The Psychology Of Impostor Syndrome & How To Actually Overcome It
Imagine that you've just landed a new job. You successfully climbed up the next rung of the corporate ladder. You earned your seat at the table. As an ambitious career person, you're excited and proud of yourself because you have arrived. But almost immediately as you sit down at that table, you begin to question yourself. You think, “Who am I to be leading this work?"
You find yourself harboring feelings of insecurity and self-doubt, feeling like you've deceived people into letting you take on this position, and feeling shame in telling people about what you're experiencing. You spin in a cycle of inadequacy, guilt, and worry.
This feeling is known as impostor syndrome.
What is impostor syndrome?
Impostor syndrome is the internalized belief that your success is due to luck or other external factors rather than your own skills, talent, intelligence, and/or qualifications. This false idea leaves you with a perpetual feeling of being a poser under constant threat and fear of being exposed as a fraud. It can lead to lingering feelings of insecurity, anxiousness, and stress, and it can intensify feelings of lower self-confidence and disbelief in your own abilities despite the achievements you may have accomplished that prove otherwise.
Impostor syndrome, also known as "the impostor phenomenon," was first introduced in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., ABPP, and Suzanne Imes, Ph.D. Their research found a prevalent pattern among accomplished, professional, high-achieving women of dismissing their achievements, over-attributing their successes to luck, and devaluing their own skills and intelligence while simultaneously believing that others were overestimating their talents.
Impostor syndrome is essentially a subconscious way of saying to yourself and others that "I am not enough" or "I am unworthy," and that you're somehow undeserving of the awards, accolades, and recognition you've received. Even worse than the feeling of unworthiness is the guilt you carry about deceiving others into thinking you're smarter and more competent than you believe yourself to be and fear that someone will find out and expose you and your "lies."
Indicators of impostor syndrome.
Like other feelings of unworthiness and self-doubt, impostor syndrome can be sneaky, and you may not even recognize signs that you are experiencing it.
Some common indicators include:
- Not believing you've earned your success by your own merits and instead attributing it to luck or other external factors
- Fearing someone is going to call you out on your fraud
- Feeling unworthy of your successes, positive experiences, or feedback
- Feeling like you're not smart, strong, pretty, thin, fast, (fill in the blank) enough
- Inability to internalize success and be proud of your own intelligence, competency, and skills
- Downplaying your achievements and accolades
- Over-exaggerating your shortcomings and failures
- Fearing failure and the idea of not living up to your own and others' expectations
- Setting unrealistic goals and feeling bad about yourself when you can't meet them
- Avoiding new opportunities and challenges
- Needing to be special or the best to be seen as valuable
- Placing your value in the ability to do it all and do it with excellence
- Displaying perfectionist tendencies
These beliefs and behaviors can lead to:
- Working harder to prove your worth, to make up for what you think you lack, or to prevent anyone from exposing your fraud
- Job dissatisfaction
- Declining work performance
- Inappropriately taking responsibility for others' feelings and behaviors
- Avoiding responsibility of processing and managing your own feelings and behaviors
- Not trusting your own intuition and difficulty with discernment
- Lack of internal motivation and loss of ambition (e.g., avoiding going after a promotion)
- Seeking recognition, pity, or sympathy from others
- Feeling bad if you don't receive external validation
- Codependency and neediness
- Physical, mental, and emotional repercussions of stress and other mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression
How it looks in practice.
In her work, Clance shares the impostor cycle model, which begins with an achievement-related task such as a project assigned at work or school. Once the assignment is given, you begin to feel feelings of worry and self-doubt, which causes one of two reactions—procrastination or over-preparing.
Once the task is completed, as a procrastinator with impostor syndrome, you'll likely feel that any positive feedback given was due to luck. If you're someone with a tendency to over-prepare, you'll attribute positive feedback to the extra effort you put in. With either response, you don't accept personal success for completing the task and dismiss the positive feedback. The validation of doing well doesn't change your internal beliefs about your ability and competence in making the task a success. Repetition of doing well and getting more positive feedback doesn't make you feel more confident, but rather it perpetuates the feeling of perceived incompetence, keeping the cycle spinning. This compounding self-doubt, fear, and guilt can also lead to more intense mental health concerns.
How to know if you have it.
Impostor syndrome is not simply the feeling of insecurity and self-doubt, which most people have felt about themselves and their work at some point in their lives. Impostor syndrome is a pattern of inability to internalize success. That said, impostor syndrome isn't exactly uncommon: According to a review article published in the International Journal of Behavior Science, it is estimated that 70% of people have experienced it.
So how do you know if you're experiencing impostor syndrome? Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you attribute your success to luck or external factors?
