What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome describes fear and self-doubt so strong that you are not only convinced that you aren’t good enough to do certain things, but also that you can’t recognise your past achievements. Those with imposter syndrome feel highly inadequate, often despite external proof that they are doing well. Imposter syndrome is often accompanied by perfectionism. Perfectionism has been linked to high levels of depression, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts.
If you have imposter syndrome you may be afraid that others will eventually ‘find out’ and you will be exposed as a ‘fraud’. You may be preoccupied, or even feel terrified, that you won't be able to 'keep up' with your success. People with imposter syndrome find it very difficult to internalise their successes and achievements; they therefore do not benefit from the same self-esteem and self-confidence that other high-achievers might.
People with imposter syndrome are often highly capable individuals who are deemed successful by external standards. If you have imposter syndrome you may feel that all of your success and achievements are the result of some sort of fluke or good fortune. You may also find that you are hesitant to repeat processes that garnered you success on one occasion, out of a fear that you would fail to replicate this success as you don’t have the skills to guarantee it.
Imposter syndrome is more common in women than in men; the term itself was first coined to describe a phenomena that affects high achieving women, by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s. However, it is now thought that imposter syndrome could affect up to 40% of high achieving people, both men and women. Though imposter syndrome is not a recognised disorder classified in the DSM, it is a common and often serious problem.
Signs of imposter syndrome:
- Even when your achievements are very clear, you find it difficult to associate with them
- You find it hard to accept that your competences and skills have anything to do with where you are in life
- You prize external validation
- A fear of succeeding due to feeling that success brings unwanted responsibility or that you may be harshly judged or criticised for your success
- You fear being exposed as a ‘fraud’
If you do something well you often minimise your achievement, telling yourself it was easy – anyone could have done it
What causes imposter syndrome?
There are many environmental and genetic reasons that someone may experience imposter syndrome. It could be traced back to childhood and a person’s relationship with their parents, who may have been overly or under complimentary of your skills and achievements.
It can also occur as a symptom of other mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. If you are feeling depressed, it can be very difficult to understand that you deserve anything. When you are harbouring a negative opinion of yourself, the idea of taking on praise and acknowledging successes can even seem incomprehensible; to some with severe depression the idea can even seem revolting.
Imposter syndrome is also higher both in people who score higher in tests for trait-anxiety, and those who are categorised as being more introverted. According to the Jungian theory of psychological type, introverts keep aspects of their personality hidden from others. What is experienced internally, and what is presented outwardly, is therefore in conflict and may prompt feelings that one is not seen for who one really is, a feeling that is a central component of the impostor experience. Research has also shown that introverts are more likely than extroverts to describe themselves as being shy and anxious and as having low self-confidence, attributes which impostors frequently report in describing themselves (1).
Often imposter syndrome can be narrowed down to one of the following internalised sentiments: ‘I’m a fraud’, ‘I’m worthless’ or ‘I’m not deserving’. However, imposter syndrome does differ from low self-esteem. Those with low self-esteem may feel inhibited by their insecurities and struggle to achieve their goals. Imposter syndrome is more often relevant to those who do achieve, however at the time and retrospectively have difficulty appreciating the role they played in achieving success and are afraid of being revealed as unworthy.
How can therapy or counselling help with imposter syndrome?
Therapy and counselling provides a safe space for you to express your fears. You don’t need to be nervous about admitting you feel like a fraud to your therapist! Therapy and counselling can help you manage thoughts and feelings of self-doubt, and help you consolidate your inside and outside self.
A skilled therapist will offer various tools and techniques to help you recognise your strengths and successes, and build your confidence so you come to recognise you are worthy and capable. They can also help you address the high levels of stress that often accompany imposter syndrome, offering support and strategies to manage and reduce stress.
(1) Langford, J., & Clance, P. R. (1993). The imposter phenomenon: Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 30(3), 495–501. https://doi-org.uoro.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/0033-3220.127.116.115
Last updated on 6 June 2019