Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve all they have achieved. Individuals with impostor syndrome incorrectly attribute their success to luck, or interpret it as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be.
Who Came Up With The Phrase Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome was first identified and coined as a term in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. In their seminal paper “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women,” Clance and Imes described imposter syndrome as an internal experience of intellectual phoniness common among high-achieving women. They had observed that many of their high-achieving female therapy clients described feelings of fraudulence despite objective evidence of their competence and qualifications.
Clance and Imes theorized that women internalize societal gender stereotypes that portray women as less competent than men, contributing to disproportionate imposter feelings. This is why the phenomenon was originally always associated with women. Their work highlighted that imposter syndrome stems from cognitive distortions in which one’s accomplishments are never enough to override intense self-doubt and fear of failure. While initially studied in women, subsequent research found that both men and women across fields and age groups are affected by imposter syndrome.
The Gist Of Imposter Syndrome
In short, impostor syndrome is a psychological pattern of doubting one’s abilities and accomplishments and fearing being exposed as a “fraud” or “impostor”. It often affects high-achievers despite evidence that their success is deserved. Understanding and addressing impostor thoughts can help overcome this disabling belief pattern.
The Five Most Common Types Of Imposter Syndrome
There are a five common types or manifestations of imposter syndrome that people experience defined by researcher Dr. Valerie Young:
This person sets extremely high, almost impossible standards for themselves, so that even their real accomplishments feel inadequate. Minor mistakes or less than perfect outcomes confirm feelings of being a fraud.
The superperson pushes themself to work harder and accomplish more to prove their worth. They often juggle multiple roles and responsibilities, feeling a constant pressure to meet high expectations. Despite external validation, they may still feel like frauds.
The Natural Genius
People who believe intelligence or talents should come naturally may feel fraudulent if they have to work hard at developing skills. Struggles like not immediately understanding or perfecting something reveal “proof” that they are imposters.
Soloists prefer to work alone and avoid seeking help or collaboration. They believe that asking for assistance is a sign of weakness and that they should be able to handle everything independently. They fear being exposed as incompetent if they need support.
Individuals with the Expert type of imposter syndrome feel the need to know everything before taking on a task. They fear being exposed as a fraud if they don’t have all the answers, leading to overpreparation and reluctance to seek help or collaborate.
While the manifestations vary, the core components of imposter syndrome are the same: feeling like a fraud, fearing failure, and discounting one’s abilities or achievements. Recognizing the type can help address specific distorted thoughts.
Potential Causes Of Imposter Syndrome
People with impostor syndrome often set excessively high standards for themselves so that even their legitimate successes feel inadequate. While they’re aiming high, this will inevitably breed self-doubt.
Childhood experiences, particularly those involving criticism, excessive expectations or a lack of praise, can contribute to the development of imposter syndrome. Messages received during formative years can shape one’s self-perception and beliefs about competence. For example, family members who offer excessive praise for intellectual abilities can inadvertently link love and acceptance to achievement. Or maybe instead of celebrating a good grade, a loved one simply asks why it was not higher.
Cultural And Societal Expectations
Societal and cultural expectations, especially those related to gender, race and achievement, can play a significant role in imposter syndrome. Members of marginalized or underrepresented groups (women in STEM fields, for example) who internalize stereotypes about their capabilities may end up feeling like imposters. These individuals may also feel pressure to conform to certain stereotypes or expectations, leading to doubts about their authenticity.
Ability vs. Effort Attribution
Attributing success to temporary causes (like effort or luck) rather than to fixed qualities (like intelligence) can fuel the inner ‘fraud’. It leaves one feeling that the success formula could change at any moment.
Difficulty Internalizing Success
Even people with proven talents in a field may have trouble internalizing their abilities and trusting in their competence when faced with new challenges or responsibilities. With a critical inner dialogue, they may doubt their capabilities in the face of adversity.
A competitive or high-pressure work environment can contribute to imposter syndrome. If the workplace emphasizes constant achievement without acknowledging effort or providing support, employees may feel like imposters even when they are successful.
