What Is Imposter Syndrome?

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published June 10, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Imposter syndrome is characterised as internal feelings someone may have of believing that they are not as competent as others perceive them to be. Someone with imposter syndrome may have persistent feelings of inadequacy and that they are a fraud despite evidence of their success. 

The feeling of being an imposter was first believed to be used by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in 1978.

These feelings were thought to mostly be applied to high-achieving women, whom despite their outstanding academic and professional achievements, women who experienced the imposter phenomenon persisted in believing that they are not intelligent and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.

Since Imes and Clance’s early description, imposter syndrome has become more generally applied to anyone and is not restrictive to highly skilled individuals. 

Even if the evident success level of someone rises, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the feeling of inadequacy is going to reduce. Even when they receive positive feedback, it often fails to ease feelings of fraudulence.

Many people will not ask about how their performance is going for fear of their feelings being confirmed. Intense feelings of imposterism can stop people from sharing new ideas or applying for jobs and programmes where they may excel. 

Despite being in the same position as their peers, people with imposter syndrome often have the belief that other people are more worthy of their position and are more intelligent.

They tend to have unhelpful thoughts about what other people are really like since they only know what others present to them. Thus, people can often feel like imposters, not because they are flawed, but because they find it hard to imagine how flawed everyone else is. 

Characteristics

Despite being known as a syndrome, imposter syndrome is not a diagnosable mental health disorder with a set of diagnostic criteria to meet. There are, however, many characteristics and traits of someone who may feel that they are an imposter. 

Unhelpful thoughts and beliefs

Someone with imposter syndrome may be constantly challenging their own achievements. They may be challenging the validity of their own skills any abilities and are always full of self-doubt.

They may be asking themselves ‘What evidence supports my achievements?’ or say ‘Anyone could do this’.

Even if they can provide some evidence for their success, they may begin to challenge the field in which they work and question whether their work is worthwhile. They may think the work they do or the project they work on is unimportant or useless anyway, so it is not worth praise. 

Often, they can draw comparisons between themselves and others, especially those on the same level as them. They may believe others are more competent or worthy of their position. They may think ‘They are more confident than me’ or ‘How do they know what they are doing, and I don’t?’. 

The successes or achievements of the individual are often attributed to either luck or external factors.

. They may believe that they only got where they are because they were in the right place at the right time or because someone made a mistake. They may always be predicting disaster, that at any moment they will lose all credibility and be found out to be a fraud. 

For the person with imposter syndrome, the experience of doing well at something may do nothing to change their beliefs about themselves. In fact, the more they accomplish, the more they may feel as if they are fooling everyone around them.

They may have core beliefs about themselves that are so strong that they don’t change even when there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. 

Difficulties

Someone with imposter syndrome can have difficulty with being praised. Being praised can make them uncomfortable so they may not like hearing it.

When they do receive praise, they may respond by saying ‘I don’t deserve the credit’ or ‘Anyone can do this job’ rather than accepting the compliment. They often have an inability to realistically assess their competence and skill levels so they may feel undeserving of any praise. 

As well as praise, someone with imposter syndrome may also struggle with criticism. Being criticised could trigger imposter syndrome for some people or make the feeling worse.

People with imposter syndrome tend to believe criticism over compliments and can use this criticism to justify their inadequacies.

Even with constructive criticism, they may be very sensitive to this, and they could take this criticism as a personal attack on their own worth. 

Individuals with imposter syndrome may have difficulties with setting realistic goals for themselves.

They may set very challenging goals or take on more than they can handle to ensure people do not find out they are a fraud. These unrealistic goals cannot be easily achieved and so they are left feeling disappointed when they do not achieve these goals. 

They may also find difficulty in coping with mistakes in their work. If they notice they have made a mistake, they may catastrophise the impact of this and reinforce in their mind that they are inadequate. 

Behaviours

Performing perfectionist behaviours is common for those with imposter syndrome. They may overperform, take on a higher workload, overprepare, or repeatedly practice making up for their self-doubt.

They might work much harder than is necessary to ease their feelings of being an imposter which can lead to feeling burnt out. 

People with imposter syndrome may perform self-distraction techniques such as maladaptive daydreaming or procrastinating.

If they feel as if they cannot complete a task perfectly, they may put this task off completely for fear of making mistakes, or they may wait until they have the perfect conditions to complete it.

