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What is Imposter Syndrome? Why You Suffer from Low Confidence

March 27, 2024

Imagine this: You’ve just achieved something significant—a promotion, a high grade, a public award for your work. Instead of basking in the glow of your accomplishment, a nagging voice in your head whispers, “You don’t deserve this. They’re going to find out you’re a fraud.”

Congrats, you‘re in the land of Imposter Syndrome.

a woman receiving award triggering imposter syndrome

Imposter Syndrome happens when individuals feel they‘re not as talented as people perceive them to be, and they fear being exposed as a fraud. And, they feel this way despite plenty of evidence of their talent and competence, despite years of experience and a proven track record.

Put another way, you can think of Imposter Syndrome as a fear of not living up to other people’s image of your intelligence or capabilities, because you think you’re somehow really good at fooling everybody. Inside, you’re thinking, “if they only knew the truth.”

What most people don’t know is that Imposter Syndrome can strike anyone, from the freshest intern to the seasoned CEO. In fact, it tends to affect the most successful career professionals, like actors, lawyers, and doctors. We’re talking about people like Tom Hanks, Michelle Obama, and even Einstein.

Identifying and understanding Imposter Syndrome is crucial because it can seriously hinder personal and professional growth. People who are unaware that they‘re experiencing Imposter Syndrome end up trapped in a cycle of self-doubt. This has them turning down opportunities that come their way, or never applying to higher level jobs out of fear.

In this article, we’ll explore the shadowy corners of Imposter Syndrome. We‘ll shed light on why it occurs, how it manifests, and how we can confront and overcome the imposter experience.

Ready to unravel the mystery of Imposter Syndrome and reclaim your confidence? Let’s dive in.

The Psychology Behind Imposter Syndrome

The term “Imposter Syndrome” was first coined in the 1970s by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance. Initially, psychologists thought Imposter Syndrome primarily affected only high-achieving women, but that was because the earliest studies were only done on women. And yet, even today people generally think that women suffer from Imposter Syndrome more than men.

Today, studies show that Imposter Syndrome is a universal experience across all genders, races, and occupations.

At its core, Imposter Syndrome is a disconnect between a person’s perceived and actual competence. Despite plenty of real, proven evidence of their skills and successes, individuals with Imposter Syndrome believe that they are not truly capable and have simply fooled others into thinking they are.

Understanding the psychological roots of Imposter Syndrome is the first step in dismantling its power over us. By recognizing the common threads that tie together the experiences of those who grapple with feeling like an imposter, we can begin to develop empathy for ourselves and others.

Acknowledging that these feelings are a shared human experience is the first step in overcoming the imposter experience. It‘s important that you acknowledge and show compassion for yourself, instead of thinking that there is something wrong with you. I repeat: there is nothing wrong with you.

In the next section, I’ll identify the signs and symptoms of Imposter Syndrome, so that you can spot it in yourself and in those around you.

Origins and History of Imposter Syndrome

The journey into understanding Imposter Syndrome began when Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance first observed that despite having adequate external evidence of accomplishments, certain individuals were convinced they had somehow fooled people into thinking that they were smarter than they really were.

Originally called “Imposter Phenomenon,” Imposter Syndrome was first identified and recorded during a study of high-achieving women who felt they were not genuinely intelligent and were merely masquerading as competent.

Over the years, the concept of Imposter Syndrome has expanded. It is now recognized as a widespread experience affecting both men and women across various professions and walks of life.

Right now, Imposter Syndrome is not yet classified as a diagnosable mental disorder, but is instead categorized as a reaction pattern (like perfectionism) that can lead to significant anxiety, stress, and self-delayed professional growth. Imposter Syndrome has a high coincidence rate with depression, anxiety, and OCD.

Psychological Theories Explaining Why Imposter Syndrome Occurs

Psychologists have proposed several theories to explain the occurrence of Imposter Syndrome. Cognitive-behavioral models suggest that it stems from certain thought patterns and behaviors learned over time.

Imposter feelings are most often a response to particular social and familial conditioning or expectations.

For example, if you‘re constantly told that you‘re not the smart one in the family, or your successes were habitually dismissed by your parents, you may have grown up believing that you don‘t deserve your promotions or awards.

In my own family, my brother was always considered the “smart one.“ But me on the other hand, I was told all the time that, “bless your heart, but you have to work harder.“ I also remember several instances when I won tennis games or math team matches, my parents made comments such as, “the people you were up against must not have been very good.“

Comments like these were pretty hard to dismiss because my parents weren‘t being mean when they said them. They were just being matter-of-fact, telling the truth as they saw it. Unfortunately, it‘s very easy for other peoples‘ truths to become your own, especially when you‘re younger and the people you trust to take care of you are the ones saying such things.

Additionally, in many cultures with Asians, the norm is to downplay compliments. To just say, “thank you,” to a compliment would be seen as having a big head. There‘s quite an expectation that you should be humble and display modest behavior, especially if you‘re a woman.

This is why the million dollar question to ask yourself about your imposter feelings is: who did you learn this from, or where?

