Imposter syndrome

Accepting oneself, flaws and all, is an important part of having healthy self-esteem and self-worth. Nobody is perfect, and mistakes are an inevitable part of life.
Impostor syndrome causes people to doubt their achievements and fear that others will expose them as fraudulent. The condition can affect anyone, regardless of their job or social status.

Psychologists first described the syndrome in 1978. Research from 2011 suggests that approximately 70 percent of people will experience at least one episode of impostor syndrome in their lives. It may be especially prevalent among women considered to be high-achievers.

Many people experience symptoms for a limited time, such as in the first few weeks of a new job. Others may battle feelings of incompetency for their whole lives.

In this article, we discuss the many techniques a person can use to overcome impostor syndrome.

What are the symptoms?

A person's sense of self-doubt can help them to determine a realistic assessment of their achievements, validity, competence, and ability.

However, if the sense of doubt is over-inflated, it can be more difficult to develop a realistic self-image.

This can lead to symptoms of distress that characterize impostor syndrome. Individuals with impostor syndrome may:

Worry that they will not live up to expectations

Many people who experience "impostorism" fear that their colleagues and supervisors expect too much from them.

Avoid extra responsibilities

People with impostor syndrome tend to bury themselves in work instead of taking on additional duties that can prove their abilities, according to research published in 2014.

They are unlikely to become involved in volunteering, for example, because they view it as a distraction that could compromise the quality of their other tasks.

Get stuck in an "impostor cycle"

Success creates a continuous cycle of self-doubt for people with impostor syndrome. Every time they accomplish something, they become more worried that others will discover the "truth" about their abilities.

Attribute success to outside factors

Individuals with impostor syndrome deny their competency. They often feel that outside factors or chance are behind their successes. They may also believe that they need to work harder than most.


People with impostor syndrome tendencies have low self-confidence and a fear of failure.

They experience a constant internal struggle between achieving success and avoiding being "found out." This struggle prevents many with the condition from reaching their potential.

Experience job dissatisfaction

People with the syndrome tend to feel unhappy in their jobs.

They may not feel challenged enough, but a fear of failure or discovery stops them from seeking promotions or extra responsibilities.

Results of the 2014 study suggest that people with impostor syndrome tend to stay in their positions because they do not believe that they can do better. A person may undervalue their skills or fail to recognize how other roles might place more importance on their abilities.

Avoid asking for a raise

Undervaluing skills and abilities can lead those with impostor syndrome to deny their worth. They may not ask for a raise because they do not believe that they deserve more money for what they do.

Go overboard on tasks and goal-setting

Intense fear of failure and the need to be the very best can lead people to overachieve when completing certain tasks. The article from 2011 also found that those with impostor syndrome set themselves extremely challenging goals and suffer disappointment when they do not achieve them.


Dr. Valerie Young, considered by some to be an expert on the syndrome, has identified five types of "impostors." They include:

The expert

The expert will not feel satisfied when finishing a task until they feel that they know everything about the subject.

Experts continuously hunt for new information, which prevents them from completing tasks and projects.

Those who avoid applying for a job because they do not meet every requirement may fall into the category of the expert.

The perfectionist

People who aim for perfection often experience high levels of anxiety, doubt, and worry, especially when they fail to achieve their extreme goals.

Perfectionists are usually dissatisfied with their work. They tend to focus on areas where they could have done better rather than celebrate the things they did well.

Comment: Dr. Aleta Edward's book, Fear of the Abyss: Healing the Wounds of Shame and Perfectionism is a valuable resource for those dealing with the painful issues of perfectionism, shame, indecisiveness, control issues, and a fear of needing others.

Also check out our interview with Dr Edwards: Behind the Headlines: Interview with Dr. Aleta Edwards, author of 'Fear of the Abyss'

The natural genius

Natural geniuses are typically able to master a new skill quickly and easily, and they often feel ashamed and weak when they cannot.

People who fall into this category fail to recognize that nearly everyone needs to build upon their skills throughout life to succeed.

The soloist

The soloist may also be known as the rugged individualist. They prefer to work alone and tend to believe that asking for help will reveal their incompetence.

A soloist will typically turn down help so that they can prove their worth as an individual.

The superhero

Superheroes often excel in all areas, mainly because they push themselves so hard. Many workaholics can be classed as superheroes.

This overload of work will eventually result in burnout, which can affect physical health, mental well-being, and relationships with others.

What are the risk factors?

While anyone can develop impostor syndrome, several factors increase the risk, including:
  • New challenges: A recent opportunity or success, such as a promotion, can trigger "impostorism."
  • Growing up with a gifted sibling: When a sibling is considered exceptional, a person may develop ingrained feelings of inadequacy.
  • Being labeled "the clever one": Children who are taught that they are superior in intelligence, appearance, or talent can develop impostor syndrome when they must inevitably struggle to achieve something.

Impostor syndrome is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association's authoritative reference text.

However, most mental health professionals have worked with people who exhibited signs and symptoms of impostor syndrome.

Overcoming impostor syndrome

The following steps can help a person to manage and overcome their symptoms:

Talk about it

Speaking about symptoms with a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional is a significant first step.

It helps people to distinguish between their perception and the reality of their situation.

Opening up about their experience can also help an individual to identify the source of their distress.

Get educated

It is important that people with symptoms educate themselves about the syndrome.

Identifying with a personality type may help when working to manage symptoms.

Document accomplishments and celebrate successes

People who feel like impostors are often surprised when they see a written record of their achievements.

It is also important to celebrate successes and acknowledge which skills contributed to positive outcomes.

Accept that perfectionism is impossible

Accepting oneself, flaws and all, is an important part of having healthy self-esteem and self-worth. Nobody is perfect, and mistakes are an inevitable part of life.

Learning to accept that things sometimes go wrong can increase resilience and happiness.

Challenge negative thoughts

Negative thoughts play a big role in the impostor cycle. Challenging those thoughts is a key step toward overcoming symptoms.

It may be beneficial to work with a therapist who is experienced in cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of therapy aims to improve coping strategies by challenging unhelpful thinking patterns.


Most people will experience symptoms of impostor syndrome to some degree. It is important to remember that perceptions do not always reflect reality.

People who experience impostorism can overcome it by talking about their fears and challenging negative thoughts. Keeping a record of achievements and celebrating successes can also significantly boost self-esteem.

It can be helpful to work with a mental health professional, especially when symptoms persist or severely impact a person's mental health and quality of life.