People with imposter syndrome believe they don’t deserve the success they’ve achieved. They think they’re just lucky instead of smart and talented.
Imposter syndrome can be painful and draining, and it can keep you from reaching your potential. The good news is that you can do something about it.
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is the fear that you’re not as competent, skilled, talented, or intelligent as other people think you are—and as you think you need to be. You doubt your own worth. You feel like a phony who doesn’t really belong. You live in constant fear that you’ll be found out, even when other people praise your talents.
What are the signs?
People with imposter syndrome can be successful high achievers who hold negative, untrue thoughts about themselves.
- They doubt their own abilities. Even when they’re good at their jobs, they feel inadequate and incompetent.
- They doubt their own success. They think it was an accident, or they were just lucky. Someone felt sorry for them, or someone else made it happen.
- They have a hard time accepting compliments, congratulations, or praise.
- They focus on their mistakes rather than their accomplishments.
- They set high expectations and hold themselves to impossibly high standards.
- They consider anything short of perfection to be a failure, and they’re never satisfied with their performance.
- They feel constant pressure to achieve or to be better than before. They worry about not meeting other people’s expectations.
- They lack confidence, have low self-esteem, and worry that people wouldn’t like them if they really knew them.
Who is affected?
Research shows that 70% to 85% of employees experience imposter syndrome at least once in their lives. A recent study found that 80% of men and 90% of women suffer from imposter syndrome even when they have at least 3 years of experience in their field.
Some studies show that women of colour experience even higher rates of imposter syndrome than other women.
Research suggests that imposter syndrome is common in fast-paced, highly competitive, demanding fields. These include medicine, law, finance, engineering, and tech.
Why it happens
Researchers believe that imposter syndrome is caused by a number of factors that act together. These can include personality, upbringing, mental health, and workplace environment.
People who experience imposter syndrome often tend to be perfectionists. They are also worriers who struggle with self-doubt and other negative feelings.
Many people who experience imposter syndrome grew up in a competitive childhood environment. Their parents may have pressured them to do well, criticized their mistakes, and constantly compared them to their siblings.
Some research suggests that imposter syndrome is associated with anxiety and depression.
Imposter syndrome can also be rooted in microaggression.
Imposter syndrome can also result from an organization’s structure, as well as discrimination and gender bias. It’s hard to feel like you belong in a workplace where there are no other people like you. Or if people say things like “women aren’t cut out for this job.” Or if your manager never gives you feedback, support, or the opportunity to show what you can do.
How imposter syndrome holds you back
Imposter syndrome can keep you from achieving your personal and career goals. Here are 4 ways it holds you back:
One of the signs of imposter syndrome is perfectionism. Being perfect sounds like a good thing, but in reality, it’s usually impossible.
Perfectionism can lead to an unhealthy drive to overachieve and perform at your absolute best 100% of the time. This can backfire if your quest for perfection means that you’re constantly behind on work.
Perfectionism can also create mental health and stress issues. When you can’t be as perfect as you want to be, you feel incompetent and worthless. You also feel burnt out and overwhelmed from working so hard. Over time, this creates a cycle of anxiety, depression, and guilt.
A fear of failure makes perfectionists feel that effort is a good substitute for ability, so they often over-prepare or procrastinate. They may avoid tasks until the last minute so they can blame their failure—or success—on luck.
People with imposter syndrome fear success as much as they fear failure. They often pass up opportunities for growth because they don’t think they’re qualified.
Imposter syndrome can lead to self-sabotage. People with imposter syndrome tend to hide themselves because they’re afraid of being exposed as frauds. Self-doubt and lack of confidence prevent them from building professional networks of support and reaching out to potential new contacts.
Employees who are invisible sabotage their own success. They often pass up career-advancing roles or projects because they’re afraid of being in the spotlight. They become followers, rather than leaders, because they lack confidence in their skills.
People with imposter syndrome often undervalue their work during performance reviews. As a result, they lose out on professional development opportunities and chances to shine and get noticed. This can shut the door to promotions and skill-building experiences. It can also affect their earning power.
4. Performance Anxiety
When you feel like an imposter, you feel you don’t deserve the success you’ve achieved. You worry about not being good enough. You constantly pressure yourself to work harder—to make up for what you think is your lack of intelligence or ability.
Constant worry about your performance can increase stress and make success harder to achieve. It minimizes the joy and satisfaction you get from your work and limits your opportunities to connect with your co-workers.
Some research suggests that men and women experience imposter syndrome in different ways. Men tend to underperform. They avoid getting feedback and taking on challenging goals. Women challenge themselves even more to prove their worth, but they still feel anxious and stressed.
10 ways to deal with imposter syndrome
1. Know the signs
The only way to stop feeling like an imposter is to stop thinking of yourself as one. Learn to recognize negative self-talk and replace it with a positive outlook.
2. Acknowledge your feelings
Identifying imposter feelings can help you deal with them.
When you start feeling negative thoughts, challenge your doubts and allow yourself to work things through. For example, if you’re faced with a new assignment at work, you might worry that you can’t deal with it. Instead of worrying about failure, ask yourself why you’re really afraid of it. Is it because you don’t have the skills? Or is it because you’re nervous about working with colleagues you don’t know?
Once you’ve gotten specific about your fears, flip things around and ask yourself, “What if I succeeded? What if this turns out well?” That turns a challenge into an opportunity.
3. Learn to welcome praise
Practice accepting praise: simply say thank you and don’t put yourself down.
4. Let go of perfectionism
Don’t seek perfection. Learn to set realistic goals for yourself. Stop believing that you’re a failure if you don’t excel at everything.
Remind yourself that success doesn’t require perfection. Sometimes it’s OK to settle for “good enough.”
5. Give yourself a break
Go easier on yourself. Accept your strengths. Acknowledge the value of your work and own your own success. Remember, you didn’t get where you are by accident.
Focus on measuring your own achievements instead of comparing yourself to other people.
6. Say yes to opportunities
Be open to new opportunities. Don’t shy away from challenges because you’re afraid of being exposed as a fraud. If you’re worried about taking on a new project, ask yourself why, and don’t let fear or self-doubt sabotage your success.
7. Track your achievements
Keep track of your accomplishments. Celebrate them when they happen and keep a list you can refer to when you start to doubt yourself.
8. Find a mentor
Find a mentor who believes in you and supports you personally and professionally. Talking to a mentor who understands your feelings of insecurity can help you put your situation in perspective.
9. Get professional help
Imposter syndrome often goes hand in hand with anxiety or depression. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. A therapist can help you reframe negative beliefs and overcome feelings of unworthiness.
10. Build connections and know you’re not alone
Sharing your feelings can make them feel less overwhelming. Opening up can encourage your peers to do the same. That can help you realize you aren’t the only one who feels like an imposter.