Feelings of incompetence, undeserving, and being “out of my league” are mindsets related to imposter syndrome. It's also known as impostorism or imposter phenomenon (IP). Different names describe high-achieving people who, despite their apparent successes, fail to see themselves as accomplished.
Imposter syndrome is not a disease, per se, but it is often associated with types of perfectionism.
Most people experience feelings of doubt in various situations, but imposter syndrome is characterized by an impending feeling of being found out as a fraud.
People suffering from imposter syndrome often deny, downplay, or try to explain away the successes they've achieved.
They underestimate and doubt their intelligence, talents, and skills. Believing their achievements are a fluke. They fear that, eventually, everyone will discover they don't belong or deserve what they've gained.
Originally, in 1978, psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes reported on high-achieving women experiencing uncertainty and wavering thoughts about their achievements. The study initially concentrated on women's responses and reactions to successes. Now it is known that men feel it too.
Currently, there is no official clinical diagnosis for imposter syndrome. It is more of a pattern of dismissive feelings and irrational thoughts about one's achievements. However, unmanaged imposter syndrome can affect mental health. To help people manage their emotions, medical professionals recommend counseling and coping tools to help break the cycle of negative self-talk and thinking.
How do feelings manifest themselves?
Having imposter syndrome is not so much about what it looks like as it makes one feel or think, "Why did I think I could do this?" It is more about believing that you are not as good as everyone thinks. It is a feeling of deceiving yourself and others about your intelligence and underestimating your capacity. This psychological occurrence can affect anyone — from a first-year art student to the most successful executive.
It's common for most high-ranking professionals to feel insecure about a new career role initially. However, it can develop into something more if the feelings of insecurity persist and become paralyzing. It may prevent one from continuing to move forward and grow for fear of eventually being discovered as a fraud and thinking their luck has run out. This kind of emotional state can be debilitating.
Where do these feelings come from?
Imposter syndrome usually surfaces when landing a new position or stepping into a new role with more responsibilities and challenges. For some people, the feeling is short-lived, but the apprehension can endure for others. It may stem from childhood, where parents pressured and pushed for top grades and achievements, like being named class valedictorian. A competitive drive to always win or be number one may foster imposter syndrome propensities. However, this psyche may only be satisfied with top rank.
A person with imposter syndrome might already exhibit anxiety and depression. In addition, they may lack trust or belief in their abilities to achieve — referred to as low self-efficacy. They may impose higher standards on themselves and, even if met, are rarely satisfied, known as maladaptive perfectionism. In addition, showing anxiety, insecurity, and worry are recognized as neuroticism.
Five personality types
Psychologist Dr. Valerie Young identified five types of personality types related to imposter syndrome:
- The Natural Genius. They believe new abilities should come easily from the very first try. If they don't, they may feel humiliated and distressed.
- The Perfectionist. They want to be flawless in every area of their lives, which is unrealistic. Instead of recognizing their effort, they may focus on faults and blunders.
- The Soloist (or Rugged Individualist). The lone wolf must do it all themselves; anything less might look weak and a failure.
- The Superhero. They imagine every role, parent, or executive, requires their full attention. However, even at their maximum, they feel unsatisfied with themselves.
- The Expert. They need to know all the answers to all the questions, and if they don't, it might be seen as incompetent or falling short.
The effects of the imposter phenomenon (IP) can limit a person from growth or achievement. A person experiencing IP may think superiors expect more and better performance than they can deliver. Imposter phenomenon tendencies may discourage them from attaining higher education or applying for promotions. They may begin to feel unhappy or unsatisfied with their profession. A person may feel burnout from continuously trying to overcome feelings of inadequacy and creating a vicious cycle, getting them stuck where they are. Instead of taking on more duties to prove their abilities, they avoid accepting new work or tasks.
How to prevent imposter syndrome?
An estimated 70 percent of successful people may feel imposter syndrome sometime in their careers or lives. The trick is to replace that false thought with the right idea. Instead of worrying about the worst thing that can happen, people should ask themselves, “What's the best thing that can happen?”
Other helpful techniques for overcoming imposter syndrome:
- Change your thinking. If you believe you don't deserve the promotion, remind yourself they are feelings, not facts.
- Examine your thoughts. If doubt makes you question your ability to do your job, stop and ask yourself, “Is this thought true?” Remind yourself of the recognition from others, like the encouraging email from a superior.
- Accept success. Remind yourself that it's okay to feel good about accomplishments. Celebrate your success, no matter how big or small.
- Talk to someone. A confidant can help move your mindset away from negative thoughts about yourself by reflecting on past successes.
- Talk to a therapist. Therapeutic counseling may help sort out skewed thinking and habits to decrease psychological stressors. Therapy may help people recognize when twisted thinking is creeping in and how to clear away those thoughts.
- Stop comparing. Acknowledge your accomplishments instead of comparing yours with someone else.
- Join a professional community or support group. Sharing in a group setting and exchanging ideas may help you talk about your insecurities and fears instead of suffering alone in silence.
- You're in good company. Many high-achieving people experience imposter syndrome. Contradict the thinking with a positive thought or action.
- Know this. You know more than you think, and continue to learn. You're a work in progress.
- Be kind to yourself. Quit judging yourself. It's counterproductive. Reminder, there is evidence that you deserve high achievements earned fair and square.
Don't pass it on
Parents have a significant influence on their children. How parents speak to their children impacts them and their future. Over criticizing or exaggerating compliments, like, “You are the best in the world!” may set them up for an imposter syndrome disposition. Praise the effort rather than the outcome. Remind them mistakes are okay because they're not the final result, and they're still learning.
People with imposter syndrome are usually high-achievers with feelings of doubt, unworthiness, and of being a fraud. Although not considered a mental illness, leaving imposter syndrome untreated may intensify other mental disorders like anxiety and depression. Seeking therapy may offer ways to replace negative thinking and give a person the lost drive and reason to work once again with renewed positive purpose.
- Simple Psychology. You're not a Fraud. Here's How to Recognize and Overcome Imposter Syndrome.
- Cleveland Clinic. Impostor Syndrome: What It Is and How To Overcome It.
- Psychology Today. Imposter Syndrome.