Do you feel like you don’t deserve that raise? Or that you fooled everyone when you landed the new job? Or that you’re not smart enough to nail your assignment?
It’s not just you. This type of self-doubt, often called imposter syndrome, affects millions of people across all sorts of demographics and job types.
What Is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is when you feel undeserving of your achievements and the high esteem to which you’re held. People who experience imposter syndrome often doubt their competency and fear they are a fraud who will be “found out.”
Overcoming imposter syndrome is a challenge. But people can take certain steps to reduce these feelings and arrive at a level of self-awareness that sets them up for success.
What Is Imposter Syndrome?
Impostor syndrome refers to the negative self-perception that you’re undeserving of your achievements and that other people are mistaken when they think you’re a competent person. While many people experience impostor syndrome, it is not an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes first described imposter syndrome in 1978 while researching why high-achieving women believe themselves to be inadequate. Although this initial research focused on women, anyone can experience imposter syndrome, regardless of gender or job status.
Up to 82 percent of people experience imposter syndrome — and that includes college students, medical professionals, teachers, accountants and more. Imposter syndrome affects all kinds of people, but studies have found that 75 percent of women in executive positions have reported experiencing imposter syndrome throughout their careers.
Characteristics of Imposter Syndrome
Impostor syndrome can show up in a number of ways. For some people, no matter how many promotions or outstanding performance evaluations they get, they still feel like they don’t deserve success.
Inability to Assess Competence and Skills
What are your strengths? For those who find themselves drawing a blank when asked this question, this could signal that imposter syndrome is at play. Everyone brings their own unique set of attributes and skills to a team, but someone with imposter syndrome may have a more difficult time recognizing their own.
Attributing Success to External Factors
People with imposter syndrome often attribute luck or coincidence to their successes, rather than their own work ethic or expertise. Being humble at work can be seen as respectable by colleagues and customers, but someone who doesn’t acknowledge their own influence in a key project, product or other success could be having imposter feelings.
Not Fully Participating in Work
If someone has imposter syndrome, this can lead to them feeling like they don’t bring anything beneficial to their coworkers or classmates. This individual may not share ideas in meetings, ask questions or take on new responsibilities. Instead, they may opt to lay low and let others take the reins.
“It might manifest in somebody I refer to as ‘flying under the radar,’” said Valerie Young, co-founder of the Imposter Syndrome Institute and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. “So it might be the person who you know is perfectly capable and qualified, but they don’t speak up.”
Fearing That You Won’t Live Up to Expectations
People with imposter syndrome often place a large amount of pressure on themselves and believe they will never truly live up to expectations. This feeling also frequently coincides with a fear of failure, which can discourage capable employees from taking on new challenges or putting in their full effort.
Setting Unrealistic Goals and Standards
People experiencing imposter syndrome may overwork themselves and set unrealistic goals. This can look like working outside of regular hours, tackling too many projects at once or not making time outside of work to enjoy leisure activities. This often is rooted in a need to prove themselves worthy of the work they do.
Types of Imposter Syndrome
Young identified five distinct ways that impostor syndrome shows up in people. Each person’s experience of imposter syndrome is different, but there are some traits people may hold in common.
According to Young, experts will not feel satisfied when finishing a task until they feel that they know everything about the subject. This person may spend so much time searching for information that it can be hard to complete tasks and projects.
Perfectionists often experience high levels of anxiety, doubt and worry — especially when they set very challenging goals for themselves that they are unable to achieve. A perfectionist will focus on areas where they could have done better rather than celebrate their achievements.
The Natural Genius
Natural geniuses may master many new skills quickly and easily, but they may feel ashamed and weak when faced with a goal that is too difficult.
The soloist is a committed individualist that prefers to work alone, and may fear that asking for help will reveal their incompetence. They may refuse and discourage help in order to prove their self-worth.
The superhero often excels due to extreme effort and overwork. This person is more susceptible to burnout, which can affect physical and mental well-being and relationships with others.
Causes of Imposter Syndrome
It might be hard to understand why people who are so obviously talented would feel like imposters, but there are actually quite a few factors at play.
Differences Between Peers
Young pointed out that one common catalyst for feeling out of place is being different from those around you. People who are forced to represent a certain group within a space may feel like an imposter simply because they are not surrounded by people who look, act, or think like they do. That’s why a woman on an engineering team made up mostly of men, for instance, might experience imposter feelings.
People’s education plays a role as well. Some may feel that they didn’t earn enough academic accolades to fit into their role if they took a less traditional route, while others may think their degrees didn’t prepare them for real world experiences.