Imposter Syndrome Common Signs and Symptoms

Imposter Syndrome can be an elusive shadow lurking in the background, difficult to pin down but unmistakable once you know what to look for. Here are some of the telltale signs and symptoms that suggest someone might be grappling with their own imposter experience.

Persistent Self-Doubt

A hallmark of Imposter Syndrome is the constant questioning of one’s abilities and achievements. Individuals may feel like they’re never good enough, despite plenty of evidence or even a long standing track record showing otherwise.

Explaining Away Success to External Factors

People experiencing Imposter Syndrome have a compulsive habit of explaining away their success, by saying things like:

  • I got lucky
  • I was in the right place at the right time
  • They just liked me (this tends to be more women saying this one)
  • I had help
  • If I can do it, anyone can
  • I had connections
  • They let anyone in
  • Someone must have made a mistake
  • They felt sorry for me

If you take a close look at this list, notice that this person never says, “I did this myself.“ This person doesn‘t own that they achieved something through their own talent and effort.

This person also tends to dismiss or downplay compliments and positive feedback, and is typically looking for all the ways they‘ve failed.

Overworking to an Extreme

Some people in the grip of imposter syndrome tend to work much harder than necessary to compensate for feeling inadequate and to make sure that no one discovers they are an “imposter.“

As one workshop attendee put it, “I might not be as smart as the other people in the room, but I will outwork them all day and night if I have to.“

They also have a very hard time asking for help, or setting appropriate boundaries because of a need to prove themselves.

Sabotaging One’s Own Success

Sometimes, the fear of being found out or exposed leads to self-sabotage, such as procrastination or failing to follow through on opportunities.

Around 8 years ago, one of my friends invited a woman to apply for a job opening. My friend had specifically handpicked this woman because she knew that the woman was the perfect fit. All this woman had to do was show up to the interview, which was really a formality.

The woman kept telling my friend that she didn‘t feel qualified enough. My friend asked her several times to apply anyway, but the woman refused.

A week later, my friend gave up and moved on to reviewing the candidates who actually showed up for the interview.

Perfectionism

What many people don‘t realize is that Imposter Syndrome is often masked behind a relentless drive for perfection. This is the person who feels that anything less than perfect means that they are a failure.

In many cultures, perfectionism is often treated like a humble brag, as a trait that‘s not really that bad. This is because most people wear perfectionism as some kind of badge of honor because they confuse the pursuit of excellence with the pursuit of perfection.

These are NOT the same.

In the next section, we’ll explore how Imposter Syndrome can manifest in various contexts, affecting people from all walks of life in different ways.

Imposter Syndrome in Various Contexts

Imposter Syndrome doesn’t discriminate; it can infiltrate the minds of individuals across all professions, life stages, and backgrounds. However, the way it manifests can vary greatly depending on the context. Let’s delve into how this syndrome affects different groups and settings:

Imposter Syndrome in the Workplace

In a professional setting like the workplace, Imposter Syndrome often shows up in many ways:

  • a lack of confidence in decision-making
  • reluctance to apply for promotions
  • hesitation to contribute ideas in meetings
  • not wanting to ask questions in front of other people
  • refusing to ask for help
  • staying silent instead of speaking up

This sort of behavior can be particularly rampant in fields such as academia, medicine, or technology.

Imposter Syndrome in Academia

Students, especially those in highly competitive environments, may feel like they don’t truly belong or deserve their place in their program. This can result in overstudying, burnout, and a reluctance to seek help when needed.

imposter syndrome in academia students walking to class at a university

This also tends to get worse in the post-grad programs, and especially so for people of color or minorities.

Imposter Syndrome in Creative Fields

Artists, writers, and performers may grapple with the the voice of their inner critic telling them their work isn’t original or good enough. This can stifle creativity and lead to a fear of sharing their work with the world.

creative artist experiencing imposter syndrome
(Artist painting on canvas often experiencing imposter syndrome)

The creative fields are special because they have actual professional critics whose jobs are to not only evaluate performance, but to publish their reviews publicly to news sites or even on TV. Knowing that your work can be skewered at any time and that you‘re only as good as your latest work can really feed the imposter monster.

Life Transitions Can Trigger Imposter Feelings

Major life changes, such as starting a new job, switching careers, becoming a parent, or entering retirement, can trigger feelings of being an imposter as people go outside of their comfort zone and learn to navigate unfamiliar roles and expectations.

Each context presents unique challenges and triggers for Imposter Syndrome. For example, a seasoned professional might feel like a fraud when transitioning to a new industry, despite having plenty of experience.

A student from a minority background might question their acceptance into a prestigious university, wondering whether they were admitted on their merits or only because of affirmative action policies.

Understanding the variety of situations in which Imposter Syndrome can arise helps us to empathize with others and ourselves to recognize that these feelings can be a natural response to changes in environments and pressures.

As we move forward, we’ll look at strategies and tools for overcoming Imposter Syndrome, empowering individuals to embrace their achievements and to step into their roles with confidence.

