If it often seems like romantic partners are ‘out of your league,’ impostor syndrome may be the culprit — here’s what you can do.
Impostor syndrome describes the feeling of not belonging and not being enough. It might make it difficult for you to accept your strengths while maximizing your shortcomings.
You might have heard about impostor syndrome at work or in educational settings, but it can also impact your social and romantic relationships.
In a romantic relationship, impostor syndrome can cause persistent worries that your partner will soon discover you’re not “as great” as they might think you are and break things off.
If unaddressed, these insecurities can lead you to experience great distress, and sometimes, it can cause the end of a relationship.
Understanding what’s causing these concerns and taking steps to address them can help you foster feelings of security and belonging, which in turn will positively impact your connections with others.
Not everyone will experience impostor syndrome in the same way. Signs might be connected to your personal circumstances and challenges.
In general, impostor syndrome can be the result of and cause some often unpleasant thoughts and feelings, such as:
Needing to be perfect
High levels of perfectionism tend to come hand in hand with impostor syndrome, and this tendency can sneak into the way you view yourself in relationships.
Sam Nabil, a licensed professional counselor in Boston, shares what experiencing this perfectionism can be like.
“You feel immense pressure to live up to an image and as a result, you may end up feeling worried, anxious, and depressed,” he says. “You constantly fear that your partner will discover that you are actually incompetent or unworthy.”
In sum, you may invest a lot of time and effort in acting in a certain way that you believe will make you more lovable or acceptable to the other person.
Impostor syndrome may promote a sense of insecurity and self-doubt, according to Katie Ziskind, a licensed marriage and family therapist in East Lyme, Connecticut.
“It might feel like you are living too good of a life and are waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Ziskind says.
“The closeness and vulnerability you feel with your partner can be so overwhelming that it triggers deep feelings of shame,” says Jacob Brown, a psychotherapist in San Francisco.
According to Brown, examples of shame caused by impostor syndrome include feeling like you’re not “enough” to be in the relationship or that they’d leave if they knew certain aspects of yourself.
You might think you’re “tricking” the other person into believing you’re more special than you really are.
Fear of rejection
In relationships, fear of rejection is often a result of your attachment style. This is the pattern you developed in early life of how you connect with others.
Insecure attachment styles can be associated with impostor syndrome.
In particular, avoidant attachment may cause you to hold back in relationships due to this fear. Anxious attachment can cause feelings of low self-worth and fear of rejection in relationships.
Research from 2017 suggests people with low self-esteem are more likely to experience impostor syndrome than people with higher self-confidence.
Low self-esteem often comes with feelings of worthlessness.
Feeling worthless can make it easier for you to develop impostor syndrome.
Nabil says impostor syndrome in a relationship can make you feel like you don’t deserve to be with that person. “It’s the feeling of ‘you’re not all that,’” he says.
How does impostor syndrome sound in relationships?
These thoughts might persistently pop up in your mind:
- “She’s way too smart and beautiful to be with someone like me — is there something wrong with her judgment?”
- “Eventually they’ll see through me and end it.”
- “Everyone must be wondering how someone like him got stuck with me.”
- “They’re only in a relationship with me because I impressed them early on, but there’s no way I can keep this up.”
- “I don’t want to do this, but they expect me to and they’ll be disillusioned with me if I don’t.”
Self-sabotage, or self-defeating behaviors, are connected to the insecure attachment styles that often underlie impostor syndrome in relationships.
For example, you might be more hesitant to get candid and vulnerable with your partner when impostor syndrome makes it hard to trust them, says Nabil.
Nabil explains that you might even consider ending the relationship over fears your partner will decide they’re too good for you. “You may end up sabotaging the relationship as a defense mechanism,” he says.
According to 2021 research, behaviors like sabotaging an otherwise constructive relationship are often a form of self-protection from the pain of rejection and the potential hit to your self-esteem rejection can cause.
These self-defeating behaviors can look like:
- Sabotaging the success of the relationship. For example, you might back out last minute from an important event with your partner, secretly fearing they were just going along with it to humor you.
- Not putting effort into the relationship. Impostor syndrome can make trying seem scary. You might have thoughts like, “If they reject me, at least it won’t be the version of me that tried my best and still wasn’t good enough.”
- Justifying the end of the relationship. It might feel like the end of the relationship is inevitable. If self-defeating behaviors contribute to the end of the relationship, it may also make you feel justified in blaming it on your own perceived shortcomings.
In a relationship, impostor syndrome might also cause you to:
- assume your partner has bad intentions
- ignore problems in the relationship
- emotionally “check out” from the relationship
- have a harder time trusting your partner
- become defensive around your partner
- not act genuinely around them
Impostor syndrome can also weave a pattern of breakups.
For instance, Brown says you might feel so uncomfortable in the relationship that you push your partner away — and creating that distance can provide some short-term relief from the feeling of being an impostor.
“Unfortunately, then the relationship will either break up, or they’ll try again and the cycle will repeat,” Brown says.
Nabil suggests trying the following if you feel like an impostor in your relationship:
- Catch yourself and change course when you experience impostor-style thoughts.
- Use daily affirmations to boost your self-esteem.
- Share with your partner about your fears and insecurities. Here are some tips for opening up if that seems hard to do.
Research from 2017 also suggests building self-compassion could help combat feelings of impostor syndrome. Self-compassion involves being kind to yourself and developing a mindful approach to both your positive qualities and areas where you could grow.
Self-compassion could help you:
- build trust in yourself
- become less fearful of failure
- own your positive qualities
But if fighting impostor syndrome on your own isn’t helping, Nabil suggests that therapy could help you remember that you’re enough, both as an individual and for your relationship.
Therapy can also help you develop self-care and coping skills that build confidence, adds Ziskind.
Ziskind also suggests couples therapy if impostor syndrome is impacting your relationship. “A couples therapist can help improve emotional communication and teach affirming language,” she says.
Not all behaviors mean the same thing. Keeping context in mind is the first recommended step when you’re trying to support your partner in working through a potential impostor syndrome.
In general, you might notice your partner does the following if they’re experiencing impostor syndrome:
- tendency to second-guess themselves
- getting flustered or not knowing how to respond when you compliment them or express your love
- trouble opening up or sharing intimate details about themselves and how they feel
- defensiveness when you say something they perceive as criticism
- difficulty dealing with your changes in perception about who they are or how they act
If your partner acknowledges they’re dealing with impostor syndrome, it may be possible to help. Brown suggests encouraging them to work through feelings of shame with a therapist, if they feel up to it.
Ziskind also shares some tips for helping a partner with impostor syndrome, including:
- giving them compliments to show you appreciate them for who they are
- trying not to bring up comparisons between what you and your partner bring to the table, such as measuring how much money you make or who’s more romantic
- helping them set stronger boundaries and practice saying “no” and respecting such boundaries when they establish them
A partner with impostor syndrome could use a good friend to remind them how valuable they are and that it’s vital to respect themselves, Ziskind says.
Impostor syndrome can make it feel like you don’t deserve to be with your partner or to be treated with the love and respect that come with supportive relationships.
When unaddressed, the underlying causes of impostor syndrome — like self-sabotage, insecure attachments, and low self-esteem — can feed into a cycle of rejecting yourself and expecting that same rejection from a partner.
Processing these feelings by talking them out with your partner or meeting with a therapist could help you begin to see yourself the way your partner likely sees you — as an individual with your own unique talents and quirks, and 100% worthy of love.