Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Have you ever felt doubt about your abilities, or as if you’re a fraud? Have you ever felt as if you don’t “deserve” your accomplishments, or as if you don’t belong in a certain position?
Welcome to imposter syndrome — a psychological occurrence in which capable, successful and accomplished people doubt their abilities and feel as if they’re a fraud that might eventually face exposure.
While we all go through periods of self-doubt, imposter syndrome is often a persistent issue that can take a serious toll on your mental wellbeing and quality of life.
Below, we’ve talked about what imposter syndrome is and shared the classic signs that you may notice if you’re affected.
We’ve also explained the factors that may contribute to imposter syndrome and discussed some techniques that you can use to get past imposter syndrome and live your best life.
Imposter syndrome, or IS, is a term that refers to the internal feeling of believing that you aren’t as capable, competent or trustworthy as you really are. It’s a belief that you might not “deserve” to be in your current position in life, and that you got there largely by luck or accident.
Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanna Imes first used the term “imposter syndrome” in the late 1970s to describe an internal experience of “intellectual phoniness” in high-achieving women.
If you’re affected by imposter syndrome, you might feel like you’re a fraud, and that you lack the skills, competency and experience to have achieved things the “right” way.
Imposter syndrome isn’t recognized as a mental illness, but it’s a well-researched psychological phenomenon. It’s also remarkably common, particularly amongst successful women and people from marginalized communities.
Over the years, many women with significant accomplishments, including Meta Platforms chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and former first lady Michelle Obama, have mentioned going through moments in which they felt as if they were impostors.
Put simply, if you occasionally feel as if you’re less competent than other people believe, or like you’re going to be “found out” by others, you’re very much not alone.
Because imposter syndrome isn’t a psychiatric diagnosis, there’s no checklist of symptoms that experts use to identify it. However, over the decades, psychologists and other experts in mental health have developed a list of common signs of imposter syndrome.
If you have imposter syndrome, you may:
Develop feelings of inadequacy and a lack of confidence regarding your abilities
Feel as if external factors, such as luck, are responsible for your successes in life
Believe that you’ve achieved things because of someone’s mistake or oversight
Berate your personal performance and feel self-doubt about your successful career
Fear that you’ll let others down and fail to live up to people’s expectations
Feel out of place when you meet other talented or successful people
Worry that you’ll eventually be exposed by someone else as a fraud
Make decisions that sabotage your career growth and success
When it’s severe, imposter syndrome may result in severe, constant fear and worries about your skills. It may potentially create a vicious cycle in which unrealistically high expectations and lack of confidence cause you to think excessively about your perceived weaknesses.
Many people with imposter syndrome face impairments in their workplace performance, as well as issues such as low job satisfaction and career burnout.
Experts haven’t yet been able to identify the exact root causes of imposter syndrome. However, research suggests that certain factors, including your family upbringing, gender and personality, may all be involved in the development of imposter syndrome symptoms.
You may have a higher risk of developing imposter syndrome if you:
Have recently entered a new role. Suddenly beginning a new work or educational role, such as starting graduate school or entering into a new job, may contribute to feelings of being inadequately prepared.
Have overprotective parents. Certain family environments may play a role in imposter syndrome. For example, research suggests that women with overprotective parents are more likely to report imposter syndrome symptoms than their peers.
Had limited parental guidance and involvement. Interestingly, a lack of parental care is also associated with imposter syndrome. You may be more likely to develop imposter if your parents weren’t actively involved in your early life and provided limited guidance.
Are female. Although the precise association between sex and imposter syndrome isn’t totally clear, some studies show that women are more likely to develop feelings of being an imposter than men.
Belong to a marginalized group. Imposter syndrome is particularly common in Asian, African and Latino/a Americans. Being LGBTQ or part of a religious minority may also increase your risk of developing imposter syndrome.
It’s important to keep in mind that although these factors may increase your risk of feeling as if you’re an imposter, imposter syndrome can potentially affect anyone.
