would offer to others.

Celebrate Achievements

Acknowledging and celebrating achievements, regardless of their scale, can aid individuals in internalizing their accomplishments and fostering a sense of confidence. This can serve to strengthen one’s self-confidence and counteract the detrimental impact of imposter syndrome.

It’s important to celebrate even the smallest victories throughout the day, such as tasks completed, new skills learned, or positive feedback received. Challenging negative thoughts by reminding oneself of past achievements and obstacles overcome is crucial.

Celebrating achievements fosters appreciation for one’s efforts, provides encouragement to persist in pursuing goals, and contributes to the enhancement of self-esteem and confidence.

Speak With A Professional

Consulting with a professional, like a therapist, can offer significant insights and aid in conquering imposter syndrome. Professional therapy, such as talk therapy or counseling, is pivotal in addressing the underlying causes of imposter syndrome. It enables individuals to:

  • Address their dependence on external validation for self-esteem
  • Challenge and reframe negative beliefs about their abilities
  • Examine familial influences or early experiences that may have shaped these perceptions

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), a subset of cognitive behavioral therapy utilized by some Resilience Lab therapists, allows individuals to thoroughly examine and reevaluate old, self-defeating beliefs, and adopt new, more adaptive and accurate perspectives, which is crucial in the battle against imposter syndrome. Speaking with a professional doesn’t just provide a platform to express feelings and thoughts; it can also provide practical tools to disrupt imposter-like thinking patterns and foster a healthier self-perception.

How Resilience Lab Therapists Can Help With Imposter Syndrome

Experienced professionals including the therapists at Resilience Lab can offer meaningful insights and support to those grappling with imposter syndrome. Our clinicians continuously undergo rigorous training to stay adept in their practice.

Resilience Lab therapists take a holistic, evidence-based approach to assist individuals experiencing imposter syndrome in achieving equilibrium, self-awareness, and in developing coping strategies to alleviate feelings of fraudulence. Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) may be utilized by these therapists to allow clients to thoroughly examine and reevaluate old, self-defeating beliefs, and adopt new, more adaptive and accurate perspectives, which is crucial in the battle against imposter syndrome.

Frequently Asked Questions

The questions and answers below are generalized. If you believe you are struggling with imposter syndrome, we recommend you speak with a therapist to help work through these issues, as they can provide a more personalized experience.

What does imposter syndrome feel like?

Imposter syndrome typically feels like an inner voice constantly doubting your accomplishments. You may fear being exposed as a fraud. Despite evidence of success, you may feel undeserving, attributing your achievements to luck or external factors rather than your own skill and effort. This syndrome often comes with feelings of anxiety, stress, and a persistent belief that you're not as competent as others perceive you to be. It's a mix of self-doubt, perfectionism, and a deep sense of inadequacy that overshadows your real abilities and achievements.

Am I Experiencing Imposter Syndrome or Facing Genuine Skill Gaps?

Differentiating between imposter syndrome and actual incompetence can be challenging. If you have imposter syndrome, you likely have a pattern of success and competence but still feel inadequate. Your self-doubt doesn’t align with your actual skills or achievements. In contrast, genuinely lacking skills or knowledge in a particular area typically comes without the accompanying record of success. It's important to objectively assess your skills and achievements and, if necessary, seek feedback from trusted colleagues or a professional. Remember, imposter syndrome often distorts self-perception, making it hard to see your true abilities.

What are the 4 P's of imposter syndrome?

The 4 P's of imposter syndrome refer to patterns of behavior that individuals commonly exhibit: Perfectionism, Procrastination, Paralysis, and Performance. Perfectionism involves setting excessively high goals and feeling crushed when they aren't met. Procrastination is delaying tasks due to a fear of failure. Paralysis refers to being so overwhelmed by fear and self-doubt that one becomes immobilized and unable to take action. Performance involves over-preparing or overworking to ensure that no one can find fault in your efforts. Recognizing these patterns can be a crucial step in addressing and overcoming imposter syndrome.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis and needs immediate help, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Clinically Reviewed by Christine Carville, LCSW-R.

Christine Carville, LCSW-R, is the co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer of Resilience Lab. Christine developed the Resilience Methodology, a trans-theoretical training model for therapists to provide individualized, flexible, trauma-informed care. She has also been teaching at the Columbia School of Social Work since 2016 and continues to maintain her own private psychotherapy practice.

Get started with therapy today.

Our team can help you find the right therapist.