Approximately seven out of 10 people — or as many as 82% of professionals — will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. This internal experience is marked by complex feelings, such as feeling like a fraud or like you don’t belong, despite your training and proven expertise in your field. Regardless of your success, education, and accolades, imposter syndrome can leave you feeling like a phony and riddled with self-doubt.
Not only can it undermine your confidence, but imposter syndrome can also contribute to pervasive feelings of professional self-doubt, anxiety, and depression. Equally problematic is the link between imposter syndrome and burnout.
Let’s explore this phenomenon in greater detail to understand its roots and learn strategies to overcome it before it overwhelms you.
What Is Imposter Syndrome?
Sometimes referred to as “imposter phenomenon,” imposter syndrome is a psychological experience, but it’s not officially listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). It is, however, recognized by psychiatrists and mental health professionals and commonly researched to help caregivers gain insight into its causes and strategies for coping with it.
Imposter syndrome is more than just momentary or fleeting self-doubt. It’s more of a pervasive feeling that you lack all the necessary skills to succeed. It comes with a consistent sense of feeling like a phony and experiencing deep doubts about your abilities and worthiness.
Imposter syndrome’s characteristics include perfectionism, super-heroism, fear of failure, self-denial of competence, and an overarching fear of success (achievemephobia). These characteristics typically emerge when someone with imposter syndrome faces achievement-oriented tasks or obstacles. If you have imposter syndrome, you may also undervalue what you have to offer, overwork yourself to feel as though you’re worthy of your achievements, compare yourself to your peers, and even engage in self-sabotage.
Types of Imposter Syndrome
After decades of research and study, five types of imposter syndrome have been identified. They include the following:
Someone with this type of imposter syndrome continually aims for flawless performance and tries to meet unrealistically high standards. Signs include the following:
- Micromanaging all aspects of life
- Obsessing over minute details and struggling to make decisions
- Showing an inability to delegate and micromanaging all aspects of life
- Struggling with a deep fear of making mistakes or failing
Someone with this type of imposter syndrome feels like a phony because they haven’t mastered every aspect of a subject or process. This type is common among lawyers, scientists, doctors, and other people with specialized, advanced knowledge. The drive to know everything in their chosen field combined with pervasive doubts that they can handle all job-related challenges lead to the expert feeling like a fraud. Other signs include:
- Believing you must master each step in a process
- Procrastinating to cope with feeling overwhelmed
- Feeling like you need to learn more, despite your knowledge and experience
This type of imposter syndrome is marked by the belief that you must work the hardest and reach the highest achievement levels; otherwise, you haven’t earned your spot. People that fall into this category often overwork themselves and give in to pressure to do more, do better, and excel in every aspect of life. Signs include:
- Inability to cope with constructive criticism
- Feelings of guilt when taking time away from work or enjoying breaks
- Applying high levels of pressure on your performance level
The Natural Genius
This type of imposter syndrome occurs with people who feel unworthy if it takes them longer than others to master a subject or skill or to grasp a concept. It’s rooted in a misplaced belief that your success is only based on your natural abilities. People who have enjoyed success easily in the past often set unrealistically high standards for themselves. When faced with a competitive situation, the challenge to keep up can shatter their self-confidence.
The natural genius also has high levels of criticism for any obstacles to success. If you fall into this category, you may have a habit of downplaying the roles that practice and hard work play in achieving success.
This type of imposter syndrome is common among those who feel like they must do everything themselves and achieve success on their own merits. It’s marked by a belief that asking for help is a sign of incompetence and weakness. Signs include:
- Prioritizing autonomy and feeling incompetent when you need help
- Having robust self-reliance and feeling uncomfortable relying on others for help or support
- Experiencing trouble networking and processing constructive criticism
Common Causes of Imposter Syndrome
Research remains ongoing into the causes of imposter syndrome. Various factors, including family dynamics, have been connected to the likelihood of imposter syndrome, but research also indicates that the phenomenon can occur in anyone, regardless of their background. Although there’s no single identifiable cause, the following three elements appear to contribute to its development and prevalence.
Many people who experience imposter syndrome come from a background in which their families placed great importance on achievements. In some cases, individuals may have grown up with siblings or relatives that were considered the “smart ones” by their families. The drive to achieve validation and praise from their families often has a lasting impact.
Perfectionism plays such a role in imposter syndrome that it has its own type. It can help drive you forward, leading to positive achievements, but it can also have destructive effects that emerge as a response to pressure, family dysfunction, and trauma. The belief that you need to be perfect to please others fuels imposter syndrome and vice versa.
Lack of Recognition
Psychiatrists have found two ways that recognition in early childhood can influence your chances of developing imposter syndrome later. For some, receiving praise for achievements that they didn’t view as noteworthy could eventually lead to feelings of being a fraud. For example, your parents may have consistently praised your athleticism or artistic ability, despite the reality that your aptitude was no better than average compared to your peers.
On the other side of the coin, some children never received recognition or praise, even for impressive accomplishments. In those cases, they may have learned to feel inadequate, no matter how well they did. Getting recognition is essential for anyone to nurture healthy self-worth and security.
Many doctors, scientists, and other high-performing, high-achieving professionals struggle with imposter syndrome. Research into this phenomenon uncovered that as many as 60% of students in medical school experience imposter syndrome. This figure may be higher in minority groups and among females who feel as though they must work harder to earn their title or recognition. Overachievers often fear failure and don’t experience the benefits a growth mindset has to offer.
Strategies to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is a complex phenomenon that affects people in various ways and to varying degrees. It can be relatively mild and insidious, or it can drive you to overwork, overachieve, and ultimately burnout. Imposter syndrome self-help is possible, although it may be necessary to get professional support if it has a significant impact on your daily life and mental health.
Acknowledge and Accept
Acknowledgement plays a dual role in overcoming imposter syndrome and professional self-doubt. First, it’s essential to acknowledge that the feelings of fraud and unworthiness don’t stem from reality. When you realize this, it may be possible to identify the triggers that cause the cycle to begin. Examples of triggers include public speaking, getting a promotion or another form of public recognition, and starting a new position.
It’s also critical to acknowledge your own achievements and accept that you deserve them. In doing so, you can shift your thinking away from feeling like you don’t deserve what you have earned or focusing on your perceived shortcomings. Acknowledging your strengths can help balance feelings of inadequacy.
Challenge Negative Thoughts and Develop a Positive Mindset
Change your thoughts; change your life. Negative thinking produces negative feelings and initiates a vicious cycle. Take every negative thought that crosses your mind and replace it with a positive one. For example, if you think, “I don’t have the skills to lead that discussion.” Replace that thought with, “I have five years of experience as an entrepreneur, and I can provide valuable insight to my audience.”
Positive self-talk and embracing “failure” as growth opportunities can be transformative.
Seek Professional Help
Sometimes, talking with someone you trust can help provide perspective and relief. Left unaddressed, imposter syndrome can lead to depression, isolation, and anxiety that may interfere with your personal or professional life. Getting professional help can aid you in gaining the tools you need to regain your sense of self and rediscover the joy in your life. For example, individual or group therapy and cognitive processing therapy can help reframe unhelpful beliefs. Professional coaching is another option that can help you overcome negative thinking, develop a healthy self-awareness, and achieve balanced success.
Get Support and the Tools You Need to Overcome Adversity with Your Next Act
Professional self-doubt and imposter syndrome can undermine your mindset and derail your goals. Executive one-to-one coaching can help you develop the tools necessary to foster healthy self-awareness, switch your mindset, and prevent burnout. Are you ready to begin enjoying your professional experience again? Learn more about Your Next Act or call us at 518.583.7410 to register.