Let's talk about imposter syndrome.
Updated: Jan 15
It is likely that either you or someone you know will experience imposter syndrome at some point in life. What is imposter syndrome (IS)? Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is defined as “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.”
There has been a shift away from using the term “imposter syndrome”. Some of the reasons are that the term “syndrome” can mistakenly imply symptoms of a disease or a disorder. Imposter syndrome is neither. It is an experience (phenomenon) that a person has towards a thing or event. Experiencing imposter syndrome is relatively universal, and it is estimated that up to 70% of people will experience these characteristics to some degree during some point in their life.
For the rest of this article, we will be utilizing the term imposter phenomenon (IP). Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzzane A. Imes first identified this phenomenon in high achieving women in academia. However, further research has shown that IP is universal and can occur across all gender, race, ethnicities, ages, and occupations.
Imposter phenomenon or perfectionism?
Perfectionism is the self-defeating belief that you need to be or appear perfect or achieve perfection. Perfectionism involves setting unrealistic goals and holding yourself to an unreasonable standard. There are a number of commonalities between perfectionism and impostorism. Some examples are feelings of incompetence and unworthiness, fear of failure, discounting praises, downplaying and guilt about success.
The distinction is that perfectionists feel as if what they do is never enough. While imposters feel that they themselves are not enough.
However, a person can have both perfectionism and impostor phenomenon tendencies.
For example, a person can be procrastinating on starting a project because:
they cannot do it without making mistakes (perfectionism)
they feel like they do not have the ability or qualifications (impostorism)
What is it like to have imposter syndrome?
Do you doubt your intelligence and abilities?
Do you have a hard time taking compliments?
Do you feel that other people are just being friendly?
Do you feel that your accomplishments are based mostly on luck?
Do you feel that you cannot have repeated success?
Do you fear criticism or critique?
Do you ever feel like you are surrounded by those far intelligent and talented than you?
Do you not feel like you deserve to have what you have or be where you are?
Do you feel that there is no point in trying if you cannot be the best?
Do you obsess over your mistakes and flaws?
If you answer yes to one or more of these questions, you may have IP characteristics. Get a better idea by referring to Dr. Clances IP Scale, where you can determine whether or not you have IP Characteristics and, if so, to what extent. It is to best answer the questions before looking at the scoring section.
Those who experience imposter syndrome feel that they are not good enough. They feel undeserving, inadequate, unworthy and insecure, even when given constant external validation. It is important to note that these feelings persist regardless of the amount of accomplishment, praise, compliments or credit given to them. Imposter syndrome can make you feel like you are “faking it” and that at any moment, others will discover who you “really are”. It will deceive you into thinking that your success is due to luck and that you have tricked others into thinking you are more intelligent than you really are.
What are some risk factors of the imposter phenomenon?
Introduction of new environments and people (academic, professional, relationships)
During a major life transition (moving away for school, getting married, having children, entering retirement)
You are in a career or job role where you are continually receiving feedback, critique and criticism of your work.
Pre-existing mental health challenges (depression, low self-esteem, perfectionism)
Belong to an unrepresented or disadvantaged group (sex, gender, orientation, ability, race, ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic status)
Home environment, upbringing, family dynamics, domestic violence
Experienced trauma or abuse
Attribution style (external vs internal)
Even if you do not have any of these risk factors, you can still experience IP characteristics.
Imposter Phenomenon characteristics continue to exist even with increased education, success, recognition, wealth, accomplishments, awards, promotions, status and titles.
What are the negative consequences of imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome can have disastrous effects on both the individual and the institutions, organizations, and communities they belong to.
Increased risk and prevalence of low-self-esteem, depression, anxiety, addictions
Increase feelings of shame, insecurity, incompetence, unworthiness
Increase feelings of perfectionism and its consequences: an obsession with mistakes, flaws, self-doubt, procrastination, workaholism, self-sabotage.
Decrease productivity and stalled projects
Fear of sharing ideas, negotiating, and asking for promotions
Decreased happiness and life satisfaction.
So how do we overcome the imposter phenomenon?
Talk about it. Remember that it is a relatively common pattern of thinking. However, it is common to feel like you are the only one feeling this way. Talk about how you feel with someone you trust, such as a close friend or a mentor.
Pay attention to when you feel these feelings. Where are you? What are you doing? Who is around you? Is it reasonable to feel this way in this situation? Sometimes, it is just a normal reaction to unfamiliar circumstances. Sometimes it can be a reaction to common social stereotypes.
Practice self-compassion. Permit yourself to make mistakes, to fail, not to know all the answers. Know that none of these things can define your intelligence, talent, or ability.
Give yourself credit where credit is due. Own your accomplishments. Learn to take compliments and praise. Make a habit out of talking to yourself kindly. Reward yourself for a job well done, for trying your best, for doing all you could.
Highlight your successes. It is easy to hyper-focus on negative feedback and criticism. Have a place where you can keep evidence of your successes, accomplishments, and compliments. Some examples include degrees, certifications, achievements, positive feedback, comments, projects that you are proud of, cards or letters. Refer to it when you are feeling down on yourself.
Seek professional support. Navigating the imposter phenomena can be a very complicated task. Counselling can provide a safe space to work through these thoughts and feelings. By working with a therapist, you can become more self-aware of your doubts and fears and develop strategies to challenge or change these thoughts.