According to research, 70% of us have experienced the feeling of being an imposter at one time or another. So if you’ve ever felt like a complete fraud that’s going to be ‘found out’, even when the evidence suggests that you’re doing well, then you’re certainly not alone.
These feelings are known as ‘imposter syndrome’ and may lead you to ask questions like: do I really belong here? Does anyone really want to hear what I have to say? Or, am I really good enough?
Imposter syndrome can come and go at different times in life or it can be underlying in most things we do. It can lead us to believe that we’re simply not good enough and hold us back from experiencing true happiness and contentment.
Though this can be incredibly difficult to deal with, the good news is that there are ways to overcome feeling like an imposter and take back your power.
What is imposter syndrome?
In a nutshell, imposter syndrome describes an internal experience that you have when you believe you’re not as competent at something as others think you are – despite any achievements, experience, or education in this area. This may lead you to doubt yourself and feel like a fraud.
Some people also worry that it’s only a matter of time before someone uncovers this perceived incompetency and pulls the rug out from beneath them.
Imposter syndrome can impact various aspects of your life. For example, you may be promoted to a new role at work or get accepted onto a course at college or university – but feel as though you don’t belong and aren’t capable. It can also affect relationships if someone doesn’t feel that they’re equal to their partner or date.
Common types of imposter syndrome
Imposter syndrome can be complex and may not always look the same. But here are five common types…
- The Perfectionist. People who experience this type of imposter syndrome will strive for perfection 100% and will be led to feel that they don’t measure up if they achieve anything less. They’ll put any mistakes down to their incompetency.
- The Expert. This type of imposter syndrome involves believing that, unless you know everything there is to know about a particular topic, you’re an imposter. Even if you’re particularly knowledgeable or skilled in an area, you may deprive yourself of any credit and undermine your knowledge and expertise because you feel you still have more to learn.
- The Natural Genius. The natural genius feels like an imposter if they have to work at things to achieve the desired results, rather than achieving them naturally the first time. They measure competence in terms of ease and speed, and may feel shame if they take longer to master a skill.
- The Superhero. Superhero imposters may feel as though they need to be the hardest worker, in order to achieve the highest standards possible. This hard-working mentality is driven by the feeling that they’re not good enough and need to work harder to measure up, which can lead to burnout.
- The Rugged Individualist. People with this type of imposter syndrome tend to work alone and believe that asking for help and support makes them a fraud. Achievements are only considered a success if they’re completed alone.
What are the signs of imposter syndrome?
While signs of imposter syndrome can look different from person to person, some common signs of the experience include…
- Having low confidence and self-esteem
- Feeling inadequate
- Doubting yourself
- Constantly comparing yourself to other people
- Overthinking and worrying about the past
- Fearing that you won’t live up to someone else’s expectations of you
- Not being able to realistically assess your skills and competence
- Putting your success down to luck rather than talent
- Punishing yourself for the smallest mistakes
- Taking on extra work due to fears of falling short
- Negative self-talk
- Shrugging off compliments and praise
What causes imposter syndrome?
Health experts believe that imposter syndrome could be caused by multiple, interlinked factors, such as upbringing (for example, if a person comes from a family or culture where a lot of emphasis is placed on achievement) and personality traits (such as anxiety or perfectionism).
It’s also believed that imposter syndrome is more common when a person is going through a period of transition, such as changing careers, becoming a parent or grandparent, dating someone new, or enrolling in college or university. This is because there’s generally a desire to make a good impression and do well, which, when paired with inexperience, can lead to feelings of inadequacy.
At present, imposter syndrome is not a recognised mental health condition, yet it can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life.
What's the impact of imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome can cause distress and dissatisfaction in a person’s life because they feel that no matter what they do, they’ll never be good enough.
Even if a person achieves success and receives positive feedback, they may still doubt their competence, make light of their accomplishments, persistently fear failure, and monitor their behaviour closely.
People who experience imposter syndrome may use it as a driver towards success, but this is usually accompanied by constant anxiety. This can be exhausting and may eventually lead to burnout and/or depression.
How to overcome imposter syndrome
Acknowledge imposter syndrome and separate thoughts from facts
As with nearly all hurdles, one of the first and most important steps in overcoming imposter syndrome is to acknowledge it so you can start separating your self-limiting thoughts from reality.
People experiencing imposter syndrome usually find that even though there’s plenty of evidence of things going well – for example, receiving praise or a promotion from a manager at work, being accepted onto a course with specific entry requirements, or being invited to social events – they still struggle to believe that they belong.
If this sounds familiar, try making a list of things that make you just as qualified as anyone else for the role you’re seeking (whether social or professional), such as qualifications, experience, or praise you’ve received from loved ones or peers/managers at work.
Then, the next time you’re doubting yourself or putting yourself down, use it to challenge and weaken these thoughts by reminding yourself what you’re capable of.
Repeat positive affirmations about yourself
Self-talk can be incredibly powerful and according to research, can change the way you see yourself and influence your behaviour.