When imposter syndrome causes you to question yourself, it can seriously affect your mental wellbeing.
Luckily, it’s often possible to overcome imposter syndrome by making changes to the way you think. Try the following techniques the next time you notice yourself doubting your own abilities or feeling as if you don’t belong in your current position in life.
It’s normal to experience self-doubt from time to time. Instead of trying to brush away imposter feelings, try to be honest with yourself and use these feelings as an opportunity to change the way you think.
This could mean spending time with yourself and coming to terms with your feelings, or getting in touch with others to discuss how you feel. Using your feelings as a learning opportunity may help you to gain perspective and make progress towards overcoming them.
A lot of the time, imposter syndrome stems from inaccurate, irrational thoughts about ourselves and our abilities.
For example, you may have a long-held belief that you’re bad at something, even when you’re actually highly competent. One way to challenge this type of belief is to rationally assess your abilities and accomplishments.
Try to write down a list of what you feel you’re good at, as well as what you’ve achieved in your life so far. Try to compare the objective list of your personal accomplishments to your long-held beliefs about yourself.
You may find that your beliefs about yourself are overly critical and that your accomplishments — the parts of your life that others see — paint a different picture than the one that you’ve built in your mind.
As part of your assessment, try making a separate list of your weaknesses or areas of your life that need attention. This way, you’ll form a more objective view of what you’re actually good at, as well as areas that you can focus on for improvement.
Just about everyone experiences imposter syndrome at some point in life, including people you may view as mentors and authority figures.
If you’re beginning to doubt your abilities or think you’re a fraud, try reaching out to a colleague, close friend or mentor to talk. It may help to get in touch with someone slightly older and “further ahead” in life than you.
You may find that your feelings are common and that the people you respect for their expertise and knowledge have also dealt with similar feelings in the past.
When you feel like an imposter, it’s easy to ignore your successes and focus solely on what you perceive as your weak points. This may make your feelings worse by giving you a distorted and inaccurate perception of your skills and achievements.
If you’re prone to self-doubt and impostor syndrome, aim to celebrate your personal successes as much as you can. This could mean:
Listening when people offer you praise, compliments or congratulations
Recording major milestones in your life, such as promotions and credentials
Looking back at the end of each month or year and reviewing your successes
Printing positive emails, compliments and other feedback from your colleagues
These simple steps can often make it easier to reframe the way you view yourself and help you get rid of feelings of inadequacy.
Imposter syndrome is closely linked to perfectionism. If you often obsess over a need for your work, relationships or other aspects of your life to be perfect, you might find it more difficult to acknowledge your successes.
Instead of aiming for perfection in every area of your life, try to set realistic standards that you can really live up to. Then, focus on making steady, consistent progress instead of achieving an outcome that’s perfect right away.
If you fail to accomplish a goal, don’t view it as a personal failure. Instead, view each failure as an opportunity to practice lifelong learning and strengthen your abilities and self-confidence for the future.
If you notice imposter syndrome taking a toll on your work, education or mental health, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for help.
Although imposter syndrome isn’t a mental disorder, it’s often comorbid with other mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, both of which often improve with treatments such as talk therapy.
You can connect with a mental health provider by asking your primary care provider for a mental health referral, or by contacting a licensed mental health professional in your area.
It’s far from uncommon to occasionally feel as if you’re an imposter, especially if you’ve already accomplished a significant amount in your life.
Feeling this way doesn’t mean that you’re a fraud, nor is it abnormal. It’s a common feeling that just about everyone deals with at certain points in life, and learning how to overcome it can give you a boost of confidence and help you to make progress as an individual.
If you often struggle with imposter syndrome, try using the techniques above to calm your mind and put your worries in perspective. If your feelings are severe or persistent, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for more personalized support.
Interested in learning more about maintaining your mental wellbeing? Our online mental health resources and content share proven, actionable techniques that you can use to build resilience, deal with stress and make your mental health a personal priority.
Start your mental wellness journey today.