Thanks to popular media, imposter syndrome is now a well-known concept with many possible solutions.
A large body of literature highlights its presence, particularly in the context of work, and thankfully also offers coping strategies (Bravata et al., 2019; Feenstra et al., 2020).
In the first-ever systematic review on imposter syndrome, Bravata et al. (2019) identify that in the past several years, there has been a surge of peer-reviewed articles in this area.
This article aims to highlight these core research findings that can help to increase our understanding about what imposter syndrome is and how it manifests.
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This Article Contains:
What Is Imposter Syndrome?
The term ‘imposter syndrome’ originates from research by Clance and Imes (1978), which was focused on women who are high achievers.
They originally used the phrase ‘imposter phenomenon’ to describe an internal state of mind where a person believes they are unintelligent, unsuccessful, and incompetent, although this is incongruent with the view others have of them.
The person often feels like they are a fraud or a fake, and they worry that at any moment, others are going to discover the ‘real’ truth about them (Clance & Imes, 1978).
A person with imposter syndrome finds it difficult to accept positive feedback and praise from others, and their conviction in their beliefs about being an imposter is maintained (LaDonna, Ginsburg, & Watling, 2018).
They blame themselves when things go wrong and attribute success to external factors or exceptions, such as luck, rather than their own abilities (Bravata et al., 2019).
Increased knowledge about the prevalence of imposter syndrome has highlighted that contrary to the findings by Clance and Imes (1978), imposter syndrome is not just experienced by high-achieving women. Rather, anyone can experience imposter syndrome, irrespective of age, gender, or career.
The systematic review by Bravata et al. (2019) is based on 66 peer-reviewed papers and identified that there are no significant differences in the prevalence of imposter syndrome between men and women. Imposter syndrome is also seen among people from multiple ethnic groups.
Even those who are advanced in their career are found to doubt their achievements (LaDonna et al., 2018). These findings encourage clinicians to pay attention to the presence of imposter syndrome in the population in general (Bravata et al., 2019).
5 Types and Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome
People may present with certain symptoms that can indicate the presence of imposter syndrome.
There is a high comorbidity between imposter syndrome and depression and anxiety.
Other consequences associated with imposter syndrome include burnout, physical exhaustion, and decreased job satisfaction and performance (Bravata et al., 2019; Chandra, Huebert, Crowley, & Das, 2019).
Besides this, Young (2011) has identified that imposter syndrome can manifest in five different ways. While there may be shared signs and symptoms across all forms of imposter syndrome, these five subtypes vary somewhat in behavioral and cognitive patterns because of differences in how self-competence is evaluated by the person.
Let’s inspect each.
People who have perfectionist tendencies have very high expectations of themselves and measure their competence based on whether they are 100% successful. They have a fear of failing and being criticized by others. They focus on how things could be better, and even the smallest mistakes become a significant threat to their confidence and abilities.
They have an all-or-nothing way of thinking that leaves little room for flexibility.
Perfectionists use several strategies to prevent the possibility of failure, such as working overtime, not taking breaks, over-preparing, and using self-criticism and self-doubt, to motivate themselves to stay on top of their ‘A game.’
They also minimize their successes and disregard positive feedback from others, which hinders their ability to acknowledge their strengths and achievements and reinforces their sense that they do not know what they are doing and are not good enough.
Some people develop a superhero tendency, where they assess their competence based on how much they can multitask and how many roles they can take on at the same time. They have a negative view of themselves as incompetent and a positive view of others as competent.
They aim to prove everyone wrong and earn people’s approval. Therefore, they push themselves to the limit to ensure that they work harder than others and achieve more success in everything they do. They may perceive ‘doing nothing’ and relaxing as wasting time and may neglect and lose sight of their pastimes.
Those who develop expert tendencies gauge their competence based on how much they know. They believe they need to know everything about everything. They may do this by gathering all the information possible about a topic and exerting a lot of time, effort, and energy into preparing before taking action.
They may still believe that what they know is never enough and, as a result, avoid asking questions in groups or sharing their opinions. They may avoid approaching challenges such as applying for interviews if they do not meet all the criteria, due to fear of being exposed as not knowing enough.
