If you constantly feel undeserving of your job, recognition, or promotion, impostor syndrome is a possibility. But it can be managed.
Have you ever questioned who you are and whether you’re really worthy of success?
Feeling “like a fraud” can be an uncomfortable experience for anyone — especially if you’re good at what you do. Learning why so many people experience the impostor phenomenon can help you know what you can do about it.
Impostor syndrome, sometimes referred to as the “impostor complex,” was first coined the “impostor phenomenon” by Pauline Clance, PhD.
According to 2018 research, impostor syndrome is a form of self-doubt and a false belief that you’re not as confident and capable as others perceive you to be.
“People with impostor syndrome have difficulty internalizing their success and attribute it to external factors such as luck,” says Emma Giordano, a mental health counselor at Empower Your Mind Therapy in New York City.
Everyone can experience a lack of confidence in their abilities from time to time. But people who experience impostor syndrome tend to be high achievers with diverse educational backgrounds and a fair amount of professional experience. Despite this, they may often experience feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.
Some people may wonder, “Is impostor syndrome real?”
Impostor syndrome is not formally recognized as a mental health condition by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). Still, many people identify with it, particularly those who live with depression and anxiety.
People who experience impostor syndrome tend to devalue their efforts, skills, and accomplishments, Giordano says.
Here are some common signs of impostor syndrome:
- dependence on external validation
- fears of not living up to expectations of yourself and others
- overworking yourself and striving to overachieve
- self-sabotaging before making new attempts
Symptoms of impostor syndrome vary depending on an individual’s experience, circumstances, background, and personality traits.
Common symptoms that typically accompany impostor syndrome may include:
- high levels of distress
- guilt and shame
- maladaptive behaviors
Impostor syndrome can manifest in a few ways, depending on your personality traits and circumstances.
The five known types of impostor syndrome are:
Perfectionists can often fixate on their flaws versus what they’ve done well. They may rarely feel satisfied with their work or themselves.
For example, a graduate student delivers a powerful, compelling thesis but obsesses on the one thing they wish they’d said or done differently, despite receiving praise and accolades for their presentation.
The natural genius
Someone with a high IQ or who has specific skills might believe their value as an individual is linked to their ability to naturally master those skills.
As such, they might tend to become disappointed when they’re unable to learn something new on their own.
Someone who’s naturally musically inclined and attempts to teach themselves the guitar may become disappointed when they cannot do so without a teacher.
Impostor syndrome might translate this feeling to other aspects of their life.
The soloist may have trouble asking others for help — especially when they need it most.
An editor who takes on extra duties and juggles multiple deadlines to meet their monthly publishing goals may refrain from asking colleagues for help. This could be due to fear others will think they’re incapable of doing their job themselves.
Despite their expertise, this person may continue to feel like they’re never quite good enough despite their skills or achievements.
For instance, a woman with more than a decade of experience in the advertising industry who’s managing a team of less-experienced individuals may feel she’ll never measure up to her male colleagues who run the agency.
People with this type of impostor syndrome often push themselves past their limits. They might feel others don’t believe they are capable of success. It could also result from feeling some people have different expectations of you than of others.
Some Black women, for instance, feel they need to live up to the “strong Black woman” stereotype. This refers to some people believing Black females are inherently “stronger.”
In addition, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) often face pressure to prove their worth and value to society.
“BIPOC individuals often have to create their own road to their achievements and professional settings, which can be challenging and create feelings of self-doubt or pressure to prove yourself,” says Bianca Amaya, a licensed clinical social worker in Pasadena, California, who works with Latino populations.
The effect on marginalized groups
While anyone can experience impostor syndrome, those who identify as Black, Indigenous, Latino, or a Person of Color may experience it more frequently and intensely. This may be rooted in systemic racism.
People of Color may internalize racist narratives and messages that claim they don’t belong in certain spaces, aren’t equal, and their achievements were based on luck versus merit.
“BIPOC individuals haven’t had the same privileges to help support their academic or professional achievements because of their social, economic, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds,” Amaya says.
Research shows that impostor syndrome may be linked to certain mental health conditions like social anxiety disorder (SAD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Some professional environments or workplace settings may help foster feelings of impostor syndrome, particularly those that are:
- overly critical
- leading to low morale
Work environments in which employees feel they aren’t performing can promote self-doubt.
In addition, 2019 research indicates that women are more likely to experience impostor syndrome than men.
Because individuals from marginalized groups are also disproportionately affected, they may experience more difficulty advocating for themselves in the workplace.
“BIPOC individuals could have a difficult time asking for a raise or promotion compared to their white counterparts due to fear of losing their employment, fear of rejection, or a lack of belief in their own achievements,” Amaya says.
“I’ve seen impostor syndrome frequently in Latinx individuals who identify as first-generation, meaning they are children of immigrant parents — they might feel like they are impostors or frauds navigating multiple systems they are not familiar with,” she adds.
To overcome feelings of inadequacy, it’s helpful to remind yourself of the unique qualities that make you you. This may not always come naturally, though.
You can begin by identifying your innate strengths and learned skills and exploring the aspects of your personality that set you apart from others.
Understanding who you are and what makes you tick can build confidence and self-esteem and help you embrace your individuality as well as your gifts.
Developing self-awareness is also key. Giordano recommends a five-step process to help you work through impostor syndrome.
1. Try to acknowledge your thoughts
Practicing mindfulness involves paying attention to your thoughts as they arise and considering how they’re affecting you. Observing or witnessing any negative thoughts can allow you to challenge and reassess them.
2. Consider the evidence
Remember that you’ve worked very hard to get where you are. You may want to check the cognitive distortions or thought filters that may be telling you otherwise. Consider whether there’s any supporting evidence to indicate that you don’t belong.
Chances are, you’ll realize there’s a lot more evidence to support why you do.
Try making a list of your accomplishments that led you to where you are today (and keep it handy in case you need a reminder).
3. Positive affirmations can help
Affirmations are short, positive statements you can place in plain sight as a regular reminder of how awesome you are.
The more specific, the better. Colorful sticky notes work well for this exercise.
Giordano recommends statements such as, “I’ve worked hard for what I have” or “I’m capable and worthy of my success.”
4. Try to share your feelings with others
While you might not want to broadcast your feelings of unworthiness to the entire world, Giordano recommends sharing what you’re going through with trusted family members, friends, colleagues, or mentors. They’ve likely experienced these feelings at some point.
A little camaraderie can go a long way.
“It’s helpful to know you’re not alone in your doubts,” Giordano says.
5. Consider setting realistic goals
You can set yourself up for success by setting reasonable goals that you can manage.
While it’s important to challenge yourself, unrealistic or lofty goals can lead to disappointment and failure.
Of course, whenever you reach your goals, try to celebrate your successes.
Impostor syndrome doesn’t have to hold you back from embracing who you are and acknowledging your accomplishments.
Try to challenge the voice of your inner critic by reaffirming to yourself that you’re worthy and that you belong.
While cultivating self-acceptance takes practice, it’s a key component of establishing a strong sense of self-concept and self-esteem.
Remember that talking it out with a trusted ally or mental health professional can remind you that you’re not alone in feeling this way.
Consider surrounding yourself with people who respect and admire you and can remind you of all the unique gifts you have to offer.