Imposter Syndrome: Definition, Causes, & How to Deal With It
Have you ever felt like an imposter among your peers or coworkers? Learn about what imposter syndrome is and read tips on overcoming it.
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You may know what it’s like to feel like an imposter. It goes something like this: when you’ve accomplished a goal or achieved success, your inner voice tells you it was just luck or that you’re underqualified. You may doubt your skills and intelligence, even though you worked hard to get to where you are. If you’ve ever experienced something like this scenario, you may have experienced imposter syndrome. Read on to learn more about it.
What Is Imposter Syndrome? A Definition
First, let’s take a look at the definition of imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a psychological concept that was first coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Susanne Imes (1978). In their research, they found that some people who have ample evidence of personal accomplishments are still convinced that they do not deserve the success they have. Given this, people’s subjective view of their success is incongruent with the objective reality of their accomplishments.
The term imposter syndrome describes when people doubt their accomplishments and fear that they may be exposed as a fraud or “imposter”. It’s important to note that this is not an actual disorder, but rather a phenomenon that is fairly common to experience. Although the original research by Clance and Imes (1978) focused on high-achieving women, it has now been found that almost 70% of people will experience imposter syndrome at some point during their lives (Sakulku, 2011).
Oftentimes, people experiencing imposter syndrome will credit their success to luck, good timing, or connections, and they will dismiss their own hard work and skills in achieving success. Moreover, people with imposter syndrome find it difficult to accept positive feedback or praise from other people, which makes it even harder to break out of the belief that they are an imposter (LaDonna, Ginsburg, & Watling, 2018).
What Causes Imposter Syndrome?
There are a variety of factors that can contribute to feeling like an imposter. Keep reading to find out about a few potential causes of imposter syndrome.
Major Transitions or New Chapters
Imposter syndrome is especially common among people who are starting something new, such as a new position after graduation (Rakestraw, 2017). These transitions are major life events that may cause people to doubt their abilities and question their abilities. Even those who rank higher in seniority and are advanced in their careers still doubt their achievements (LaDonna et al., 2018).
Societal and Familial Pressures
Throughout your life, you may have been perceived or judged by close others or society at large. The way you are treated by others can impact how you view yourself (Feenstra et al., 2020).
The researchers who coined the term imposter syndrome found that it can actually develop among children who are harshly judged by their families as less intelligent than other family members (Clance & Imes, 1978). On the flip side, the researchers also found that imposter syndrome can develop among children with families who perceive their child as highly intelligent and competent. This may be because these children feel pressured to please their families and doubt themselves in situations where their skills are challenged.
Stereotypes and Prejudice
All of us have different identities -- whether that be based on gender, age, or race. Certain identities are criticized and belittled more than others, and this can lead to imposter syndrome among members of these groups. These stereotypes label individuals from certain groups as less intelligent and competent, which is a narrative that can be internalized as a belief among group members (Buczynski, Harrell, McGonigal, & Siegel, n.d.).
One of those groups is women, who are often characterized as less competent than men. Women are portrayed as having fewer leadership qualities, which has been shown to contribute to their imposter syndrome (Cokley et al., 2015). Other research has shown that characterizing certain racial groups as lazy and unintelligent can also lead to imposter syndrome (Reyna, 2008).
Unfortunately, stereotypes are widespread and may cause members of these groups to doubt their competence in roles that they may not have expected to be in. This, in turn, may lead to feeling like an imposter (Feenstra et al., 2020).
Links with Mental Illness
The nature of imposter syndrome overlaps with characteristics of mental illnesses. For instance, imposter syndrome has been linked to feelings of self-doubt and can even lead to failure (Villwock, Sobin, Koester, & Harris, 2016). In fact, imposter syndrome commonly co-occurs with anxiety and depression. Further, people who are introverted and more anxious are more likely to experience imposter syndrome. It is also probably of no surprise that harsh criticism exacerbates feelings of imposter syndrome (Murugesu, 2020).
