A Guide to Impostor Syndrome—and Overcoming It

If you’re a high performer who’s constantly feeling self-doubt about your success, you may have impostor syndrome. So how can you overcome it?

June 2, 2023

Do you ever find yourself thinking, “I’m a fake”, “I don’t deserve to be here”, or “I’m not smart enough to be here”?

If so, you’re hardly alone! Such thoughts are common and, when persistent, are often described as impostor syndrome (IS).

When someone has impostor syndrome, they experience repeated feelings or thoughts that they are incompetent or not good enough, despite evidence to the contrary.

These beliefs often have roots in someone’s personal history and tend to play out in work, academic, and other high-pressure settings. Unaddressed, they can keep people from enjoying their successes and living life to its full potential.

In the past few decades, the mental health field has paid more attention to impostor syndrome.

If you are struggling with feelings of unworthiness, you should know that, while such feelings are often deeply ingrained, they can be overcome.

Keep Reading To Learn

  • What you should know about impostor syndrome
  • How impostor syndrome can impact our lives
  • Tips for overcoming impostor syndrome

Just What Is Impostor Syndrome?

The concept of impostor syndrome was first explored by researchers Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes in 1978. In what they termed “the impostor phenomenon,” Clance and Imes observed the experiences of 150 women who earned PhDs, were respected professionals in their fields, or were students recognized for their academic excellence.

Despite success or praise from others, these women continued to believe they were not bright, had achieved their success from sheer luck, and that they had managed to fool everyone regarding their intelligence and capability.

Clance and Imes focused on the experiences of women. They attributed impostor syndrome (often also referenced as imposter syndrome), among other factors, to messages from society that women did not belong in powerful or lofty positions.

Women remain affected by impostor syndrome, but we now know that impostor syndrome can be experienced by different genders, in different settings, and it can manifest in various ways.

Here are some examples:

  • Employees who do not think they deserve a raise or promotion despite their years of service and success
  • Students who feel out of place among their classmates even though their test scores and grades are as good as or better than their peers
  • Friends who feel undeserving of acceptance and fear that they are going to be “found out”

Watch Now!

Dr. Lisa Orbe-Austin talks to us about impostor syndrome

The Impostor Syndrome Cycle

In their study of high-achieving women, Clance and Imes identified the impostor syndrome cycle.

The process begins when people overwork or over-function to compensate for a fear of being discovered as a fraud.

Although such efforts often lead to stellar grades or high performance, the person with impostor syndrome will temporarily feel better and are likely to quickly feel like a fraud again. They will feel compelled to overwork and start the cycle anew.

Another hallmark of the impostor syndrome cycle involves responding negatively to others’ positive feedback. For example, when people with impostor syndrome accomplish a task they’ve set out to achieve, they tend to disregard compliments.

According to Lisa Orbé-Austin, PhD, a licensed psychologist, executive coach, and author of “Own Your Greatness: Overcome Impostor Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life,” “When we hear anything that’s positive, we want to dismiss it, show others our mistake, and that we didn’t do well. Such thinking gets us caught in the impostor syndrome cycle.”

This type of behavior can be detrimental to relationships. When someone gives a compliment, for example, they are offering an opportunity to connect. When we dismiss compliments, the person who is giving the compliment can feel dismissed or wonder if they did something wrong.

“A compliment is relational,” Orbé-Austin states. “We’re losing that relational moment when someone tells us we did a good job [and we don’t accept it].”

Rather than getting caught up in feeling like it’s better to be humble, she advises people to accept praise.

“Instead of saying, ‘No, [my performance] was so-so,’” Orbé-Austin advises, “make eye contact and say, ‘Thank you so much. I really appreciate that—I’m really honored that you would take the time to say something to me.’”

Who Experiences Impostor Syndrome?

The truth is that most of us experience imposter syndrome at some point in our lives.

In her work with organizations, Susan David, PhD, has helped countless people address impostor syndrome and often shares that impostor syndrome is relatively common.

“That’s important to remember,” she says, “because many people think that feeling like an impostor is unique to them. It’s something that many people go through, including very high-functioning and competent people.”

It has been shown that men and women respond differently to negative feedback.

When receiving negative feedback, men struggling with impostor syndrome experienced greater anxiety and performed more poorly on a task.

When faced with the same negative feedback, women with impostor syndrome tried harder and performed better on the task. They are more likely than men to feel insecure about their performance and second guess themselves.

