Imposter Syndrome: What It Is And How To Overcome It

By Chris Kolmar - Dec. 3, 2020

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Have you ever felt like a fraud? You’re not alone. Over 70% of people suffer from imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. From recent graduates working their first job to seasoned experts, imposter syndrome is a prevalent phenomenon.

In this article, we’ll cover what imposter syndrome is, the different forms it takes, how to identify it, and methods for overcoming it.

What Is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a condition where an individual believes they are not as competent as others perceive them. A person with imposter syndrome doubts their skills and accomplishments and has an internalized fear of being “found out” as a fraud. Despite evidence of their competency, those suffering from imposter syndrome attribute their successes to serendipity or deception.

You can think of imposter syndrome as the inverse of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias that causes people of low ability to overestimate their talents.

The term was coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. Originally, they theorized that only women were affected by imposter syndrome. However, they have since acknowledged that imposter syndrome applies to anyone who isn’t able to internalize their successes. While imposter syndrome is not listed as an official diagnosis in the DSM, psychologists recognize it as a form of intellectual self-doubt.

Imposter syndrome is typically accompanied by anxiety and depression. A significant part of the problem is that folks feel uncomfortable talking about their experiences of feeling fraudulent. By definition, someone suffering from imposter syndrome fears being discovered as a phony and suffers in silence as a result.

derived from sheer dumb luck or their ability to fool everyone around them. Feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, low self-esteem, and fear of failure follow these individuals, regardless of ample evidence of their competency.

Consider this quote from Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” Thankfully, Maya never let this fear hold her back. You shouldn’t either.

5 Types of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome can take a few different forms. In her book, “The Secret Thoughts of Succesful Women,” expert Valerie Young describes how people hold themselves to different standards of competence, each of which leads to a unique experience of failure-related shame. Below we break down her five “competence types.”

  1. The perfectionist. Perfectionists set ridiculously high expectations for themselves and are never satisfied with the result. They are focused on the “how” – how their work is done and how it comes out. They fixate on flaws and mistakes instead of their strengths and achievements.

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    Perfectionists can also be control freaks or micromanagers who feel that if a project is going to turn out the right way, they’ll have to do it all themselves. Any small mistake will have a perfectionist questioning their value and legitimacy. Perfectionists suffer from high anxiety and self-pressure.

  2. The expert. Experts expect to know everything about everything and feel that any gap in their knowledge will expose their incompetency. Think of them as perfectionists who focus on “what” and “how much” they can do or know.

    Experts will always underestimate their own expertise, even if all their peers recognize them as highly skilled and knowledgeable. They will often procrastinate starting a project until they know everything they could possibly need to know for its completion. They also avoid asking questions because they are ashamed that they don’t already know the answer.

  3. The soloist. The soloist attributes any success derived from a group effort to the group, not themselves. They focus on “who” completed the task and received the credit. If they don’t achieve something independently, they don’t feel like they achieved anything at all.

    A soloist will rarely ask for help on a project because that would only prove that they’re a fraud, incapable of independently performing their duties. For a soloist, sharing success (or part of it) with another person invalidates that success entirely.

  4. The natural genius. A natural genius will only feel successful (or at least competent) if they can perform their tasks quickly and easily. They focus on “how” and “when” achievements are made. If a natural genius has to expend even a teensy bit of effort in completing their duties, they see this as evidence of their fraudulence.

    Natural geniuses are similar to perfectionists, but with an even more demanding outlook. They need to get everything right the first time. If they struggle to get something done or have to fix mistakes in the end, they feel incompetent.

  5. The Superwoman/Superman. The superhero judges their competence based on their ability to excel in every area of their life. They focus on “how many” things they can do competently. If they are struggling in even one role – as an employee, friend, partner, parent, child – they feel ashamed.

    Superheroes feel that they should be able to perform every role to perfection, and if they’re failing to, that’s proof that they’re inadequate phonies. They’ll often push themselves to the absolute limit just to measure up to their peers. Still, deep down, superheroes struggle with insecurities about their worthiness in all facets of their lives.

Identifying and Addressing Imposter Syndrome

The five categories above are not discrete; a person can fall into a blend of two or more competence types. However, for those suffering from imposter syndrome, they provide a useful framework for both identifying and addressing the issue’s root causes.

  1. Are you a perfectionist? You can identify yourself as a perfectionist if you frequently think to yourself, “I’m not cut out for this job,” after failing to meet your exceptionally high goals. Or if you ruminate on how a successful project could’ve been even better after it’s finished and everyone’s moved on.