You might think that the idea of repeating positive affirmations to yourself sounds cheesy but science has shown that if we say good things about ourselves enough, we can start to believe it – and this can be made even more effective by including your own name. For example, “Christine is creative”, “Christine is good enough”, or “Christine can deal with anything that comes her way”.
Though this might sound cheesy, psychologists believe that speaking about ourselves in the third person can help us to step back, take a more objective view of ourselves, and deal with stressful situations better.
For example, when basketball star Lebron James left Cleveland to play for the Miami heat, he made an announcement where he referred to himself in the third person. He said, “I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James and what LeBron James was going to do to make him happy.”
Take ownership of your achievements
If you feel like an imposter, it can be easy to brush your achievements under the rug, put them down to ‘luck’, or attribute them to someone else. But if you’re going to start seeing yourself for the strong, capable person that you are, you need to start owning your success and recognising what you bring to the table.
If someone gives you praise or reward for something you’ve done, then rather than mitigating your accomplishment or arguing with them, try saying, “Thank you” and accepting that you’re deserving of this positivity.
You can also practise positive self-talk by saying things out loud like, “I’m so happy and grateful that I’ve achieved a role in my dream career” or “I’m really proud of myself”.
Another way to take ownership of your achievements is by sharing them with others – such as friends, family, or your team at work – and allowing them to celebrate your success with you.
Picture a positive outcome
Thinking about the future in a positive light can feel scary; usually, because we’re afraid of being disappointed or let down. Instead, many of us prepare for the worst-case scenario, almost as a way to protect and prepare ourselves should things not go to plan.
However, always assuming the worst can leave us feeling less competent and capable, which may actually help to create some of the outcomes we fear.
Our thoughts are incredibly powerful and, in many cases, how we visualise our futures can actually contribute to how things play out.
For example, if you’re due to take an exam at university or college and you convince yourself that you’re going to fail, this may demotivate you and affect how well you prepare. During the exam, you may also second-guess and overthink your answers. These things can all affect your performance and therefore, may influence your score or grade.
A helpful way to combat this is to practise positive visualisation: a tool used by many Olympians to help them excel in their sport. Research has shown that people who visualise themselves performing a task successfully can actually improve their performance in that task.
For example, you could picture yourself putting in the revision, passing the exam, and moving on to whatever comes next. Not only could this motivate you to revise but it could also help you to feel calmer and more confident walking into the exam.
Decide to be confident
Though true confidence is something that can take time to develop, sometimes, acting confident – even if you don’t feel it – can go a long way in helping you to get there in your mind.
Often, our first instinct may be to offer our expertise, raise our hand, or volunteer to take on a new project, until we think more deeply about it and let imposter syndrome take hold. So instead of speaking up, we might keep quiet due to fears of saying something silly, not being taken seriously, or not being as equipped to help or get involved as we initially thought.
One way to combat this is to pretend that you’re playing a more confident version of yourself, one who ruminates less and says yes to opportunities more.
Though it can be daunting to step outside of your comfort zone, the rewards are nearly always worth it – and you’ll hopefully start to convince yourself of just how much you’re capable of when you start grabbing these opportunities by the wings.
Choose someone to confide in
When you’re doubting your capabilities, speaking to someone you trust about your fears can help to put things into perspective.
This could be a friend or family member who will reinforce your strengths, a mentor who will share their own experiences with you and explain how they overcame similar feelings, or a coach who can help you explore your imposter syndrome, identify your capabilities, and work on challenging self-limiting beliefs.
Confiding in someone else can leave you feeling vulnerable because you might feel worried that they’ll confirm your fears – but keeping your emotions to yourself can allow them to grow bigger and become more difficult to manage.
In many cases, others can help us put things into perspective, separate facts from thoughts, and rationalise our fears.
Remember you’re not alone
With research estimating that 70% of us will experience imposter syndrome at some point in our lives, it’s important to remember that you’re never alone in how you’re feeling.
Sometimes, even the people we look up to, love, admire, or consider to be highly successful have struggled with imposter syndrome.
We’ve gathered a few examples…
Understand that failure doesn’t make you a fraud
Because imposter syndrome is typically built on the ideas of perfectionism, it can be easy to view any mistakes or ‘failures’ as confirmation that you’re an imposter. But failure doesn’t make you a fraud, nor does it define your present or future capabilities.
Every single one of us has times when we don’t get things right, and it’s how we learn from losing, failing, or being wrong and move forward that counts – and a huge amount of growth and achievement can follow.
Whether you’re changing careers, moving into a new role at work, dating someone new, returning to education, or something else entirely – imposter syndrome can sneak up on you and convince you that you don’t belong or deserve to be where you are.
Although this can be incredibly difficult to deal with, it’s important to remember that it’s something that most of us experience at one time or another, and that there are ways to prevent it from holding us back.
Some psychologists even argue that a little bit of imposter syndrome can be helpful in some ways. For example, it can motivate us to perform well, instil humility, and encourage a growth mindset.
However, if imposter syndrome is affecting your health and your happiness, then it’s important to reach out to a friend, family member, colleague, mentor, or counsellor – as no one should suffer in silence.