- Are you very sensitive to criticism of any kind?
- Do you agonize over even the smallest mistakes in your work?
- Do you downplay your expertise even when you truly are an expert?
- Do you feel like someone is watching you and will call you out as a phony?
You can also try taking this impostor syndrome test created by Clance.
The 5 types of impostor syndrome.
In her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How To Thrive in Spite of It, impostor syndrome expert Valerie Young, Ed.D., describes five main types of impostor syndrome:
1. The Perfectionist
The Perfectionist sets extremely high expectations for themselves. Any mistake, regardless of how small or how many wins they have or how hard they've worked, makes them feel like a failure and question their own abilities. When trying new things, they can feel shame, inadequacy, and even avoid trying in the first place if they can't do them perfectly the first time.
2. The Natural Genius
The Natural Genius is born with an inherent ability to pick up new skills quickly and with ease. They operate on the belief that competent people don't struggle or work hard, and if they have any difficulty or need to put in more effort than usual, it serves as proof that they're a fraud. They can feel shame and embarrassment if something doesn't come so easily to them or if they fail on their first try.
3. The Soloist
The Soloist hates asking others for help. They believe they must be able to handle everything on their own, and the inability to do so means they are incompetent and incapable. Asking for or receiving support when offered presents a double negative of both falling short of their own high standards and admitting they can't do something and showing up as a failure.
4. The Expert
The Expert often feels they are not ready or are never good enough if they don't know everything there is to know about a topic. They validate themselves through external sources and often seek out certifications, degrees, and trainings. When looking for a new job, they won't apply to roles if they don't feel they meet the criteria on a job description. They may be hesitant to speak up in a meeting for fear of not knowing the answer to something they should know, or hold back from asking questions in class for fear of looking stupid. They have an unrealistic expectation of themselves that they should have all the answers, and their deepest fear is being exposed as a fraud if they don't.
5. The Superhero
The Superhero feels that they need to do it all and do it all with excellence. They are only successful if they are winning in all aspects of life such as at school, work, as a parent, a partner, and a friend. If they are falling short in just one of these areas, they see themselves as a failure and subsequently push themselves to succeed.
Where does impostor syndrome come from?
"There are many factors that may contribute to impostor syndrome, including a genetic predisposition to issues with mood and emotion-regulation, high expectations from caregivers during childhood, high expectations of self and others, and low self-esteem," says Stephanie J. Wong, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and host of The Color of Success.
Some experts believe that it's external factors such as early family dynamics or social-cultural norms. Others believe it's more internally derived, such as personality traits and existing mental health conditions.
Here are a few of the main contributing factors:
Early family dynamics
There's plenty of research that shows how influential our childhood experiences are on our thoughts and behaviors as adults. Some childhood memories can have a lasting impact and cause you to develop an idea that you need to be "good" and achieve in order to be loved or be lovable in the eyes of your parents. For example, a first- or second-generation immigrant may internalize guilt from watching their parents work multiple jobs or from being made to feel bad for everything their parents had sacrificed for them, leading them to over-index on the need to achieve a certain type of "success."
Some other examples of ways your parents and caretakers may have affected you and continue to affect you may include:
- Pressuring you to do well in school, saying you'll be a failure in life otherwise
- Praising you only when you do something good and criticizing you when you make mistakes, perform poorly, or behave badly despite best efforts or intentions
- Comparing you to siblings or other kids
- Overemphasizing your natural talents and shaming you when you struggle
- Being overprotective "helicopter" parents and instilling fear
School and work experiences
In our achievement-based society, most of us have felt the pressure of needing to do well at school and at work. Our stories of past success and failure can affect how we see ourselves today and how we feel about taking on new projects and assignments. How many of these experiences can you relate to?
- Working hard on a school assignment or spending extra time preparing for an exam only to get a low grade or score.
- Being labeled as the "smart one" in your group and being afraid to ask a question when you didn't understand something.
- Others assuming you were stupid because you were slower and couldn't keep up with the smart kids.
- Being publicly shamed in a work meeting for not knowing something or for making a mistake.
- Getting promoted and feeling you couldn't ask for help because you were supposed to now know everything.
- Getting hired to your dream job and then put on probation for not meeting your boss's expectations.
We live in a culture of "-est." That is, we admire the biggest, the prettiest, the richest, the fastest, etc. We praise the first, the best, the most. As such, many people idolize a path to success where kids are groomed at a young age to get good grades so that they get into an Ivy League school and become doctors and lawyers like "good sons and daughters" are supposed to. We learn to measure our success and ultimately our worth by the number of dollars, awards, Instagram likes, and shares on YouTube we get. We kill ourselves in the pursuit of becoming living legends and leaving a legacy as an "-est."