Imposter Syndrome and Diversity

When you are different in any way versus the main group you‘re entering, you‘re more likely to experience Imposter Syndrome, like:

  • a woman on an all male team
  • you‘re going to work at Facebook and you‘re a lot older than the rest of the company
  • you‘re a recently promoted executive still in your 20s when all the other executives are in their 50s
  • you grew up much poorer compared to the rest of your coworkers
  • you‘re the only person of color among all white coworkers
imposter syndrome and diversity black woman on an all male team

This is why women, minorities, and people from underrepresented groups most commonly report experiencing Imposter Syndrome.

But in some situations, your feelings of being an outsider are a result of racism or gender inequality, like in this HBR article.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

While Imposter Syndrome can be persistent challenge for many of us, there are strategies and approaches that can help people quiet their inner imposter monster. Overcoming these feelings is a process, one that involves self-awareness, self-compassion, and a willingness to challenge long-held beliefs about oneself.

Identify the Imposter Narrative

What‘s the story playing in your head about yourself? For example, back when I was a beginner photographer, I felt like a fraud because I hadn‘t gone to school for it. And because of that, I felt like I wasn‘t qualified to even call myself a photographer.

It was like a movie playing in my head. Every time I imagined myself having a client, I saw myself taking their photos, sending the photos over, and the client reacting with disgust. The client would then say, “These photos are awful. You have no business calling yourself a photographer. I want a refund.“

I was convinced that this would 100% happen. Because I didn‘t want this to turn into reality, I didn‘t do my marketing. When you have no marketing, you have no business. That‘s how I spent two years making no money.

But hey, at least I could say that I wasn‘t even trying, right?

This is the kind of mental bs that Imposter Syndrome running unchecked will put you through.

Acknowledge the Imposter Feelings

Recognize and accept that it‘s normal and very common to feel this way. Studies show that more than 70% of people admit to feeling Imposter Syndrome. There is nothing wrong with you.

Reframe Thoughts: Learn to reframe negative thoughts by challenging them with evidence of achievements and competence.

Talk About Your Imposter Experience

The worst thing you can do is hide your feelings about this. Imposter Syndrome can be very isolating, because most people in the grip of their imposter monster are trying very hard to present a confident face to the world, which makes everyone else try that much harder, too.

So consider practice a little bravery and test sharing about your experience. Identify the people you know you can trust among your friends, mentors, or colleagues.

If you don‘t feel comfortable talking about this with someone you know, working with a therapist or a certified imposter syndrome coach like myself could be very helpful.

Either way, it‘s important that you speak about how you‘re feeling with someone, or journaling about it. This is because applying language to challenges helps the brain process negative feelings, which will help you navigate this more successfully.

Keep a Success Book

I‘ve noticed that many people experiencing Imposter Syndrome often suffer from a strange sort of amnesia. When I ask them to tell me about their accomplishments, successes, or victories over the last 5 years, I commonly get a blank stare. And yet, these are some of the most successful people senior level titles and proven track records!

This happens because these people have become masters as rejecting their successes. In other words, they haven‘t owned their own effort, which makes their minds “throw away“ each of these experiences because they think that they somehow didn‘t count.

To offset this longtime habit, start a Success Book. Or as Brian Kurtz calls it, an Attaboy Folder. This is the place where you document accomplishments, positive feedback, and anything else that makes you feel good about yourself.

You don‘t have to fill it out all at once, but make this a regular part of your schedule where you enter something into your Success Book at least once a week. And then schedule a time to sit down with your Success Book and review entries. Let it soak into your soul that YOU DID THIS.

Long-Term Mindset Shifts

Embrace a Growth Mindset: Focus on learning and growth rather than perfection. Understand and accept that mistakes are supposed to happen.

Practice Radical Honesty: Sometimes there‘s some truth to the imposter experience, especially if you‘re just starting out in a new venture. Your skills likely need time to grow and develop, and that‘s ok. Stop trying to “fake it till you make it.“ Instead, ask yourself why you‘re feeling this way, and what you can do to make yourself feel better.

By implementing these strategies, individuals can start to dismantle the false narratives that fuel Imposter Syndrome. It’s about building a foundation of self-belief that can withstand the occasional tremors of doubt.

Conclusion

Imposter Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that can affect anyone, regardless of their level of success or expertise.

While Imposter Syndrome can lead to self-doubt and anxiety, it’s important to remember that this is a universally shared experience, and not a personal failing. The strategies above—such as reframing thoughts, seeking support, and embracing a growth mindset—provide a roadmap for those looking to overcome the negative aspects of Imposter Syndrome.

Feeling like an imposter at times is a natural part of being human. It’s a natural consequence when you push outside of your comfort zone. By embracing your achievements, acknowledging your fears, and finding and offering support, you can move forward with greater confidence and resilience.

If you find yourself wrestling with Imposter Syndrome, take heart knowing that you’re not alone. Let this be a call to action to start a conversation, seek support, and celebrate your successes—no matter how small they may seem. After all, every step forward is a step out of the imposter’s shadow and into the light of your true potential.

If you‘d like help with resolving Imposter Syndrome, work with me - I‘m a certified Imposter Syndrome coach. I‘ve worked with dozens of business owners and high-performing corporate executives.

The life you want is waiting for you.