These can be examples of self-sabotaging their success. Another example of self-sabotaging could be quitting a project or job because of the overwhelming belief that they are not good enough. 

They may also over-analyse job postings that they are qualified for and won’t apply. Often, they will not apply to a job unless they meet and exceed the exact criteria of the job.

Even if they do meet the criteria of the job, they may downplay their experience. For instance, if a job requires 5 years’ experience but the individual worked part-time for a year of their 5 years’ experience, they may believe this doesn’t qualify for the full 5 years. 

Complications

Whilst imposter syndrome may not be directly related to, or a symptom of depressive or anxiety disorders, eventually the unhelpful thinking and maladaptive behaviours could eventually result in one of these conditions. 

Other complications of imposter syndrome may include:

  • Often feeling stressed

  • Feeling burnt out 

  • Decreased job or academic performance 

  • Decreased job or academic satisfaction 

  • Emotional exhaustion

  • Decreased life satisfaction

Types of imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome can present in many different ways. Some of the different types of imposter syndrome include the following:

The perfectionist

These individuals always strive for perfection in their work. They may never be satisfied with their work, believing that it can always be better. They tend to focus on the mistakes in their work rather than focusing on the strengths.

The intense striving for perfection can get to a point where they aim for perfection in other aspects of their life. They may not recognise that perfection is unrealistic and so if they do not achieve perfection they feel like a failure.

They may even avoid trying anything new or challenging for fear of not being able to do it perfectly first time. Over time the perfectionist may have persistent and increased pressure on themselves and high anxiety. 

The natural genius 

Individuals who are a natural genius may have spent their life being able to pick up new skills easily. They may have been a very gifted child at school and achieved high grades.

Because of this, they have the belief that they should understand new skills and processes straight away. If they do not understand something straight away, then they may feel devastated or embarrassed. 

The soloist

The soloist is someone that prefers to work independently. They have the view that seeking help from others is a sign of incompetence, therefore they try to do everything themselves.

They will usually reject other people’s offer of help, even when struggling. They believe that if they cannot achieve something independently then they are unworthy and if they accept help this means admitting they are a failure. 

The expert

The expert is someone who is always striving to learn more, specifically in specific areas. They will usually have great expertise in many areas and are highly skilled.

These individuals are never satisfied with their level of understanding and may spend excessive amounts of time on something than is necessary.

They feel that they cannot call their work successful unless they have learnt everything there is to know on a topic.

If they cannot answer a question on topic, they should know a lot about then they consider themselves a failure for having gaps in their knowledge. 

The superhero

These individuals will usually put all their energy into every role they take. They will push themselves to the limit, feeling compelled to push themselves to work a hard as possible.

Coming from their feelings of inadequacy, they associate competence to their ability to succeed in every role they have. If they struggle to meet the demands of their roles, they may believe they are a failure.

Despite doing everything they can and exerting all their energy, they still believe they should be able to do more.

Who is most likely to experience imposter syndrome?

Clance and Imes’ 1978 research into what was then called the ‘imposter phenomenon’ noted how this feeling was consistent and intense among a sample of high achieving women.

Throughout research, it becomes clear that women, especially women of colour are most likely to experience imposter syndrome (Feenstra et al., 2020). 

A likely reason for why this is may be because these groups in society are often subject to persistent negative stereotyping.

For instance, the stereotype of the ‘good’ leader possessing predominantly masculine traits, which women are often depicted as lacking (Powell, Butterfield, & Parent, 2002).

Whilst men are stereotyped as portraying more traits to be a natural fit for a leadership position (e.g., being perceived as more assertive), women are often perceived as being warmer and more communal, which are not typically considered leadership qualities.

Because of these stereotypes, if a woman were to achieve a leadership position, she may feel insecure and out of place, as these stereotypes may consistently implied that she would not be fit for such a position (Haynes & Heilman, 2013). 

In a similar way, certain ethnic minorities are often stereotyped as being unintelligent, lazy, and/or underachieving (Reyna, 2008).

Due to these stereotypes, some ethnic minority students may be more likely to believe that the promotion they received or their acceptance into a prestigious university was due to luck instead of something they deserved.

Likewise, students who reported being the victim of racial discrimination are more likely to feel like imposters (Bernard et al., 2018).

