What Is Imposter Syndrome?

Types of imposter syndrome

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

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What Is Imposter Syndrome?

Impostor syndrome is an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be, as if you are a fraud. Despite being a "syndrome," it is not a diagnosable mental illness. Instead, the term is usually narrowly applied to intelligence and achievement, although it also has links to perfectionism and the social context.

To put it simply, imposter syndrome is the experience of feeling like a phony in some area of your life, despite any success that you have achieved in that area. Psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance first used this term in the 1970s.

Imposter Syndrome Definition

Merriam-Webster defines imposter syndrome, in part, as "persistent doubt concerning one's abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one's ongoing success."

Originally, the concept of imposter syndrome was thought to apply mostly to high-achieving women. Since then, it has been recognized as a more widely experienced phenomenon. Imposter syndrome can affect anyone—no matter their social status, work background, skill level, or degree of expertise.

Here we share the signs of imposter syndrome and some of the risk factors for developing it. We also cover different types of imposter syndrome and ways to cope with the feelings that it can create.

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Types of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome can be broken down into five basic types:

  • The Perfectionist. This type of imposter syndrome involves believing that, unless you were absolutely perfect, you could have done better. You feel like an imposter because your perfectionistic traits make you believe that you're not as good as others might think you are.
  • The Expert. The expert feels like an imposter because they don't know everything there is to know about a particular subject or topic, or they haven't mastered every step in a process. Because there is more for them to learn, they don't feel as if they've reached the rank of "expert."
  • The Natural Genius. In this imposter syndrome type, you may feel like a fraud simply because you don't believe that you are naturally intelligent or competent. If you don't get something right the first time around or it takes you longer to master a skill, you feel like an imposter.
  • The Soloist. It's also possible to feel like an imposter if you had to ask for help to reach a certain level or status. Since you couldn't get there on your own, you question your competence or abilities.
  • The Superperson. This type of imposter syndrome involves believing that you must be the hardest worker or reach the highest levels of achievement possible and, if you don't, you are a fraud.

Characteristics of Imposter Syndrome

Some common characteristics of imposter syndrome include:

  • An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills
  • Attributing your success to external factors
  • Berating your performance
  • Fear that you won't live up to expectations
  • Overachieving 
  • Sabotaging your own success
  • Self-doubt
  • Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short

Impact of Imposter Syndrome

For some people, impostor syndrome can fuel motivation to achieve, but this usually comes at the cost of experiencing constant anxiety. You might over-prepare or work much harder than necessary, for instance, to "make sure" nobody finds out you are a fraud. Eventually, anxiety worsens and may lead to depression.

This sets up a vicious cycle, in which you think that the only reason you survived that class presentation was that you stayed up all night rehearsing. Or you think the only reason you got through that party or family gathering was that you memorized details about all the guests so you would always have ideas for small talk.

The problem with impostor syndrome is that the experience of doing well at something does nothing to change your beliefs. The thought still nags in your head, "What gives me the right to be here?" The more you accomplish, the more you just feel like a fraud. It's as though you can't internalize your experiences of success.

This makes sense in terms of social anxiety if you received early feedback that you were not good in social or performance situations. Your core beliefs about yourself are so strong that they don't change, even when there is evidence to the contrary. The thought process is that if you do well, it must be the result of luck.

People who experience impostor syndrome tend not to talk about how they are feeling with anyone and struggle in silence, just like those with social anxiety disorder.

Examples of Imposter Syndrome

To better understand what imposter syndrome is, it might be helpful to see what it looks like in everyday life. Here are a few examples of what it's like to experience imposter syndrome:

  • You've been working in a certain role for a couple of months, yet when people call you by your formal title, you feel like a fraud because you haven't mastered that position.
  • You've started your own business; however, you don't like to promote yourself because you don't have the same level of experience or expertise as others in your field, making you feel like a fraud.
  • You've been nominated for an award, but you feel like an imposter at the recognition ceremony because you don't feel that your achievements are good enough to warrant the nomination.

Signs of Imposter Syndrome

While impostor syndrome is not a recognized mental health disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it is fairly common. It is estimated that 70% of people will experience at least one episode of this phenomenon at some point in their lives.

If you wonder whether you might have imposter syndrome, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you agonize over even the smallest mistakes or flaws in your work?
  • Do you attribute your success to luck or outside factors?
  • Are you sensitive to even constructive criticism?
  • Do you feel like you will inevitably be found out as a phony?
  • Do you downplay your own expertise, even in areas where you are genuinely more skilled than others?

If you often find yourself feeling like you are a fraud or an imposter, it may be helpful to talk to a therapist. The negative thinking, self-doubt, and self-sabotage that often characterize imposter syndrome can affect many areas of your life.

Causes of Imposter Syndrome

In the earliest studies, researchers found that imposter syndrome was connected to factors including early family dynamics and gender stereotypes. Subsequent research has shown, however, that the phenomenon occurs in people of all backgrounds, ages, and genders.