In such an environment, it's easy to judge yourself when you seemingly can't keep up or don't seem as good as what we see on TV or social media.
Personality traits and existing mental health conditions
According to Wong, impostor syndrome typically coincides with feeling anxious, having communication and social skills issues, and more. Having other existing mental health conditions, issues with emotional regulation, or general low self-esteem can all contribute to the development of impostor syndrome, she notes.
Engaging in something new
Humans can be creatures of comfort, and it can be challenging and stressful when you are starting something new. Impostor syndrome can show up when you're trying something you've never done before, especially if there are no models and examples to work off of or playbooks to follow—or if there are a lot of them you're trying to live up to.
The role of systemic racism and bias.
Recent criticism of the impostor syndrome concept has pointed out that early studies on impostor syndrome didn't include factors such as racism, classism, gender, and other biases. While more recent research shows anyone can experience impostor syndrome, it tends to be associated more with women and people of color.
These facts suggest that what's often deemed impostor syndrome may in many cases simply be a person experiencing the very real adverse effects of lack of representation, stereotypes, and systems of oppression. Here's how these experiences can affect a person in ways that look like impostor syndrome:
Lack of representation:
In many workplace settings, racially and ethnically marginalized communities don't often see people who look like them, especially as they climb up the corporate ladder. The idea that "if you can see it, you can be it" creates confidence. So when you don't see others who look like you, have fewer available role models and mentors that you can relate to, and lack support from folks who share your identity to encourage you, you may feel like you don't belong or don't deserve to be where you are.
People of color often find themselves needing to challenge stereotypes and having to work harder to prove themselves, be taken seriously, and be recognized for their efforts. Discrimination and microaggressions can emphasize feelings that you don't belong, with hypervigilance and awareness of your mistakes further adding to your self-doubt.
It's one thing to doubt your own abilities; it's another to have others victim-blame or gaslight you and be conditioned by society's messages that your identity is the reason for your unworthiness and for you to question the merit of your accomplishments.
Systems of oppression:
Leadership definitions modeled after qualities of cisgender, heterosexual white men and patriarchal standards of professionalism that overemphasize values such as productivity, urgency, perfectionism, individualism, and binary thinking around the "right and wrong" way to do things can all further exacerbate "impostor" feelings for women and people of color. Without the awareness of this societal context, you internalize your feelings, believing something is wrong with you and that your issues are yours and yours alone to fix.
Overcoming impostor syndrome.
The key to overcoming impostor syndrome is recognizing it's happening so you can stop it in its tracks. Writing has been shown to give your ideas more power, make them real, so as you go through this list, I suggest you write down your thoughts, strategies, and solutions.
It's also important to note it's not your sole responsibility to "fix" impostor syndrome given the role of cultural expectations and systemic societal norms on the phenomenon. It's important for workplaces and communities to collectively work to create environments that are inclusive so people are truly seen, heard, and valued. Organizations can do their part in addressing impostor syndrome by actively promoting inclusivity and belonging, sustaining equitable and diverse teams, and developing anti-racist cultures. Individually, you may want to specifically seek a culturally sensitive and trauma-informed therapist or coach for support.
In the meantime, though, here are questions you can ask yourself and practical actions you can take to get good at moving through feelings of self-doubt and not being good enough so you can overcome your own impostorism:
1. Acknowledge your feelings.
Self-awareness is empowering. When you are aware of something, you can address it. When those feelings of self-doubt and not being good enough show up, pause and recognize it's happening. No feelings are bad or wrong; they are simply indicators that something is out of alignment within you. When uncomfortable feelings from feeling like an impostor come up, instead of shaming them, thank them for protecting you. Ask yourself: What feelings am I experiencing right now? Where do I feel them in my body?
If you are recognizing that you're in an impostor cycle, procrastinating or over-preparing for a project, ask yourself: Why? Is this a pattern? When have I experienced this before? What am I afraid of? What am I avoiding? What about this project or situation feels overwhelming? What do I want to feel instead?
2. Understand your thoughts and behaviors.
Once you acknowledge that you may be experiencing impostor syndrome, instead of avoiding it, pause and reflect. Get intimate with your emotions. Also separate feelings from the facts.
Ask yourself: Where do my feelings of inadequacy or fear of failure come from? My parents? Conditioning from societal expectations? What experiences and stories am I holding on to about this belief? Are they mine, or did I take them on from someone else?
3. Pause and reflect.
As we go about our busy lives, it can seem difficult to find time for some slow deep breathing, introspection, or mindful meditation. Yet reflection is a powerful tool to help you choose how you want to respond versus react the next time feelings of impostor syndrome show up.