 It has also been found that in predominantly white, male occupations, female and ethnic minority employees are often less likely to be asked for advice or included in work-related discussions (Begeny et al., 2020).

If these groups are treated differently in the workplace, this can give the impression that they lack sufficient knowledge and are not as valued. This can result in these individuals feeling stronger imposter syndrome traits. 

According to 2019 research in the United States, women are less likely to be hired and promoted to a management role in the workplace, holding approximately 38% of management roles (Lean In, 2019). It is likely that people are more likely to experience imposter syndrome if their demographic is not often seen as succeeding in their field.

Perhaps, if over time more different groups of people are being represented in higher positions, the feeling of being an imposter for these individuals will gradually diminish. 

Causes

People who are highly skilled or accomplished have a tendency to believe others are just as skilled. This belief can spiral into thinking that they do not deserve opportunities or accomplishments over other people.

Everyone is susceptible to a phenomenon known as pluralistic ignore, which means we each doubt ourselves privately but have the belief that we are alone in this thinking because no one else is voicing these doubts. 

Since we may not know the challenges, other people have had to overcome or how much they doubt themselves, there is no simple way to dismiss the feelings that we are less capable. All we know is what we feel ourselves.

We know that on the inside we are finding something difficult and constantly aware of all our anxieties, but we only know others from the outside. We only know the way others present themselves to us, which may often be deliberately portrayed in a way to appear more confident.

Because of how we view others and that we may not know their internal struggles, this could cause a lot of the feelings of being an imposter. 

imposter syndrome could have roots in childhood. Children often have the belief that parents, and other adults are different from them, for instance a child may find it incomprehensible that their parents were once their age and unable to do all the things they now do as adults.

We therefore start life with the strong impression that other people, especially seemingly competent people, are not like us at all. 

Equally, parenting styles and family environment could play a role in a child developing feelings of being an imposter.

If the child comes from a family that highly valued achievement, were always being compared to their sibling’s success, or had overly critical parents, this could result in children feeling as if their accomplishments are not enough.

Also, parents who over-emphasise their child’s achievements and a child who had academic success in childhood could contribute to imposter feelings later in life. For instance, a child may have found that elementary school was easy for them.

They may have been given a lot of praise on how intelligent they are by parents and teachers, perhaps being labelled as an over-achiever.

However, when they enter university or college, they may find that they are finding their studies difficult for the first time. Instead of finding ways around these new challenges, they may instead believe that they don’t belong and that everyone else around them must be more intelligent. 

Entering a new role could also trigger feelings of imposter syndrome, especially feelings of not belonging or not being capable. This could include getting accepted for a job role or promotion or getting accepted into a university which all felt ambitious to the individual.

People may believe they are unworthy of this success which could lead to feelings of not belonging or believing that them being accepted must have been a mistake.

An individual’s personality traits could make someone more likely to develop an imposter syndrome.

Those who have perfectionist tendencies or lack the confidence in their ability to manage their behaviour and successfully handle responsibilities are more likely to feel like an imposter in their roles. 

Considering the Big Five personality traits, it has been suggested that certain ratings of the traits may correspond with how much someone feels like an imposter.

Someone is more likely to experience imposter syndrome if:

  • They score high on openness to experience

  • They have low conscientious scores

  • They have mid-range extraversion scores

  • They score high on agreeableness – which is related to being trusting of others, looking at what others are doing and saying and taking this on board.

  • They score high on neuroticism – which is related to feeling easily anxious or depressed.

The mental health conditions which may be present for individuals could contribute to feelings of being an imposter.

Specifically, those living with depression or anxiety disorder may mean that these individuals are already experiencing self-doubt, diminished self-confidence, and worries about how they are perceived.

People with depression or anxiety could therefore develop an imposter syndrome. The imposter syndrome could also worsen the already existing mental health symptoms, thus creating a vicious cycle that can be difficult to escape from. 

Additionally, other people in life, aside from parents, could induce feelings of being an imposter. If someone fails to receive support, validation, and encouragement from others, e.g., supervisors and peers, especially in new roles, this could give people feelings that they don’t belong.

Finally, if an individual has someone in their life who is a narcissist, they can create feelings of confusion and manipulate situations to make the other person believe they are the problems.

This is a type of gaslighting and wear people down so that they question their own thoughts and may start believing they do not belong. 

