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?
The numbers are telling: In one study, 58 percent of tech workers said they feel like imposters. In another, 80 percent of psychology graduate students reported experiencing imposter syndrome.
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?
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.
And it’s a lot more complex and nuanced than any one definition can describe.
Although imposter syndrome is often associated with workers in high-pressure tech and business environments, it affects a great deal more. 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.
While many people experience imposter syndrome, it’s not an official psychiatric diagnosis in the DSM. However, people that experience imposter syndrome may struggle with other conditions like anxiety or depression.
What Are Characteristics of Imposter Syndrome?
In the workplace, imposter syndrome can take on many forms. For some people, no matter how many promotions or outstanding performance evaluations they get, they still feel like they don’t deserve success.
Yet, that doesn’t mean people who feel like imposters look outwardly dejected or insecure. In truth, it’s not always easy to tell if someone is experiencing imposter syndrome, but there are some common signs to look out for.
Common Signs of Imposter Syndrome
- Not being able to assess your competence and skills.
- Attributing your success to external factors.
- Not fully participating in work.
- Fearing that you won't live up to expectations.
- Setting challenging goals and feeling discouraged when you don’t meet them.
“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.”
Some people experiencing imposter syndrome may not share ideas in meetings, ask questions or take on new responsibilities. By keeping their heads down, they may believe no one will see them as the imposters they think they are.
Employees experiencing imposter syndrome may also tend to overwork themselves. This can look like working outside of regular hours, trying to tackle too many projects at once or not making time outside of work to enjoy themselves. 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 hard.
The soloist is an committed individualist that prefers to work alone. The soloist 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.
What Causes 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.
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.
Another factor that might contribute to feeling like an imposter is starting a new role or 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.”
People with anxiety may harbor imposter feelings caused by 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.
What Are the Consequences of Imposter Syndrome?
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.
On the flip side, 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.
However imposter syndrome may present itself, it 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 Do You Overcome Imposter Syndrome?
While imposter syndrome appears to be a common theme in many workplaces, there are many ways to combat it.
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.
Tips For Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
- Recognize your feelings of self doubt.
- Avoid comparing yourself to others.
- Be transparent and open with your coworkers.
- Remember what you do well.
- Create a safe space for your team.
- Remind yourself you’re not alone.
- Document and review feedback from peers.
- Celebrate your achievements.
- Find a mentor.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
An earlier version of this story was written by Olivia McClure.