Imposter syndrome is the experience of feeling like you don’t belong where you are, and you only got there through luck. It can affect anyone no matter their social status, work background, skill level, or degree of expertise.
It is an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. While this definition is usually narrowly applied to intelligence and achievement, it has links to perfectionism and the social context too.
Characteristics or Common Signs of imposter syndrome include:
- An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills
- Attributing your success to external factors
- Berating your performance
- Fear that you won’t live up to expectations
- Sabotage your own success
- Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short
- While for some people, impostor syndrome can fuel feelings of motivation to achieve, this usually comes at a cost in the form of constant anxiety.
- The problem with impostor syndrome is that the experience of doing well at something does nothing to change your beliefs. The thought that nags in your head, “What gives me the right to be here?” is as though you can’t internalise your experiences of success.
- The thought process is that if you do well, it must be the result of luck.
- Eventually, these feelings worsen anxiety and may lead to depression. People who experience impostor syndrome also tend not to talk about how they are feeling with anyone and struggle in silence.
Identifying Imposter Syndrome
While impostor syndrome is not a recognised disorder, it is not uncommon. It is estimated that 70% of people will experience at least one episode of this phenomenon in their lives.
- If you think you might have imposter syndrome, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you agonise over even the smallest mistakes or flaws in your work?
- Do you attribute your success to luck or outside factors?
- Are you very sensitive to even constructive criticism?
- Do you downplay your own expertise, even in areas where you are genuinely more skilled than others?
If you often find yourself feeling like an imposter, it may be helpful to talk to a therapist. The negative thinking, self-doubt, and self-sabotage that often characterise imposter syndrome can have an effect on many areas of your life.
Causes of Imposter Syndrome are:
We know that certain factors can contribute to the more general experience of impostor syndrome. In the earliest studies on the phenomenon, researchers found that imposter syndrome was connected to factors including early family dynamics and gender stereotypes and may occur in people of all backgrounds, ages and genders.
- Family Upbringing
Upbringing and family dynamics can play an important role. Parenting styles of being controlling or overprotective may contribute to the development of imposter syndrome in children. For example, you might have come from a family that highly valued achievement or had parents who flipped back and forth between offering praise and being critical. People who come from families characterised by high levels of conflict with low amounts of support may be more likely to experience imposter syndrome.
2. New Work/School Opportunities
Sometimes entering a new role may trigger impostor syndrome. For example, starting college or university might leave you feeling as though you don’t belong and are not capable. It appears that imposter syndrome is often the most common when people are going through transitions and trying new things. The pressure to achieve and succeed, combined with a lack of experience, can trigger feelings of inadequacy in these new roles and settings.
Certain personality traits have also been linked to a higher risk of experiencing imposter syndrome. Some traits or characteristics that might play a role include:
- Low self-efficacy
- Social Anxiety
Impostor syndrome and social anxiety may overlap. A person with social anxiety disorder (SAD) may feel as though they don’t belong in social or performance situations. You might be in a conversation with someone and feel as though they are going to discover your social incompetence. You might be delivering a presentation and feel as though you just need to get through it before anyone realises you really don’t belon
While all the above-mentioned symptoms may fuel feelings of imposter syndrome, this does not mean that everyone who experiences imposter syndrome has social anxiety or vice versa. People without social anxiety can also feel a lack of confidence and competence.
Types of Imposter Syndrome:
Imposter syndrome can appear in a number of different ways. A few different types of imposter syndrome may include:
- The Perfectionist: are never satisfied and always feel that their work could be better. Rather than focusing on their strengths, they tend to fixate on any flaws or mistakes. This often leads to a great deal of self-pressure and high amounts of anxiety.
- The superhero: because these individuals feel inadequate, they feel compelled to push themselves to work as hard as possible.
- The expert: these individuals are always trying to learn more and are never satisfied with their level of understanding. Even though they are often highly skilled, they underrate their own expertise.
- The natural genius: these individuals set excessively lofty goals for themselves, and then feel crushed when they don’t succeed on their first try.
- The soloist: these people tend to be very individualistic and prefer to work alone. Self-worth often stems from their productivity, so they often reject offers of assistance. They tend to see asking for help as a sign of weakness or incompetence.
Coping with Imposter Syndrome
To get past impostor syndrome, you need to start asking yourself some hard questions. These might include things such as the following:
- “What core beliefs do I hold about myself?“
- “Do I believe I am worthy of love as I am?“
- “Must I be perfect for others to approve of me?”
To move past these feelings, you need to become comfortable confronting some of those deeply ingrained beliefs you hold about yourself. This exercise can be hard because you might not even realise that you hold them, but here are some techniques you can use:
- Share your feelings. Talk to other people about how you are feeling.
- Focus on others. While this might feel counterintuitive, try to help others in the same situation as you. If you see someone who seems awkward or alone, ask that person a question to bring them into the group. As you practice your skills, you will build confidence in your own abilities.
- Assess your abilities. If you have long-held beliefs about your incompetence in social and performance situations, make a realistic assessment of your abilities. Write down your accomplishments and what you are good at, and compare that with your self-assessment.
- Take baby steps. Don’t focus on doing things perfectly, but rather, do things reasonably well and reward yourself for taking action. For example, in a group conversation, offer an opinion or share a story about yourself.
- Question your thoughts. As you start to assess your abilities and take baby steps, question whether your thoughts are rational.
- Stop comparing. Every time you compare yourself to others in a social situation, you will find some fault with yourself that fuels the feeling of not being good enough or not belonging. Instead, during conversations, focus on listening to what the other person is saying. Be genuinely interested in learning more.
- Stop fighting your feelings. Don’t fight the feelings of not belonging. Instead, try to lean into them and accept them. It’s only when you acknowledge them that you can start to unravel those core beliefs that are holding you back.
- Refuse to let it hold you back. No matter how much you feel like you don’t belong, don’t let that stop you from pursuing your goals. Keep going and refuse to be stopped.
Don’t be held back by your fears. Instead, lean into these feelings and get at their roots. Let your guard down and let others see the real you!