What is Imposter Syndrome? Warning Signs And 8 Ways To Overcome Fears Of Inadequacy
While self-doubt is a natural human emotion, in its chronic form, it can be quite harmful. That’s when imposter syndrome manifests itself.
Self-doubt is part of human nature. However, when self-doubt evolves into chronic feelings of unworthiness or undeserving, it could indicate imposter syndrome. This term is given to feeling like a fraud, or not good enough, or not worthy, despite outward success, skills, knowledge, or levels of intelligence.
Before we continue to explore imposter syndrome and offer actionable steps to overcome it, it’s important to distinguish between imposter syndrome and imposter phenomenon. The American Psychological Association Dictionary defines the former as “a personality pattern characterized by pathological lying, which takes the form of fabricating an identity or a series of identities in an effort to gain recognition and status.”
The popular cultural definition is more aligned with the imposter phenomenon, feelings of self-doubt that all of us experience from time to time. That’s not to say it can’t be intrusive and have a significant impact, but this is a perspective about who you are, not a conscious attempt to deceive others. For ease of use, we’ll use the term imposter syndrome in this article.
What causes imposter syndrome?
Shortly, we’ll explain the types of imposter syndrome and ways to overcome imposter syndrome. But what causes imposter syndrome? There’s no single, definitive answer, but more a collection of contributing factors. Some studies have explored the familial roots of imposter syndrome. Clance (1985) presented four characteristics in family dynamics that make people more susceptible. These include:
- A perception the “imposter’s” skills are atypical in comparison to family members.
- Family messages that intelligence is extremely important and success requires little skill.
- Discrepancies in feedback about abilities and success.
- A lack of positive reinforcement.
In addition to family upbringing, cultural messages around what constitutes success and achievement add to these feelings. Oh, and then there’s the big cause of imposter syndrome — perfectionism.
Types of imposter syndrome
Dr. Valerie Young, an expert on imposter syndrome and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, identifies different sub-categories of imposter syndrome, including:
- The Perfectionist: Unsurprisingly, many people who feel like imposters are placing exceptionally high standards of themselves.
- The Superwoman/man: Similar to the above, the superhuman imposter feels they have to push themselves to extremes, to prove their worth or match inner expectations.
- The Natural Genius: Interestingly, this aspect is often found in “gifted” people who are used to succeeding with little effort. Any signs of struggle or adaptation may be interpreted as failure or unworthiness.
- The Soloist: This person struggles to ask others for help; asking for assistance may be viewed as a sign of weakness.
- The Expert: Another seeming paradox, this affects people who are seen as experts in the field. This status might lead to someone attempting to have to know absolutely everything, with little room for mistakes or gaps in knowledge.
Imposter syndrome appears in a multitude of settings: the workplace, in education, or in fields of expertise. People at the top of their respective fields, from Serena Williams to Tom Hanks, have expressed feeling unworthy. Even Albert Einstein, of all people, admitted to feelings of imposter syndrome when he told a friend: “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
How to overcome imposter syndrome
If you’re looking for practical steps in how to deal with imposter syndrome, you’re in the right place. As imposter syndrome is made up of many smaller parts, there’s no single quick fix. But these 8 practical tools offer a balanced strategy to overcome imposter syndrome:
1. Recognize imposter syndrome is a universal experience
Many issues with mental health are accompanied by a sense of isolation, as if no one else experiences similar. When I was suffering from depression, for example, I felt as if everyone in my life had everything together. I felt as if no one would understand me and questioned why I couldn’t be like “everyone else.” Consequently, tapping into the shared humanness of experience can provide relief.
The same is true of imposter syndrome. It’s unlikely you’ll feel that anyone else feels similar. Yet studies have shown that 70% of adults experience imposter phenomenon at some point in their life. Even more telling, 20 to 30% of “high achievers” experience the same. This is important to keep in mind. That high-flying CEO who seems so at ease and confident? There’s a chance behind the surface, they too feel a sense of unworthiness.
2. Work to overcome perfectionist tendencies
As noted above, Valerie Young highlights perfectionism as a type of imposter syndrome. This makes sense. Perfectionists place excessively high standards on themselves, which creates an internal image of what a “successful” person looks like. The issue then becomes more about this internal frame of reference rather than your actual skills.
An effective way of dealing with perfectionism, and in turn overcoming imposter syndrome, is to explore the gap between image and reality. Can you lower your standards or expectations? Try viewing your situation through the eyes of a close friend or loved one. What would you say to them, if they were in your situation? Allow this perspective to inform and adjust, reducing pressure on yourself in the process.