In retrospect, what lessons did you learn from your past experiences? What were your wins? What can you do better next time? Did the outcome turn out as bad as you thought it would? How can you apply what you learned about a past situation to a current one? Is it possible that you are projecting unnecessary worry, and will this experience actually be not so bad or, dare I say, even good? How can you stop the negative thoughts in their tracks?
4. Reframe your thinking and how you respond to negativity.
After doing some digging and leaning into your stories with kind curiosity, think about how you might be able to reframe your experience in a more positive light while still honoring what you experienced and felt at the time.
Are your beliefs about being a failure and a fraud true? Make a list of actual evidence you have that proves that this is true. When you're done, write a list that counters the previous one with evidence that proves this is not true. You can also keep a list of your wins and past success as well as a list of positive things people have said about you.
People who don't feel like impostors are no more intelligent or capable than you or anyone else. They just are better at thinking different thoughts, which you can learn to do too.
5. Share with trusted people.
While being introspective and doing some deep internal work is critical, sharing with trusted people in your inner circle can be even more powerful and can diffuse the intensity of feelings of impostor syndrome. It's not always easy to share our innermost fears and deepest feelings, so start small when processing with others. Talk to a friend, family member, mentor, coach, or therapist, someone you trust about what you are feeling who can affirm you.
Don't feel like you can trust anyone? Ask yourself: Why? What is the worst that could happen? You get exposed for being human? When you share openly with others and lead with vulnerability, it gives permission for others to do the same and can help others also open up about themselves. More often than not, people experience the same things you do, they're just as afraid to admit it as you are, or they were just as unaware of what is happening as you were. It's comforting to know you are not alone. With shared experiences, you can share strategies of how you may be able to deal with impostor syndrome.
6. Build your support system for sustained care and growth.
Who are the people in your life who are good at holding space for you? Are they good listeners who don't jump in to solve your problems or try to fix you but rather receive, accept and acknowledge you? Do they validate you and reflect your strengths back to you? Do they remind you of your brilliance when you're in a slump?
Create a shortlist of these trusted friends so you have them as your go-to for the next time impostor syndrome shows up. Ask them if they would want to engage as mutual accountability buddies. They might be able to recognize and call out when you are showing signs of impostor syndrome when you can't recognize them yourself. Encourage each other to grow. Self-doubt can be persistent, and becoming each other's go-to may help you to get out of the cycle of impostor syndrome faster the next time it shows up.
7. Embrace that no one is perfect.
It's a pretty comforting feeling when you recognize that we're all humans just trying to figure things out as we move along in life. Work on developing a healthy relationship with making mistakes. Get comfortable with being wrong and admitting it when you are. Sign up for a course on resilience training. When you meet new people or are presented with new opportunities, learn to approach them with a growth mindset.
8. Remember that no one is an absolute expert.
Most people, even the most confident among us, can experience self-doubt and anxiety and can fall into the dangerous comparison game. Being open to listening and starting conversations with others can also help you learn about things that you don't know. Feeling like you're not enough of an expert? Lean into others to help you fill the gaps. You'll feel more confident. Rather than comparing or competing, think about how you could converge and collaborate. What are your strengths and unique abilities? How do you add value?
You already may know a lot, but see what happens when you approach things with a growth mindset and the understanding that even the experts always have something to learn or a new perspective to see. What do you want to grow in? Who can you learn from, and what can you give in return?
9. Limit your time on social media.
Seeing all the "experts" on LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter can put us into a downward spiral of inferiority. You intellectually know that not everything you see on social media is real, but it can be hard to ignore the beautiful images of people's seemingly perfect lives and incredible accomplishments. Don't get fooled, and shut it down before social media gets the best of you.
10. Own your brilliance.
If you experience impostor syndrome, you may have a hard time receiving compliments and positive feedback. We can often be our harshest critics, so practice non-judgment and treating yourself with kindness and compassion by saying positive affirmations out loud to yourself, visualizing your success, and outwardly celebrating your strengths and accomplishments.
The bottom line.
Impostor syndrome is real, but it doesn't have to control you. While you may not eliminate these feelings right away or maybe even at all, you can challenge impostor syndrome by becoming good at acknowledging when it shows up, processing it internally and with people you trust, and moving through those negative feelings faster than you did the last time you felt impostor syndrome.
Remember, you have personal agency and a choice in how you see yourself and how you allow others to see you. Embrace your intelligence and accomplishments, get comfortable with your emotions, share your stories, stay confident in your knowledge and values, and know that the reason you got that promotion, that award, that acknowledgment is for no other reason than because you deserve it.
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