What Is Imposter Syndrome?

Have you ever felt like an imposter? Learn about what imposter syndrome is and read tips on overcoming it.






What’s 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, you’ve likely experienced imposter syndrome.

Early research on imposter syndrome showed that some people who have ample evidence of personal accomplishments are still convinced that they do not deserve the success they have (Clance & Imes, 1978). In other words, people’s subjective view of their success is incongruent with the objective reality of their accomplishments.

So, the term imposter syndrome came to describe when people doubt their accomplishments and fear that they may be exposed as a fraud or “imposter”. We now know 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 the feeling of being an imposter. Here are a few:

Major Transitions. 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. Even those who rank higher in seniority may still doubt their achievements (LaDonna et al., 2018).

Societal and Familial Pressures. The researchers who coined the term imposter syndrome found that it can 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 we’re focusing on gender, age, race, or something else. 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.).

Mental Illness. 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. Harsh criticism exacerbates feelings of imposter syndrome (Murugesu, 2020).

Tips for Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

1. Acknowledge your emotions: Try to 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.

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.

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.

​In Sum

Sometimes, there will be a little voice in your head that tries to downplay your accomplishments and tries to make you doubt yourself. Although that voice may get loud, remember this: You are capable, competent, and worthy.

References

  • Buczynski, R., Harrell, S., McGonigal, K., & Siegel, R. (n.d.). Working with core beliefs of ‘never good enough’: How social prejudice can cultivate imposter syndrome.

  • Clance, P.R., & Imes, S.A. (1978). The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic interventions. Psychotherapy: Theory Research and Practice, 15, 241247

  • LaDonna, K. A., Ginsburg, S., & Watling, C. (2018). Rising to the level of your incompetence: What physicians’ self-assessment of their performance reveals about the imposter syndrome in medicine. Academic Medicine, 93(5), 763–768.

  • Murugesu, J. (2020). Harsh peer reviewer comments disproportionately affect minorities. New Scientist.

  • Rakestraw, L. (2017). How to stop feeling like a phony in your library: Recognizing the causes of the imposter syndrome, and how to put a stop to the cycle. Law Library Journal, 109(3), 465–476.

  • Sakulku, J. (2011). The impostor phenomenon. The Journal of Behavioral Science, 6(1), 75-97.

  • Villwock, J. A., Sobin, L. B., Koester, L. A., & Harris, T. M. (2016). Impostor syndrome and burnout among American medical students: A pilot study. International Journal of Medical Education, 7, 364–369.

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