Imposter syndrome, also known as perceived fraudulence, is a phenomenon or experience that encompasses feelings and thoughts of incompetence and not belonging.
The words 'phenomenon' and 'experience' are underlined to emphasise the fact that imposter syndrome isn't recognised in the ICD or DSM as a mental illness. Instead, it's simply a pattern of self-doubt.
Imposter syndrome is more common than you may think. Many studies have actually indicated that up to 82% of people experience feelings and thoughts that fall under the imposter syndrome umbrella.
The imposter syndrome phenomenon doesn’t discriminate; it can affect just about anyone, regardless of their profession, accomplishments, or lifestyle. Luckily, there are ways to overcome the feelings and thoughts associated with it.
In this article, we cover everything you need to know about imposter syndrome, from how it feels and where it comes from to its different types and how you can overcome it.
How Does Imposter Syndrome Feel?
To put it simply, imposter syndrome is having feelings and thoughts that contradict the positive light in which people view you, regardless of how often you receive praise or how much you’ve accomplished.
To put it differently, imposter syndrome is having feelings and thoughts that paint you as undeserving of your successes and accomplishments. It’s also associated with the fear that others will eventually see you for the “imposter” that you think you are.
People who suffer from imposter syndrome tend to exert themselves more than others, be it in work, school, or others. They do so to fill roles that they believe they are undeserving of or alleviate the guilt they feel over "misleading" or "tricking" other people.
The thing about imposter syndrome is that the more you work and the more you achieve, the more intense the cycle can become. It’s like adding fuel to the fire.
People who suffer from imposter syndrome actually view their successes and achievements to keep the "illusion" going. Not only that, but they view any recognition as pity or sympathy. Plus, they link their accomplishments to luck or chance. However, when it comes to mistakes, they're all for taking the blame.
Oh, and any mistake, no matter how minor, can reinforce feelings of lack in a person suffering from imposter syndrome — it’s a vicious cycle!
Even though imposter syndrome isn't recognised as a mental illness, it can certainly lead to one. Extreme cases of imposter syndrome can, in fact, result in depression and anxiety, and so it's essential to address such feelings and thoughts as early as possible.
What Causes Imposter Syndrome?
Several factors can influence the emergence of imposter syndrome, from parenting, childhood, and family dynamics to personality traits and existing mental health symptoms.
Let’s break down each of these factors in detail so that you get a better glimpse of what might be triggering your case of imposter syndrome.
Parenting and Childhood
Some parenting mishaps can be the cause of imposter syndrome. Examples include parents pressuring their children to perform better in school, being overprotective or too controlling, comparing their children to one another, and harshly criticising their children’s mistakes.
Another aspect of childhood that can influence the development of imposter syndrome is academic success. For example, a person who’s struggling to get through college, even though they had zero trouble getting through elementary and high school when they were younger, may begin to think that they’re less competent or less intelligent than their fellow college students.
Along with parenting and childhood, family dynamics are among the most notable causes of imposter syndrome. By family dynamics, we refer to the expectations and metrics of success set by one's family.
Growing up in a household that puts a lot of emphasis on the value of success and sets stringent expectations can certainly trigger imposter syndrome.
Depending on your culture, the value and emphasis on aspects of life such as education, career, and success may differ. If a lot of weight is put on such elements, you may feel pushed into doing things you don't really find appealing.
For instance, if your culture values being a lawyer or a doctor, you may feel forced to give up your passion for playing the guitar and becoming a touring musician. In this case, even if you become a successful lawyer or doctor, you may feel like an “imposter.”
According to studies, several personality traits are associated with imposter syndrome, the most notable being perfectionism.
Other notable traits include low self-confidence, low self-efficacy, high neuroticism score, and low conscientiousness score. The more of such traits a person has, the more intense their case of imposter syndrome may be.
Mental Health Symptoms
While imposter syndrome may not be a mental illness, it may result from existing mental health symptoms, be it a single symptom or an amalgamation.
Imposter syndrome can be caused by emotional distress, fear of failure, anxiety, depression, self-doubt, low self-esteem, and other symptoms that revolve around feeling like you're less-than-average.
In 1954, the social comparison theory was proposed by psychologist Leon Festinger, suggesting that human beings have an innate drive to analyse and evaluate themselves in relation to others.
Sadly, this innate drive is often the root cause of a lot of suffering. From feeling down and out to having thoughts and feelings of inadequacy, social comparison can very easily fan the flames of imposter syndrome.
The Five Imposter Syndrome Archetypes
According to Dr. Valerie Young, a notable imposter syndrome researcher, imposters have five different archetypes. Understanding each archetype is key to overcoming this phenomenon.
- Perfectionists: Living up to their name, perfectionists demand perfection of themselves in virtually all aspects of life. They have a hard time appreciating hard work until it reaps their definition or standard of perfection. As a result, they tend to sharply criticise every single mistake they make, no matter how small.
- Superheroes: The superhero is the type of imposter that aims to reach the peak of every position they fill. They're always trying to be the best student, worker, parent, friend, spouse, and so forth. A person who falls under this category may feel inadequate if they fail to reach their set competency standard.
- Natural geniuses: This one is an odd case. Natural geniuses have this belief that they’re able to handle just about anything with little to no difficulty. They’re the type of person that aims to succeed at any given task on their first try, which isn’t always feasible, of course.
- Experts: The expert feels the need to learn and know everything about a topic of choice to feel successful. If they don't have all the answers, they automatically consider themselves as failures or frauds.
- Individualists: The individualist is a derivative of the superhero archetype. The main difference between the two is that the former believe that they can handle any task alone. If they can't finish a given task alone, they trash their work and deem themselves unworthy and incompetent.
How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
There are several strategies to address and cope with imposter syndrome. You may find some more effective than others, depending on which archetype you fall under.
Here are some of the most effective strategies:
- Acknowledge and share your feelings. Unrealistic and irrational thoughts tend to fester and intensify when they’re not acknowledged and talked about. If you suspect that you have imposter syndrome, try to talk to a close friend or family member about your thoughts and feelings.
- Stop playing the comparison game. We’re all different! Just because someone is really good at something doesn’t mean that you should be just as good. Each individual has a unique host of abilities that set them apart from others. Discover yours and stop evaluating yourself with respect to others.
- Set realistic goals and expectations. It can be challenging for someone with imposter syndrome to set realistic expectations, but it has to be done! Further, you should stop associating success with the approval of other people. Instead, you should associate it with feeling happy and content.
- Build connections with the people around you. This is especially important if you fall under the ‘Individualist’ category of imposters. Instead of trying to tackle anything and everything by yourself, practice reaching out to others and making it a team effort. Networking is key!
- Don’t give in to self-doubt. Whenever you start experiencing feelings and thoughts of self-doubt, challenge them! Is there some sort of proof to legitimise these thoughts and feelings? Probably not. And even if there is, challenge these proofs with opposing pieces of evidence.
- Reduce social media exposure. Social media is one of the biggest causes of feelings of inferiority. We’re constantly trying to paint images of ourselves that don’t match who we really are just to impress others and come across as interesting or cool. This has to stop!
If you're trying to cope with imposter syndrome, it's very important to keep in mind that success doesn't equate to perfection and that striving for perfection—admirable as it may be—isn't at all realistic. Instead, treat yourself with love, kindness, and compassion, stop comparing yourself to others, and try to eliminate self-doubt and judgment.