GuidesEmployee experienceWhat is imposter syndrome?

What is imposter syndrome?

Last updated

22 February 2024

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Warren Jonas ACC

Are you super ambitious but always afraid of being seen as a fraud? While humility is important, downplaying your success can become self-sabotaging and damage your self-esteem.

Say hello to imposter syndrome. This condition makes you doubt your abilities even when you’re great at what you do. 

Let’s look at what imposter syndrome is, its causes, and how it presents in your professional life.

Imposter syndrome definition

Currently, there’s no official medical definition for imposter syndrome. Generally speaking, it’s a psychological pattern that involves six key traits:

  1. The imposter cycle: Overpreparing or procrastinating on projects but never feeling accomplished when the work is complete. Anxiety returns. 

  2. Perfectionism: Setting unrealistic expectations and harshly criticizing yourself

  3. Super-heroism: Overpreparation to appear more than capable of your task

  4. Fear of failure: Worrying you’ll be uncovered as an imposter if you don’t perform 

  5. Denial of competence: Discounting your intelligence and abilities, crediting external influences rather than yourself 

  6. Fear of success: Achieving your goals would mean increasing your already unrealistic standards to meet new highs 

If you have imposter syndrome, you’ll struggle to accept your achievements. You’ll often base your idea of success entirely on outside validation. Anxiety may pop up, pushing you to perform your role perfectly in case people discover you’re an imposter. 

Imposter syndrome mostly comes from within. And the more successful you get, the more likely you are to experience it. These anxious feelings can make you want to slow down in your career, even when you actually want to progress. 

As you can see, it’s a pretty complex and contradictory condition. 

How to identify imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a type of cognitive distortion, like generalization and black-and-white thinking. You could be incredibly talented at your role, but you’d be the last to see it.

Some possible signs of imposter syndrome include:

  • Being full of doubt when others praise your success

  • Grading yourself on other people's assessments

  • Avoiding new challenges necessary for personal growth

  • Self-sabotage during critical turning points

  • Jumping into new challenges and wanting to prove yourself

  • Putting excessive work into something, never believing it’ll be good enough

  • Mistrusting others' praise while depending on it

  • Unrealistic expectations, normally followed by burnout

While imposter syndrome is most common in high achievers, it can affect anyone.

Causes of imposter syndrome

While plenty of research exists on imposter syndrome, researchers can’t agree on its causes. Working or learning in a high-stress environment can cause several factors of imposter syndrome, like perfectionism, burnout, and fear of failure. 

Research has also suggested that imposter syndrome can show up in people with certain personality and mood disorders, like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). 

If you’re from a minority or often-discriminated-against group, imposter syndrome can occur. Systemic racism and sexism can have a huge effect on people’s psyches. 

What does imposter syndrome feel like?

People experiencing imposter syndrome often report feeling inadequate. This includes anything from lack of confidence to shame about being less competent than they wish. 

While your ability to handle a situation or challenge may be outstanding, you may still consider yourself unworthy. You may also feel anxiety about being seen as an imposter if the situation attracts attention.

This isn't simply nervousness. Many who feel nervous still push through these uncomfortable feelings. Imposter syndrome turns experiences into an exaggerated sense of success or failure.

It can also make you feel sad when you achieve what you want. With imposter syndrome, you’re constantly pushing to be more and better. So there’s no time for celebrating your hard-earned success. 

Imposter syndrome can feel like a race against time to keep up an act rather than be exposed.

How do you know if you have imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome can negatively impact your life in several ways:

  • Long-term inability to adapt to a new role or challenge

  • Inability to turn down opportunities that aren't a good fit

  • Constantly over-delivering, believing your efforts aren’t enough

  • Resentment that previous efforts didn't "pay off" as expected 

  • Overwhelming or chronic anxiety about meeting new responsibilities

  • Repetitive thoughts demeaning your achievements

  • Failure to pursue greater challenges that you see as more in your league

  • Actively avoiding leadership roles, even when others trust your judgment and credentials

  • Numbness toward achievements

  • Mental exhaustion and burnout

  • Perfectionism

  • Reliance on external validation

Imposter syndrome can stoke issues of chronic anxiety and cause other mental health symptoms. If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome, professional help is available.

How common is imposter syndrome?

The APA has estimated that up to 82% of people will experience imposter syndrome at some point. However, it largely depends on self-reporting, which can be inaccurate.

The number of studies about imposter syndrome doubled between 2014 and 2020, so the scientific community is discussing the condition more. 

Are men or women more likely to experience imposter syndrome?

A 2021 study published in Frontiers surveyed 209 people. The study discovered that women experience more imposter syndrome than men on average. 

The authors noted that mainly socially prescribed perfectionism impacted the women rather than an internal sense of perfectionism. They also found that low self-esteem and high neuroticism (a tendency to experience negative emotions) played a significant role. 

Examples of imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome can play out in countless ways. Let’s look at two common examples.

Jen works in a male-dominated tech company. She was recently promoted to a managerial role after her excellent work performance over five years. She’s fully qualified for the role. In fact, she’s great at it. 