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5 Types of Imposter Syndrome
More recently, research has identified that there may be five types of people with imposter syndrome. These are perfectionists, superheroes, experts, geniuses, and soloists (Young, 2011). Although the core signs and symptoms are present among each type, these types still vary in their behavioral patterns. This difference lies in how self-competence is evaluated. Let’s take a look at the five types below.
These people have extremely high expectations of themselves and want everything to be perfect. They have an all-or-nothing approach, where anything less than 100% means they’re automatically a failure. They tend to focus on how to improve things and take little time to reflect on how well they’re doing already. Any small or trivial mistakes threaten their sense of competence.
To prevent themselves from failing, perfectionists often work overtime, avoid rest, and engage in negative self-talk as a tactic to motivate themselves to be the very best. Although this may help them achieve goals, they still minimize their successes and amplify their failures. They also ignore positive feedback from others, which can reinforce the belief that they can always be better.
Some people who experience imposter syndrome have a superhero complex, where they gauge their competence based on how many different tasks they can juggle at a time. Superheroes play multiple roles and want to be successful in each of them (e.g., parent, mentor, friend, colleague, etc).
They have the tendency to seek approval or validation from others, and they aim to work harder than others. It’s difficult for them to take time to rest and simply do nothing as they perceive this as wasted time.
Other people who experience imposter syndrome have the tendency to become experts, where they gauge their competence based on their intelligence or knowledge. Experts strive to be a human encyclopedia and may gather as much information as they can about a topic before taking action. Even after a lot of time and effort into researching, they continue to doubt how much they know.
Some people who experience imposter syndrome have the tendency to believe they should be natural geniuses or prodigies, where they gauge their competence based on how easily they can accomplish tasks or achieve success. For instance, getting an A without trying or studying and being viewed as naturally smart.
Geniuses believe that their skills and talent should come naturally, and don’t believe that they should need to put in hard work for success. Therefore, they usually avoid challenging or daunting tasks to avoid discovering that they’re not good at them right away.
Lastly, some people who experience imposter syndrome have the tendency to believe that they should be able to accomplish things on their own. Soloists have a preference for working alone and avoid collaborative or group working settings. They often consider asking for help a sign of weakness or failure.
Are any of these types like you?
After reading these subtypes of imposter syndrome, were there any that felt especially true to your experience? Or perhaps you felt a blend of more than one subtype captured it best instead? I myself felt like I’m a mix of the perfectionist and superhero.
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Tips for Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
1. Acknowledge your emotions: Try to fully accept your emotional experiences and remind yourself that feelings are not always an accurate representation of reality. If it helps, reflect on your feelings by writing them down and try to identify why you feel like an imposter. You can learn more in this article about acceptance.
2. Be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses: Although it’s cliche, it’s true that we are all good at something, but no one is good at everything. Understand your skills and reflect on your strengths and weaknesses. This can help you build confidence in the skills you are especially suited for.
3. Overcome perfectionism: You may have perfectionist habits that you need to slowly break. For example, try taking regular breaks, days off, and use relaxation techniques to calm down your anxiety. Remember that mistakes are a natural and inevitable part of life.
4. Talk to others: You may feel like you’re the only one who feels this way, but that is definitely not the case. Reach out to a trusted friend or coworker and tell them you’ve been feeling like an imposter. You may be surprised to find out that they feel that way too sometimes. Also, they can give you a reality check about your accomplishments and competence.
Exercises for Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
To deal with imposter syndrome, it can be helpful to try a variety of different psychological exercises. Here are a few that may be helpful when you feel particularly anxious or feeling self-doubt:
Imposter Syndrome Quotes
Articles Related to Imposter Syndrome
Want to learn more about topics related to imposter syndrome? Here are some more articles to read.
Books on Imposter Syndrome
Here are a few books that may help you learn more about imposter syndrome.
Final Thoughts on Imposter Syndrome
Sometimes, there will be a little voice in your head that tries to downplay your accomplishments and successes and tries to make you doubt yourself. Although that voice may get loud, remember this: You are capable, competent, and worthy. You deserve to give yourself credit and are much smarter than you think you are. Be gentle with yourself. You are not an imposter, despite what that little voice says to you.