The fact that you’re reading this suggests that imposter syndrome is a topic of interest to you.
First, let me share that it is an experience that affects many people, but they tend to suffer in silence.
To watch a recorded webinar with me presenting on the topic of Imposter Syndrome (and if you don't feel like reading the blog), please click here.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
It is the internal psychological experience of feeling like a phony in some area of your life, despite any success that you have achieved in your field. You fear being rejected or found out as not deserving or worthy of your accomplishments or current position.
While it is commonly known as Imposter Syndrome, it actually isn’t a mental diagnosis. It also can’t be sourced in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM 5).
It is a phenomenon or experience and was first introduced through research conducted by Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance. Back in 1978, Dr. Imes and Dr. Clance studied high-achieving professional women and first described these women’s fears and self-doubt as “imposter phenomenon.” Because of that early research, it has been labelled a women’s issue but research has demonstrated that it is a common phenomenon for men as well.
More than 70% of People Have Experienced Imposter Syndrome
Studies suggest that 70% of all people have experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their career. This percentage might even be a bit low because a 2020 KPMG study on imposter syndrome found that 75% of executive women reported experiencing it at certain points in their career and 85% of the respondents believe that it is commonly experienced by women in the corporate world (KMPG, 2020). The challenge is that people don’t talk about having imposter syndrome which makes it difficult to spot as the fear of being “found out” holds people back from sharing – they don’t want to draw attention to their fear. Those suffering from IS generally don’t ask for help.
You’re in Good Company
You are in good company if you have experienced imposter phenomenon. The list of celebrities who have openly shared that they suffer from it include Tom Hanks, Michelle Obama, Tina Fey, Lady Gaga, Maya Angelou, Sheryl Sandberg, and even Albert Einstein.
There are certain professions that experience it more than others. This list includes professional women, those in the performing arts, health care practitioners, academics, leaders in the tech industry, and students. Additionally, students of colour and those in the workforce may experience it more as they face micro-aggressions, racial discrimination, and feelings of underrepresentation.
One of the key messages I want to share with you is that it happens to many people. A critical first step to overcoming it involves normalizing it by talking about it to someone you trust and who you find supportive and encouraging.
It isn’t something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about.
It is natural to feel uncomfortable about being pushed outside of your comfort zone, but when you experience imposter syndrome, you can catastrophize these feelings as a failing in yourself. You have negative automatic thoughts that create a fear in you that you aren’t deserving or worthy and that what you’ve achieved was because of luck, or good networking, or that others played a bigger role than what was actually the case.
When you experience the imposter phenomenon, your thoughts are hindering your ability to thrive both professionally and personally.
Imposter Syndrome Phenomenon
Imposter syndrome may feel like restlessness and nervousness, and it reveals itself through how seriously a person believes their negative self-talk or negative automatic thoughts (NATs)
It is feeling of doubt, fear, and the anxiety of being exposed as a fraud or imposter – of being “found out”. In essence, you doubt your own skills and what you’ve accomplished.
Other names for it include imposterism, imposter fraud syndrome, and imposter phenomenon. It is, however, a serious form of self-doubt that can impact well-being as well as opportunities for success and career advancement. It can lead to chronic stress, burnout, less job satisfaction, and lower job performance (Benisek, 2022).
What is fascinating about this phenomenon is that it persists regardless of the success and credentials a person attains – they continue to be triggered with feelings of self-doubt, fear, and anxiety that they will be “found out” as not worthy, not good enough, and not deserving of their role or title. Another noteworthy point is that it can affect a person at different points in their career. It isn’t just those who are starting out in their career, but those who might have recently been promoted into a senior role. This feeling of having “dumb luck”, covering up accomplishments, and not considering key drivers of success while simultaneously underplaying one’s role in a project success is quite common for those experiencing this imposter phenomenon.
Signs of Imposter Syndrome
It is often associated with high achievers and Type A personalities. Imposter phenomenon is a spectrum. It isn’t binary, but rather more like a sliding scale.