However, women tend to be “counterphobic.” They move towards what they fear. They often appear to be go-getters, constantly achieving one goal after the next, while being plagued with self-doubt all the while.

Men, on the other hand, aim for mastery. As a result, they may connect with peers who are less competent, take fewer risks, and challenge themselves less.

According to a 2018 article, these different gender responses could be related to societal pressures. Men may feel they need to uphold traditional gender roles to appear competent as they are expected to be.

Women with impostor syndrome may not feel the burden of expectation, freeing them to try harder to improve their performance, even if it means risking failure.

Research shows that levels of impostor syndrome are high in ethnic minority groups. Work and educational settings that marginalize members of ethnic minority groups can leave individuals feeling alienated, undervalued, and less competent—all hallmarks of impostor syndrome.

In a study of African American, Asian American, and Latinx college students, impostor feelings added to these students’ stresses, which included lack of adequate financial aid, the need to support themselves in school, racial discrimination, and being the first in their families to pursue higher education.

A 2017 study found that impostor syndrome, levels of depression, and survivor guilt frequently co-occurred in Black college students.

Mental Health Screening

Online screening is one of the quickest and easiest ways to determine your psychological well-being.

What We Know About the Cause of Impostor Syndrome

There is no single cause of impostor syndrome—however, culture and environment are factors, with research pointing to family dynamics and the roles people learn early in life.

“When it’s communicated that a person’s worth is tied to what they know—for instance, doing well at school and getting things right—the specter of not knowing can raise issues of identity threat and of being ‘found out,’” David reports. “We often find impostor syndrome in people who are perfectionists or those who were raised to be extremely conscientious.”

Clance and Imes noticed family patterns in the women they studied. They found that the women’s experiences tended to fall into two groups: the first cohort grew up with the experience of having a sibling or another close relative who was deemed “the intelligent one.”

The women who went on to develop imposter syndrome felt driven to achieve to prove that they were smart, too. Yet, no matter how many good grades or how much praise they received from teachers, they never felt validated by their family, and never felt smart deep down.

The other group of women came from families that heaped praise on them for every ability. As these women went out into the world and realized they were not good at everything they set out to achieve, they began to wonder if any of the messages they received from their families were true.

According to Orbé-Austin, “Behaviors like downplaying what you know, or seeking mentorship for external validation are not caused by one particular incident. They have long roots and they are often familial.”

How Impostor Syndrome Can Impact Our Lives

The damage impostor syndrome causes to a person’s personal and professional lives can be significant.

“When people buy into impostor stories and treat them as fact, it can stop people from putting themselves out there, taking risks, or moving forward,” says David. “It can prevent people from living life in ways that are congruent with their values.”

Impostor syndrome often reveals itself in work settings.

Employees with impostor syndrome are less likely to engage in career planning and move into leadership positions while being more likely to experience job dissatisfaction and burnout.

Drawing from her experience coaching managers, executives, scientists, academics, and others, David describes how impostor syndrome manifests itself in the workplace.

“I know people who have a particular level of expertise or who have done a lot of research about a topic, but they hold back in meetings and do not contribute,” she says.

“During these meetings, they are thinking to themselves, ‘How did I get into this room with people who are clearly smarter than me? They’re going to find out I’m a fake.’”

As the research of Clance and Imes showed, the condition can be especially problematic when impostor syndrome collides with cultural biases.

“I do a lot of work with women in science,” David shares. “These women have demonstrable skill and expertise in their respective fields, but they very often find themselves in work situations where they are the only female.”

In these cases, cultural biases and stereotypes can come into play and be turned against oneself. “A woman who is in a stressful position to begin with may start to question herself and whether she truly belongs or is just faking it’” David states.

The Power of Self-Compassion

father and son with arm around each other

Dr. David H. Rosmarin helps us understand the power of valuing our self-worth.

father and son with arm around each other

Impostor Syndrome and Mental Health Conditions

People who struggle with impostorism are more likely to experience anxiety and depression. When these individuals experience failure, they are more likely to have low self-esteem and feel less satisfied with their lives.

Just the idea of possible failure can trigger mental health issues in this group. A 2020 article that explored impostor syndrome in medical students pointed out that the pressure of performing an achievement-oriented activity can create anxiety in someone who fears failure.

Even when people who struggle with impostor syndrome achieve goals, they may worry about the expectations of others. They fear that they will need to continue to achieve or that they will need to set the bar for success even higher.

Furthermore, when someone with impostor syndrome does meet a goal, they are likely to attribute the success to external factors. They may also feel undeserving or ashamed of recognition for the accomplishment. Such factors can contribute to depression and low self-esteem.