    Address these feelings by celebrating your achievements and taking credit for a job well done. When you make mistakes, view them as learning experiences. Recognize that you are not an imposter just because you’re not perfect.

  2. Are you an expert? If you’re the type who won’t apply for a job because you don’t meet every requirement or constantly seek new training, you might be an expert. Or maybe you feel uncomfortable when people praise your breadth of knowledge and feel you still don’t know enough.

    Address your self-doubt by recognizing that all your time spent gaining knowledge is actually a form of procrastination that never satisfies you. There’s nothing wrong with learning if it’s intrinsically pleasing for you or if you need to learn something new for your job. But you’re never going to achieve intellectual security from hoarding knowledge – there will always be gaps in what you know, and that’s what your friends, family, and coworkers are there for.

  3. Are you a soloist? If you always deny help or the need for help, you’re probably a soloist. You might also fail to feel satisfied after your boss praises your team. Instead, you’ll think that the successful project had nothing to do with your efforts.

    It’s okay to value independence, but when you make it a priority, you’re only hurting yourself and the people you work with. Recognize that asking for help is fine – that’s why businesses are generally composed of more than one person, after all.

  4. Are you a natural genius? If you had an easy time getting A’s in school or your social network always praised your intelligence, you might have been set up for this type of imposter syndrome. You may get easily frustrated when an issue pops up, and you can’t solve it easily or without help. You may even avoid anything challenging because you’re afraid of failure.

    To address these insecurities, remember that self-development is a life-long job. You’re not stupid just because you don’t know how to do everything right away. Stop comparing yourself to those with more experience. And don’t shy away from things you’re not naturally gifted in, or you’ll never get over the phobia.

  5. Are you a superwoman/superman? If you’re a workaholic who finds little solace in time off, you might be a superhero. You may also feel that you haven’t earned your position and that you need to work even harder to avoid being discovered as a fraud. It may even feel like you’re addicted to the validation you receive at work.

    There’s nothing wrong with hard work, but you should try to identify what intrinsic pleasure your job brings you instead of solely focusing on extrinsic validation. Learn to appreciate constructive criticism rather than use it as proof of your imposter status.

Ways to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

There’s no easy or fast way to overcome imposter syndrome. As Valerie Young puts it, “the only way to stop feeling like an imposter to stop thinking like an imposter.” And changing your thought patterns is no simple task. Still, the sooner you start coping with the problem, the sooner you’ll make progress. Follow these tips to start your process:

  • Recognize your feelings. The first step to fixing a problem is accepting it and naming it. If you constantly feel like you fundamentally don’t belong in your workplace, you’re suffering from imposter syndrome.

  • Assess your thoughts. When an imposter syndrome thought pops into your head, recognize it for what it is. If you’re thinking, “everyone here is so much smarter than me” or “I have no idea what I’m doing,” slowly alter your perspective to something more positive, like “I’m going to learn a lot here.”

  • Focus on the positives. Those who suffer from imposter syndrome have hyper self-awareness – they just focus on the negatives. Recognize what you’re good at, what achievements you’ve made, and how far you’ve come. Nobody’s perfect, and that’s no big deal. Accept what you’re good at and be grateful you have those skills.

  • Share how you feel. We know it’s hard to talk about these things – as previously mentioned, those who suffer from imposter syndrome are, by definition, afraid of being “found out.” But when you communicate your thoughts, feelings, and insecurities to others, you’d be surprised how silly they sound. A mentor can help you see that while your imposter feelings are natural enough, they are also irrational.

  • Change your relationship with failure. It’s believed that imposter syndrome is more prevalent in those who had demanding parents or parents who oscillated between overpraising and criticizing. Realize that your worthiness is not contingent on achievement. You have the right to have off-days or be wrong sometimes – it doesn’t make you a phony, and it doesn’t mean you don’t deserve the good things in your life.

  • Accept credit for your success. Those with imposter syndrome will often look for ways to invalidate their successes – “my team did most of the important work,” “I just tricked my boss into thinking I’m performing my job well,” “I’m so lucky I got that project finished on time.” If someone gives you kudos, thank them, accept they were being genuine, and internalize your success.

  • Fake it ‘til you make it. Everyone has to fake it sometimes. High achievers view this ability to improvise as an asset, while those with imposter syndrome use it as evidence of their fraudulence. Don’t worry if you’re not 100% confident about performing your job. Just put yourself out there, do your best, and keep positive. It may take some time, but you’ll start feeling more confident and less like an imposter as you practice.

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Chris Kolmar

Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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