Social anxiety

In many ways, imposter syndrome and social anxiety disorder can overlap. Social anxiety disorder is a mental health disorder whereby individuals get excessively anxious in social situations, for fear of being perceived negatively, judged, or embarrassed. 

Those with social anxiety and imposter syndrome tend to have core beliefs about themselves. Those with imposter syndrome may hold the core belief that they are inadequate, and that other people are more deserving of achievements.

Whereas someone with social anxiety may have the core belief that they are not good at social situations. 

When someone with imposter syndrome achieves something, their thought process may be that they only achieved something due to luck or other external factors. This can be similar to someone who is socially anxious, that they only did well in a social situation because of external reasons. 

When in social situations, someone with social anxiety disorder may worry that other people will discover their social incompetence. Likewise, when someone with imposter syndrome is around others, they may worry that they will be found out to be a fraud.

People with imposter syndrome also tend to not talk about how they are feeling with anyone and may struggle in silence, just as those with social anxiety do. 

It is likely that someone with social anxiety disorder may also develop imposter syndrome due to the characteristic overlaps. Social anxiety could fuel imposter syndrome and make the feelings worse, although this does not mean that everyone with imposter syndrome also has social anxiety disorder. 

How to cope with imposter syndrome

Accepting your feelings

Often, simply learning about what imposter syndrome is and recognising that you have these feelings could help with recognising that the feelings of being a fraud is irrational.

Sometimes, sharing these imposter feelings with a trusted friend can help the feelings from becoming overwhelming.

The friend may provide reassurance that you deserve your success, or they may even open up about their own insecurities about experiencing the same feelings.

Building connections

Creating a network of mutual support with peers or co-workers can be useful in several ways. A support network can offer guidance and support to the group, validate your strengths, and encourage your efforts to grow. This can also help if you are feeling overwhelmed with doing many things yourself.

Your peers may appreciate you reaching out and forming supportive connections that they themselves lacked the confidence to do themselves. Likewise, sharing your own imposter feelings with a group could help others who may be in the same position to feel less alone.

These irrational beliefs tend to worsen when they are hidden and not talked about so sometimes the best thing to do for these feelings is to share them with others. 

Challenging negative thoughts

Often, people with imposter syndrome have core beliefs about themselves, such as the belief that they are inadequate.

When these feelings manifest, it may be useful to ask yourself whether there are any facts to support these beliefs.

It may be useful to list the ‘evidence’ for and against your core belief. If you notice that there is little to no evidence to support this belief e.g., no one at work has challenged you on your worthiness, criticised you, or if there are multiple instances of receiving consistent praise and recognition, this probably means that you deserve your achievements

. Questioning your thoughts and weighing up the likeliness that you are fooling everyone can help you think more rationally.

It may also be useful to think about whether you would question other people’s worthiness for being in the same position as you. If you would not question other’s worthiness, it is likely that other people are not feeling this way about you unless there was a good reason to doubt you. 

Not comparing yourself to others

Each time you find yourself comparing your abilities or intelligence to others, you are likely to find some flaw with yourself which can further reinforce the idea that you are not good enough or do not belong.

It is important to remember that we only see in others what they display to us on the outside. Others may be displaying a favourable image to us which may not match how they feel on the inside.

Even if someone appears to have lots of knowledge, it is possible they have gone through their own struggles and insecurities to get where they are now. It can be hard not to compare in situations where we have seen someone grasp an understanding of something easily and you have taken longer to understand.

Remind yourself that it is ok to need some extra time to understand something or learn a new skill. It could be that there are many skills that you can grasp easily that others may struggle with. 

Taking care on social media 

Overuse of social media may be related to feelings of inadequacy. It is common for many people on social media to present themselves in a desirable way or post about their accomplishments.

If we are constantly seeing the successes of others online, this can only highlight our own insecurities and flaws. It is important to remember that what we see online may not accurately reflect how others are really feeling.

Likewise, if you are portraying an image on social media that doesn’t necessarily match who you really are, this may only make your feelings of being a fraud worse.

It can be useful to have occasional social media breaks if you are finding your imposter syndrome feelings worsening.

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Fact Checking
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Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, June 10). What Is Imposter Syndrome?. Teacher Support Network. https://teachersupport.info/imposter-syndrome/

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