While perfectionism and neuroticism can contribute, evidence suggests that impostor syndrome arises more from distorted self-perception rather than genuine intellectual or ability deficits. Addressing the cognitive distortions and causes is key to overcoming it.
Arlin Cuncic for Very Well Mind also noted that imposter syndrome and social anxiety can overlap. Not everyone who has one has the other, but those who do have social anxiety could be experiencing imposter syndrome as a byproduct.
How To Deal With Imposter Syndrome
Dealing with imposter syndrome involves a combination of self-awareness, mindset shifts and practical strategies. Here are some tips to help with managing and overcoming imposter syndrome:
Recognize that imposter syndrome is a common phenomenon and that many successful people experience it. Acknowledge your feelings without judgment, and accept that it’s okay to feel this way.
Identify Negative Thoughts
Pay attention to negative thoughts and self-talk. When you catch yourself thinking you’re not good enough or attributing your success solely to luck, challenge those thoughts. Replace them with more balanced and positive affirmations about your abilities and achievements.
Understand That Perfection Is Unattainable
Embrace the idea that perfection is an unrealistic goal. Everyone makes mistakes, and it’s through learning and growth that we become better. Allow yourself to be imperfect and learn from your experiences.
Keep a record of your accomplishments, both big and small. Regularly review this list to remind yourself of your successes and the hard work that led to them. Celebrate your achievements rather than downplaying or dismissing them.
Set Realistic Goals
Establish realistic and achievable goals for yourself. Break down larger tasks into smaller, manageable steps. This can help you build confidence as you accomplish each step, reinforcing your belief in your abilities.
Seek Feedback And Accept Praise
Instead of dismissing positive feedback or attributing your success to external factors, accept compliments graciously. Seek constructive feedback to gain a more accurate perspective on your strengths and areas for improvement.
Talk About It
Share your feelings of imposter syndrome with trusted friends, family members, or colleagues. Opening up about your struggles can help you gain perspective and receive support. You may find that others have experienced similar feelings and can offer valuable insights.
Develop A Growth Mindset
Embrace a growth mindset, which focuses on learning and improvement rather than fixed abilities. Understand that skills can be developed over time through effort, practice, and learning from experiences.
Don’t Compare Yourself
Avoid constant comparisons with others, as everyone’s journey is unique. Instead of measuring your success against someone else’s, focus on your individual progress and achievements.
Get Professional Support
Consider seeking support from a therapist, counselor, or coach. A mental health professional can help you explore the underlying issues contributing to imposter syndrome and provide strategies for overcoming it.
Remember that overcoming imposter syndrome is a process, and it may take time. Be patient with yourself and celebrate the progress you make along the way. Developing a healthier self-perception and mindset is a gradual journey toward building confidence and authenticity.
Is Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome Harmful?
Despite what is commonly believed, some argue that imposter syndrome is a term that puts all the responsibility of improvement on the person it affects, specifically women and BIPOC, and not the systemic issues that cause it.
In their article “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome” for Harvard Business Review, Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey wrote “The impact of systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases was categorically absent when the concept of imposter syndrome was developed.”
Tulshyan and Burey also criticized the lack of diversity involving professional backgrounds, income level, genders and more considering how generalized the1978 study is.
Tulshyan and Burey continued, “Even as we know it today, imposter syndrome puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests in both women of color and white women. Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”
Labeling women and BIPOC as “imposters” is harmful according to Tulshyan and Burey. It suggests these people should conform to a certain social image of confidence and professionalism rather than addressing the microaggressions, stereotypes, racism or other injustices that can occur day to day. Additionally, women and BIPOC that do display this social image are often scrutinized for it.
“In truth, we don’t belong because we were never supposed to belong. Our presence in most of these spaces is a result of decades of grassroots activism and begrudgingly developed legislation… Biased practices across institutions routinely stymie the ability of individuals from underrepresented groups to truly thrive,” Tulshyan and Burey wrote.
A better solution to fix “imposter syndrome” according to Tulshyan and Burey is to create a professional culture that addresses the systemic issues these groups face daily, as well as environments with multiple leadership styles that suggests diverse/marginalized groups are seen as equally professional.