Family Upbringing

Research suggests that upbringing and family dynamics can play an important role in imposter syndrome. Specifically, parenting styles characterized by being controlling or overprotective may contribute to the development of imposter syndrome in children.

For example, you might have come from a family that highly valued achievement. Or you may have had parents who flipped back and forth between offering praise and being critical.

Studies also suggest that people who come from families that experienced high levels of conflict with low amounts of support may be more likely to experience imposter syndrome.

New Work or School Opportunities

We also know that entering a new role can trigger impostor syndrome. For example, starting college might leave you feeling as though you don't belong and are not capable. You may also experience the same feelings when starting a new position at work.

Imposter syndrome appears to be more common when people are going through transitions and trying new things. The pressure to achieve and succeed, combined with a lack of experience, can trigger feelings of inadequacy in these new roles and settings.

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Personality

Certain personality traits have also been linked to a higher risk of experiencing imposter syndrome. Some traits or characteristics that might play a role include:

  • Low self-efficacy: Self-efficacy refers to your belief in your ability to succeed in any given situation.
  • Perfectionism: Perfectionism plays a significant role in impostor syndrome. You might think that there is some perfect "script" for conversations and that you cannot say the wrong thing. You may also have trouble asking for help from others and procrastinate due to your own high standards.
  • Neuroticism: Neuroticism is one of the big five personality dimensions that is linked to higher levels of anxiety, insecurity, tension, and guilt. 

Social Anxiety

Impostor syndrome and social anxiety may overlap. A person with social anxiety disorder may feel as though they don't belong in social or performance situations, for instance.

You might be in a conversation with someone and feel as though they are going to discover your social incompetence. Or you may be delivering a presentation and feel as though you just need to get through it before anyone realizes you really don't belong there.

While the symptoms of social anxiety can fuel imposter syndrome, this does not mean that everyone who experiences imposter syndrome has social anxiety or vice versa. People without social anxiety can also feel a lack of confidence and competence. Imposter syndrome often causes normally non-anxious people to experience a sense of anxiety when they are in situations where they feel inadequate.

Imposter Syndrome vs. Discrimination

Feeling like an outsider isn't necessarily a result of imposter syndrome. In some cases, it can occur due to actual discrimination or exclusion due to systemic bias. With imposter syndrome, the feeling of being an outsider is caused by internal beliefs. With discrimination, the feeling is caused by the actions of others.

Coping With Imposter Syndrome

To get past impostor syndrome, it helps to start asking yourself some hard questions. Here are a few to consider:

  • What core beliefs do I hold about myself?
  • Do I believe I am worthy of love as I am?
  • Must I be perfect for others to approve of me?

To move past these feelings, you need to become comfortable confronting some of the deeply ingrained beliefs you hold about yourself. This exercise can be hard because you might not even realize that you hold them, but here are some techniques you can use:

  • Share your feelings. Talk to other people about how you are feeling. Irrational beliefs tend to fester when they are hidden and not talked about.
  • Focus on others. While this might feel counterintuitive, try to help others in the same situation as you. If you see someone who seems awkward or alone, ask them a question to bring them into the group. As you practice your skills, you will build confidence in your own abilities.
  • Assess your abilities. If you have long-held beliefs about your incompetence in social and performance situations, make a realistic assessment of your abilities. Write down your accomplishments and what you are good at, then compare these with your self-assessment.
  • Take baby steps. Don't focus on doing things perfectly, but rather, do things reasonably well and reward yourself for taking action. For example, in a group conversation, offer an opinion or share a story about yourself.
  • Question your thoughts. As you start to assess your abilities and take baby steps, question whether your thoughts are rational. Does it make sense to believe that you are a fraud given everything that you know?
  • Stop comparing. Every time you compare yourself to others in a social situation, you will find some fault with yourself that fuels the feeling of not being good enough or not belonging. Instead, during conversations, focus on listening to what the other person is saying. Be genuinely interested in learning more.
  • Use social media moderately. We know that the overuse of social media may be related to feelings of inferiority. If you try to portray an image on social media that doesn't match who you really are or that is impossible to achieve, it will only make your feelings of being a fraud worse.
  • Stop fighting your feelings. Don't fight the feelings of not belonging. Instead, try to lean into them and accept them. It's only when you acknowledge these feelings that you can start to unravel the core beliefs that are holding you back.
  • Refuse to let it hold you back. No matter how much you feel like you are a fraud or that you don't belong, don't let that stop you from pursuing your goals. Keep going and refuse to be stopped.

Recap

Strategies to cope with imposter feelings include talking about what you are experiencing, questioning your negative thoughts, and avoiding comparing yourself to others.

A Word From Verywell

Remember that if you are feeling like an impostor, it means you have some degree of success in your life that you are attributing to luck. Try instead to turn that feeling into one of gratitude. Look at what you have accomplished in your life and be grateful for your achievements.

Don't be held back by your fear of being found out. Instead, lean into that feeling and get to its roots. Let your guard down and allow others to see the real you. If you've done all these things and still feel like an impostor, which is holding you back, a mental health professional can help you learn how to overcome these feelings.

If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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