With a combination of critical parents and sexism in the workplace, she deeply doubts her capabilities and doesn’t feel like she’s cut out for the role. This impacts her ability to manage people. Her indecisiveness leads to employees undermining her, creating a vicious cycle.

Rob is completing his PhD in psychology. While he knows about imposter syndrome, he’s still falling into the trap of not thinking he’s smart enough. 

With an accomplished academic record, Rob should be fully comfortable in his journey toward a doctorate. But he’s terrified his thesis will out him as a fraud to his peers. So he’s not even started it yet, and he needs to submit it next month. 

What is imposter syndrome at work?

For most of us, work is the most common setting where imposter syndrome can cause real damage. Most of us experience it when we're afraid to speak up in new groups of people. Is there anything worse than being asked for a fun fact about yourself on your first day?

Work-based imposter syndrome shows up as chronic anxiety over how people will judge your work. Ironically, it can drive you to commit more work to a project to positively impact peer perceptions.

Five types of imposter syndrome

While you can’t really put your entire personality into a box, sometimes it can be fun. (INFP, anyone?) So tag yourself. We’re the natural genius. 

  1. The perfectionist: Always trying to make things even better

  2. The superhero: Takes charge as if the fate of the world depends on them

  3. The natural genius: Once a “gifted kid,” now constantly needs to prove their intelligence

  4. The soloist: Solves their self-induced problems like a boss

  5. The expert: Their way or the highway 

Tips for overcoming imposter syndrome

In all cases, imposter syndrome's defining quality is fear of inadequacy. 

Embracing your personality is key to dealing with imposter syndrome. It’s awesome to aspire to greatness, but not at the cost of your mental health. Being driven is admirable until you constantly feel like you’re not enough. 

Fed up of feeling like a fraud? Let’s look at what the American Psychology Association has to say about overcoming the condition. 

1. Find a mentor/coach

To be well-rounded and successful, you need feedback from the outside world. And that can be hard to handle. A qualified and patient mentor or coach can be a trustworthy source for balanced, personalized feedback. 

Until you trust your internal guidance system, you might view all experiences through a lens of inadequacy. A mentor can help you see things how they actually are. 

2. Recognize (and pursue) your talents

Many outward societal measures of success are unhealthy, with hustle culture taking over. It’s easy to forget what you actually want from life. 

What personal qualities, skills, and talents do you consider most admirable? These are the things that you'll be truly proud of when you pursue them. 

While it’s perfectly natural to worry about what other people think, it can be rough on your mental health. Weeding out external and internal pressures is a huge act of self-love and acceptance. 

If you frequently remind yourself of what you’re most proud of and do more of it, life will feel more meaningful.

3. Temper your ideals

While it’s pretty normal to have huge goals as an ambitious person, they can also invoke an exaggerated fear of failure. 

What is success worth to you? Are you happy to chase your goals with the risk of burnout always on the horizon? Or would you rather enjoy life a little more at a slower pace?

Don’t forget that the people you look up to often had humble beginnings and a tough road to get to where they are. 

4. Elevate your thinking

People with imposter syndrome are incredibly vigilant and always on the lookout for trouble. Apply that vigilance to something useful. 

Leading brain researcher Dr. Daniel Amen advises watching out for ANTs, or automatic negative thoughts

Start an ANT diary, and write them down when you experience them. Start actively challenging your ANTs with positive alternatives.

"I'm going to be exposed," for instance, could become: "I'm fitting into this new role better with every challenge." 

If you can do that, you're so close to saying, "I'm mastering this role precisely because it’s hard."

Take "I can't handle this" to mean "I am handling this."

Making time to de-stress can also help your brain cope with stressors, building a healthier relationship with work and yourself.

5. Speak with a confidant

While there’s a lot you can do on your own to handle imposter syndrome, sometimes you need a little help. Whether you turn to a professional or friend, don’t suffer in silence. 

Talking about your struggle with imposter syndrome can be very healing, especially if you've traced its origins back to childhood. 

FAQs

How do people with imposter syndrome think?

People with imposter syndrome tend to view themselves with the same surface-level depth normally reserved for others. They also consider how other people view them rather than an innate sense of who they are as a person. 

For instance, you could see a gold medal Olympian as a born champion and compare yourself and others accordingly. From the sidelines, it's easy to form a shallow view. 

Even if you overcame your anxiety to pursue a goal, the same thought patterns might hold you back, making you feel like a loser more often than a winner.

These thought patterns ignore that the road to success is very bumpy. There will be plenty of victories and failures on the way.

Do successful people experience imposter syndrome?

Everyone can experience imposter syndrome. Some may experience it at different stages, such as during stressful periods. For others, it can be a defining lifelong struggle. 

Even Olympic champions deal with imposter syndrome. Gold medal gymnast Suni Lee was just 18 when she dominated the 2021 Tokyo Summer Games. She described anxiety attacks at the meets, even as she managed to nail two perfect-10 performances.

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