Signs of imposter phenomenon include:
- Thoughts and actions that demonstrate self-doubt
- Self-sabotaging one’s own success
- A belief that one's success isn’t deserved
- An inability to accurately assess one’s skills and competence
- A fear of rejection
- Feeling like a fraud and a fear of being found out as a fake – a lack of belief that one is naturally talented or competent
- A fear of not living up to others’ expectations
- A need to overachieve
- Feelings of inadequacy and not measuring up
- Berating one’s own performance
- Believing that other people’s opinions matter more than one's own
- Performance anxiety
- A loss of confidence
- A fear of failure – if one doesn't get something right or perfect the first time, one is a failure and a fraud
- Perfectionism – where the belief is that anything less than perfection is a failure,
- Procrastination – the fear of not being able to do something perfectly creates the procrastination and then the person waits until the last minute to rush through the task
- Over-preparing – to attempt perfection
- Dismissing complements
- Hyper-focus on negative feedback
- Giving credibility to one's negative self-talk or automatic thoughts such as “I’ve fooled everyone who thinks I’m smarter than I actually am”.
- Seeking mentorship primarily for external validation
- Not asking for help – a belief that one should be able to do it on one's own
The Good and Bad of Imposter Syndrome
There are good sides to imposter syndrome in that it can help to catalyze growth and when you admit you don’t know something, you can open yourself up to learning something new. You avoid what is called the Dunning Krueger Effect – which is a cognitive bias where people believe they are smarter and more capable than they actually are. Imposter syndrome can fuel the motivation to accomplish results, but there is a price to pay for the anxiety that goes with it and the need to over-prepare or work harder than is necessary to combat the negative automatic thoughts that someone will find out you’re a fraud.
The negative side of imposture syndrome is obvious. The negative automatic thoughts create anxiety and stress and rob a person of feeling proud of their own accomplishments. They diminish their results, don’t take credit when warranted and they may even hinder their ability to further succeed. Additionally, it impacts relationships as you hide away from sharing your feelings and worries and avoid asking for help.
You are Worthy
Learning about Imposter Syndrome and its impact in your life is the first step to moving beyond it.
Exploring how to overcome imposter syndrome and knowing your own worth is covered in my next post.
Read it here.
In the meantime, take a moment to realize how valuable and worthwhile you are, just as you are, right now.
Please note that this post is a general overview and not mental advice.
The articles, suggested readings, and additional resources on this website provide general information only and do not constitute advice in any way. My goal is to provide information that is well-researched, thoughtful and relevant, but it is a guide only. What is best for you will depend on your personal history and circumstances. If you require additional support, information or guidance in relation to a particular issue, please speak with a medical practitioner or therapist who will be able to take the time to understand your individual circumstances, history, worldview, and goals and apply this holistic information to support you in the most effective course of action. Everyone deserves to feel well.
Benisek, A. (2022, February 15). What is imposter syndrome? WebMD. Retrieved February 24, 2023, from https://www.webmd.com/balance/what-is-imposter-syndrome#:~:text=It's%20not%20an%20actual%20mental,be%20exposed%20as%20a%20fraud
Bravata, D. M., Watts. S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., Hagg, H. K. (2019). Prevalence, predictors, and treatment of impostor syndrome: A systematic review. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35, 1252-1275.
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006
Cuncic, A. (2022, November 17). How to stop feeling like an outsider when you have social anxiety. Verywell Mind. Retrieved February 25, 2023, from https://www.verywellmind.com/imposter-syndrome-and-social-anxiety-disorder-4156469
Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset. Ballantine Books
KPMG. (2020, October 6). KPMG study finds 75% of executive women experience Imposter Syndrome. KPMG study finds 75% of executive women experience imposter syndrome. Retrieved February 24, 2023, from https://info.kpmg.us/news-perspectives/people-culture/kpmg-study-finds-most-female-executives-experience-imposter-syndrome.html
Meinke, L. (n.d.). Top ten indicators to refer a client to a mental health professional. Retrieved February 24, 2023, from https://coachfederation.org/app/uploads/2017/12/WhentoRefer.pdf
Palmer, C. (2021, June 1). How to overcome impostor phenomenon. Monitor on Psychology, 52(4). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/06/cover-impostor-phenomenon
Sutton, J. (2023, February 10). How to overcome imposter syndrome: 14 tests & worksheets. PositivePsychology.com. Retrieved February 24, 2023, from https://positivepsychology.com/imposter-syndrome-tests-worksheets/#tests