3. Explore and reframe thoughts and limiting beliefs
Reframing and rationalizing thoughts is the cornerstone of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Although imposter syndrome isn’t a recognized mental health disorder, CBT is still a very effective tool. As a basic practice, it involved identifying “distorted” beliefs — such as all-or-nothing thinking or catastrophizing — before challenging those thoughts.
According to the Harvard Business Review, common beliefs and thoughts around imposter syndrome include I must not fail, I feel like a fake, it’s all down to luck, success is no big deal. In addition, you might notice beliefs such as I hope no one discovers my lack of ability or I’m not smart enough to study at this college.
Using the first belief as an example, you would reframe it as: everybody makes mistakes from time to time, and no one is perfect. Failure is part of the learning process. Over time this conscious reframing begins to change the “scripts” in the mind, and these more rational, balanced beliefs become habitual.
4. Understand what emotions are below the surface
The experience of imposter syndrome is perpetuated by difficult emotions that make exploring, or sharing, difficult. In addition to uncovering limiting thoughts and beliefs, take time to enquire into the underlying emotions. Does imposter syndrome cause anxiety, due to feeling you have to perform above and beyond to make the grade? Does the shame of feeling as if you don’t belong or you’re undeserving cause you to shrink or turn down opportunities? Does self-doubt make you second-guess every decision?
Bringing this into the light is an important process. Once these emotions have been labeled, acknowledge they aren’t the truth, but honor their presence. Mindfulness is a great tool to allow you to accept the presence of emotions when they surfacing, without reading into them.
5. Share your fears with a loved one
People with imposter syndrome are afraid of being “found out.” As a result, it can become incredibly isolating and difficult to share these feelings. Being open about the experience might feel like a step in the wrong direction; why would you want to expose yourself as a fraud? Yet finding the courage to share can alleviate many of the symptoms, and even encourage others to share similar experiences.
A good starting point is to open up to a loved one, someone you trust is accepting and open. But an important caveat: be aware of sharing with the intention of getting validation. On the surface, this might seem helpful, but the affirmation may provide temporary relief, instead of dealing with underlying insecurities. Work towards a healthy balance between external validation and inner security.
6. Acknowledge your achievements in a balanced way
In addition to reframing thoughts, as mentioned above, explore the factual evidence around your feelings of fraudulence. Many people with imposter syndrome put their achievements down to luck. In psychology, this is related to the locus of control, a concept referring to how much people believe themselves to be in control of their circumstances and outcomes.
An internal locus of control focuses on success and failure as a result of hard work, whereas an external locus believes more in luck or fate. This is reversed with imposter syndrome; the challenge is to explore the areas where you perceive success as the result of luck and not hard work. Is this really true? Acknowledge the work you put in for those successes, and regain ownership of your credentials, reminding yourself you have earned a place at the table.
7. Practice self-compassion
Cultivating a caring, supportive (and at times no-nonsense) relationship with ourselves sends positive waves throughout your whole life. Specifically, self-compassion is a powerful antidote to harsh self-criticism, the underlying substance of perfectionism, which perpetuates unhelpful inner narratives. Applying these skills helps to deal with imposter syndrome.
Compassion, in its purest definition, is the desire and ability to alleviate suffering. When it comes to imposter syndrome, that means accepting and validating feelings of unworthiness, before reframing them with care. To assist this practice, try to talk to yourself as you would a loved one.
In addition, meditation and mindfulness raise awareness around unhelpful beliefs and practice the skill of meeting your feelings and fears in a loving and accepting way. For example, loving-kindness meditations, from Buddhist teachings, are a training ground for cultivating feelings of kindness. When self-directed, these have a soothing, healing quality to them.
8. Separate “success” from self-worth
Last, but by no means least, explore the relationship between success and identity. Has success become a way of valuing yourself, in all your wholeness? Making the separation between success, and your inherent value, allows you to view “success” or “failure” in a more balanced way. It’s not a reflection of who you are or your worth, but something you do.
This separation is freeing, though it might take time to get the balance right. Self-compassion and cognitive reframing are steps in the right direction. Use the North Star of feeling worthy and whole — away from all perceived insufficiencies — as something to move towards on your journey.
Be patient as you learn to feel your unconditional worth, deeply and truly, within your heart. And remember, above all else, the only truly fraudulent thought is the thought you are not enough.