Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is often associated with the workplace, academic, or professional environment – that is, harboring self-doubt or feelings that you don’t deserve a role, promotion, or praise within your career or academic achievement. However, it can be felt across many other settings.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome describes the emotional experience of self-doubt turning into harmful feelings of inadequacy. While imposter syndrome initially began as a concept intended for high achievers, it’s grown to an incredibly common experience for people of all backgrounds, personalities, careers, and identities.

When someone experiences imposter syndrome, they feel like they don’t belong or deserve their situation. They may give all credit for their success to luck or circumstance, without internalizing their own abilities in what they’ve accomplished. It’s called imposter syndrome because many people who experience these impostor feelings like they’ve fooled everyone else, that when others find out who they really are, they will no longer belong. These assumptions are often warped views of reality, though persistent fear can heavily influence someone’s emotional state.

By promoting well-being with a healthy dose of therapy to offer support and restructure a positive outlook hand in hand with affirmations of your own merits and success, there is a significant probability in overcoming imposter syndrome.

Dark skinned woman sitting at a white desk, working at a laptop.

Origin of imposter syndrome

The development of the impostor phenomenon occurs for various reasons. When a person has trouble believing in their own accomplishments or hard work, it can be the result of the internal beliefs of harmful societal stigmas or narratives. People who face discrimination or systemic racism within their communities may have learned that people who look like them, act like them, or love like them do not achieve success at work, in relationships, or otherwise socially. It’s harder to take credit for hard work toward challenging goals with these social scripts and systemic bias.

While external factors can play a part in the development of impostor syndrome, another reason is based upon a person’s common characteristics and personality traits. People who have perfectionist tendencies often discredit themselves in all areas of their lives. They believe that they don’t deserve nice situations, relationships, or experiences. This could be an innate personality feature, though it can also be a learned behavior. People whose early family dynamics included intense pressure for achieving their full potential by their caregivers or authority figures – or unfairly punished for average behavior — might have learned thought patterns that repetitively tell them they are not enough, decreasing their self-confidence and increasing a sense of low self-esteem.

Prevalence of imposter syndrome

Although not exclusive to women, peer-reviewed studies and research shows that imposter syndrome has a significant gender bias and is more prevalent among high-achieving women, and women of color. Often seen in college students, more specifically graduate students, It is a common issue in corporate culture, especially among professional women. The absence of role models for marginalized communities is a major contributing factor to this sense of inadequacy. Racist and sexist stereotypes can cause marginalized individuals to feel doubt, often second-guessing themselves. For instance, many women experience the backlash of the conventional belief that women are too emotional to become good leaders, or that people of color lack integrity or ethics. Furthermore, excessive emphasis on female beauty can also contribute to self-doubt. When growing up with messages that prioritize looks over intelligence or abilities, it's natural to question one's suitability for a profession or role.

Symptoms of imposter syndrome

No matter the reason for imposter syndrome, it can be a debilitating feeling that negatively impacts a person’s daily life. A person with imposter syndrome may feel like a fraud, which often manifests in feeling anxious. This anxiety may develop into a social anxiety disorder, with the fear that others will judge them or not like them if they knew the “real” you. While the outward signs of anxiety show, it may instead be a constant self-pressure that leads to intense stress, burnout, or even depression. Imposter syndrome often results in feeling on-edge or extra vigilant, which can be emotionally and physically exhausting.

A key symptom of imposter syndrome is the thought patterns that result from feelings of self-doubt. People who have Imposter syndrome subscribe to cognitive distortions, warped ways of thinking that aren’t based in reality. They may make assumptions about other people’s behaviors. They might mis-associate positive situations and achievements with external forces rather than internal ones. Often, there is intense fear and negative self-talk which leads to low self-esteem, low self-worth, and a lack of confidence.

Therapy for imposter syndrome

Although not recognized as an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V, the impostor phenomenon is a legitimate form of intellectual self-doubt, acknowledged by psychologists and others that can lead to real mental health issues. Imposter feelings of fraud typically come with anxiety and can even lead to depression. Although it can be difficult to recognize negative emotional reactions to events, people, or situations, it is possible to overcome imposter syndrome. Therapeutic intervention by credentialed therapists helps clients identify instances. They’ll give clients a safe space to talk about their feelings and their beliefs. Therapists may challenge clients to do away with negative thought patterns or self-judgments, instead replacing them with healthy habits and self-compassion.

The goal of therapy is for clients to realize the truth of their abilities, start taking credit for their own accomplishments, and to feel more comfortable in various settings in their lives. If you experience imposter syndrome, you’re not alone — it’s a common experience that can be treated with the support of a trained mental health professional.