A 2015 study showed that people with impostor syndrome were more likely to struggle with perfectionism and have a lack of confidence in their ability to complete tasks.

Such people care deeply about the quality of their work and the impact of their contributions. However, the qualities become problematic when they are tied to self-worth or lead to inflexibility.

Treatment for Impostor Syndrome

No matter their profession, gender, race, age, or background, anyone who experiences impostor syndrome can take steps to turn around self-defeating thoughts.

Individual Psychotherapy

Talk therapy can help manage the roots of impostor syndrome.

In therapy, patients can address their reliance on others’ opinions for their self-worth. They can reframe the negative messages they have received throughout their lives about why they are not smart or capable enough. They can re-evaluate their motivations for learning.

For example, instead of learning to appear smart, they can learn for the sake of learning. They can explore the early family roles that possibly contributed to the development of their impostor syndrome.

Group Therapy

Talking in a group setting with other people who experience impostor syndrome can be effective.

In a group setting, people who share their secret feelings of shame and deception can feel relieved that they are not alone. They can also provide reality checks for peers.

Clance and Imes recommended that women with impostor syndrome be part of a group of other high-achieving women who experienced the same thoughts of falseness.

Cognitive Processing Therapy

A form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), cognitive processing therapy (CPT) helps patients examine old, unhelpful beliefs, re-evaluate them, and replace such thoughts with new, more accurate cognitions.

In a 2021 study, researchers created a professional development workshop based on a CPT framework. Workshop participants learned about the impostor phenomenon, CPT’s relevance to its treatment, and participated in conversations about how the impostor phenomenon impacted them.

In addition, they were given worksheets to complete between sessions that helped them explore how problematic beliefs developed, how to challenge their problematic beliefs, and how to identify unhelpful thinking patterns.

Participants reported being better able to regulate their emotions and that hearing peers discuss their own experiences with the impostor phenomenon helped them to identify less with their own thoughts of being an impostor.

Athletes and Their Mental Health

Woman resting, leaning on a track hurdle

The pressures experienced by athletes, stemming both from internal and external sources, can contribute to rapid declines in mental health.

Woman resting, leaning on a track hurdle

5 Tips for Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

If you are feeling like a fake or that you don’t deserve the position you have or the credit you get, there are strategies you can use to tackle impostor syndrome.

1. Open Up

Secrecy and shame are key features of impostor syndrome.

Expressing your self-doubt to trusted people in your life can be the first step away from feeling like a fraud. You’ll often find you’re not alone. Other people have impostor feelings, too.

Seeing how others’ beliefs about themselves are unfounded can help you identify your unfounded beliefs about yourself. Hearing honest, positive feedback about you can help you believe in your abilities.

2. Accept Positive Feedback

People with impostor syndrome tend to deny praise in any form. The next time someone compliments you, avoid denying or downplaying the comment.

Instead, say, “thank you.” Consider any truth to the positive comment and internalize the feedback.

3. Keep a Log

Keep a daily record of the compliments you receive and achievements you make. Set aside a time each week to review and reflect on the positive evidence.

4. Embrace Positive Self-Talk

When you find yourself lapsing into old ways of thinking, try to instead think positively. For example, instead of thinking, “Even though I trained for this race, l’ll probably come in last,” try, “I trained hard and chances are good that I will succeed.”

Know that even if you don’t finish the race, such “failures” are learning opportunities—not signs that you are a fraud. Try to keep in mind that you are trying to do a good job in the context of really challenging circumstances.

5. Break Out of Your Comfort Zone

Don’t let impostor feelings and fear of failure keep you from achieving your goals. People with impostor syndrome can get stuck in positions they’re unhappy with when they’d rather try something new.

Know that you can ask for that promotion or train for that marathon. If it doesn’t work out, it’s okay.

If you or a loved one needs help managing mental health challenges, McLean is here to help. Call us today at 617.855.3141 to learn more about treatment options.

Give Yourself Credit!

If you’re feeling like you don’t deserve success and praise, it’s important to explore the reasons behind your beliefs.

Impostor syndrome can prevent you from living up to your full potential, but most of all, it can prevent you from living in peace.

Fortunately, we know more about why people experience impostor syndrome and how to overcome it.

If you’re struggling with impostor syndrome, it’s time to stop running at breakneck speed in a race with no finish line. It’s time to pause and accept the truth that your achievements are real, and that you are worthwhile.

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