Some people may be more susceptible to experiencing imposter syndrome than others because of their personality. A 2014 study revealed that the Big Five personality traits may contribute to why people experience imposter syndrome in certain ways. The study showed, for example, that a person’s self-efficacy was the most prevalent factor in developing imposter syndrome, with secondary traits being perfectionism and neuroticism.
Anxiety and Fear of Success or Failure
People with anxiety may harbor feelings of being an imposter because of their anxiety, as they often overlap with one another. Some people might also fear success and have anxiety surrounding achievement.
According to a 2018 study from the Universal Journal of Educational Research, people who fear success may purposefully avoid it by setting low goals for themselves and leaning on easy tasks. They may fear success because they have anxieties about overworking as well as being successful but being sabotaged in some way. They might also believe that successful people’s personal relationships are negatively impacted by their success.
A fear of failure is also a common trigger for these feelings, according to Pauline Clance, a psychologist and author of The Impostor Phenomenon. As a result, those feelings can result in people missing out on advice from their peers or trying new things.
Trying Something New
Another factor that might contribute to feeling like an imposter is taking on a new challenge, like starting a new role or embracing a promotion. It’s not unusual for people to experience some self-doubt when facing new challenges, but imposter syndrome intensifies these feelings.
Psychiatrist and author Carole Lieberman told the American Psychological Association that a person with imposter syndrome “has an all-encompassing fear of being found out to not have what it takes.”
Consequences of Imposter Syndrome
Delayed Career Advancement
Outside of increased levels of stress and worry — which can negatively impact physical and mental health — people experiencing this phenomenon may have trouble advancing in their career.
The 2014 study suggests that people with imposter syndrome tend to stay in their positions because they don’t believe they can do better. This is because people may underestimate their skills and don’t recognize how roles, particularly roles that would advance their career, might work for them and their abilities.
Habits of Overworking
People whose imposter tendencies manifest as overworking may experience success from over-preparation. However, this cycle of over-preparation leading to success reinforces the idea that extra work always needs to be done and success would not be possible without it.
Impostor syndrome can easily lead to burnout. People who perpetually feel like imposters will eventually hit a wall of exhaustion and lose a clear sense of direction for their career.
It’s crucial for people to recognize the overarching effects of imposter syndrome, Young said. It holds consequences for everyone, and that’s something that shouldn’t be underestimated.
How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
While imposter syndrome appears to be a common theme in many workplaces, there are many ways to combat it.
Recognize Your Feelings of Self-Doubt
The first step to overcoming imposter syndrome is recognizing it for what it is and being able to talk about it.
Marc Teer, CEO of education platform Black Spectacles, said it’s crucial for leaders to maintain a sense of openness and transparency with their teams. By owning up to their mistakes, leaders set an example for the rest of the team.
It’s key for teams to carve out a space for honesty, Teer added. That’s why his team uses weekly meetings to share “screw up, learn up” stories, where they discuss any mistakes they’ve made and what they learned from them.
Normalize Having Imposter Feelings
One of the most important steps managers can take is to normalize imposter feelings, Young said. There can be a lot of shame involved, so talking about it more openly with your peers will reinforce the idea that it’s normal.
Contextualizing imposter feelings is the next step in the normalization process, Young added. Leaders should sit down with their peers to discuss the possible reasons why they feel like an imposter. This can also be used as an opportunity to reframe the situation.
Avoid Comparing Yourself to Others
It’s also important to do your best in avoiding comparing yourself to others and to understand that no one is perfect at their job. If you can change your thinking around what you believe you should be, you’ll be able to truly focus on what you’re capable of.
“I want them — when they’re having a normal imposter moment — to hit the pause button and try to become consciously aware of the conversation that’s going on in their head,” Young said, “and then step back and reframe it the way somebody who doesn’t feel like an imposter would.”
Celebrate Personal Achievements
Celebrating achievements both internally and externally and receiving peer feedback is another important part of overcoming imposter syndrome. More frequent check-ins and a supportive feedback environment often spurs employee growth and development. Plus, 89 percent of HR leaders surveyed agree that continuous peer feedback and check-ins have a positive impact on their organizations, such as employee experience, relationships, organizational values and culture as well as employee engagement.
Seek Out Community and Support
Leaders can also benefit from finding support within their given industry, Teer said. Finding mentors within your community can make you feel more connected and gives you a better sense of how others have found success.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the types of imposter syndrome?
The five main types of imposter syndrome include:
- The Expert
- The Perfectionist
- The Natural Genius
- The Soloist
- The Superhero
What does imposter syndrome feel like?
People with imposter syndrome can feel doubtful in their abilities, undeserving of their achievements and that they will never be able to meet expectations. They often have a fear of being "found out" as a fraud in what they do or achieve.