Certain people with imposter syndrome believe they should be natural geniuses and measure their competence based on how easily they can achieve things. They may be used to doing well without having to work very hard for it and have histories of being straight-A students and being seen as ‘the smart one.’
They believe that things should immediately come naturally to them and expect themselves to master a new skill and get it right the first time. Having to work hard or struggling to learn a new skill is considered a negative characteristic and triggers their sense of inadequacy.
As a result, they may avoid trying or facing new challenges to avoid discovering that they are not immediately good at them.
Some people take on a role of the soloist, where they believe that competence is only achieved if they accomplish things on their own. They prefer to work alone, push back on working collaboratively with others, and consider asking for help to be a weakness and sign of inadequacy.
What Causes Imposter Syndrome?
Research points toward internal and external factors that contribute to imposter syndrome. Feenstra et al. (2020) acknowledge that personality style (Vergauwe, Wille, Feys, De Fruyt, & Anseel, 2014) and attachment patterns (Sonnak & Towell, 2001) have been identified as internal causes of imposter syndrome.
However, they argue that it is important not to underestimate the role of external factors, such as societal narratives, relationships, and the person’s environment, in causing imposter syndrome.
Family and society
The way a person is perceived, judged, or treated by others can influence the person’s view of themselves (Feenstra et al., 2020). This is supported by the research by Clance and Imes (1978), showing that imposter syndrome can develop among children who are seen by their families as less intelligent than other family members. This can drive a child to prove their family wrong: that they are intellectually competent.
Imposter syndrome is also found to develop in families that perceive their child as superior, of high intellectual ability, and capable of easily doing anything they set their mind to (Clance & Imes, 1978).
These children may come to believe that they should be able to achieve things without difficulty. Finding themselves in situations where they struggle can trigger self-doubt and beliefs that they are not as competent as others think. This can plant the seed that they must, therefore, be an imposter.
Criticism and stereotyping
Being exposed to high criticism and stereotypes may also be a cause of imposter syndrome. Societal stereotypes that label certain groups of people as less competent, capable, and intelligent may cause some people to internalize these narratives and believe them to reflect who they are (Buczynski, Harrell, McGonigal, & Siegel, n.d.).
This has been found in relation to stereotypes that women are less competent and have fewer leadership skills than men (Cokley et al., 2015), and stereotypes that people from certain ethnic groups are lazy and unintelligent (Reyna, 2008).
Awareness of these stereotypes may cause people to feel insecure if they are in roles and positions that they are not expected to be in, triggering feelings and beliefs of being an imposter (Feenstra et al., 2020).
Life transitions such as a change in jobs, promotion, and graduation can also trigger imposter syndrome (Rakestraw, 2017). Transitions, even for those who are advancing in their career, can naturally trigger self-doubts that hinder their belief in themselves and their abilities in this new role (LaDonna et al., 2018).
3 Real-Life Examples
Below are three examples taken from clinical practice that show how imposter syndrome can manifest.
These three examples integrate information from several clients in order to protect confidentiality and ensure anonymity.
Rob’s dad has always discouraged him from taking his chosen career path, and they often argued about this. In response, Rob became determined to prove his dad wrong by succeeding and being the best in his career. In his first job, he took on roles and responsibilities that were beyond his job description and what was expected of him.
He even helped his colleagues with their workload, hoping to impress his colleagues and boss and prove his abilities, just like he wanted to prove them to his dad. When others commented on his effectiveness and efficiency, this drove him to work longer hours. However, 12 months into his job, he experienced high levels of anxiety and signs of burnout.
Jennie was always a hard worker, and her efforts and successes were often acknowledged. She was closely supported by her parents, who both came from impoverished backgrounds and wanted their child to have the educational opportunities they never did. It was important for Jennie not to let her parents down.
She carefully considered what she said to people and ruminated on what could have been said differently. She worried how others perceived her because she believed she was not good enough and dismissed any evidence to the contrary.
Her attention remained biased toward things she did not do well, and this stopped her from celebrating her strengths and achievements and reduced her general wellbeing.
Charlie was immediately identified as a bright child. He came from a family of high achievers, where intelligence and success were highly valued. He enjoyed school, and studying was not an onerous task. From a young age, he was at the top of his class and received multiple awards. He continued to excel throughout his career.
He had the potential to develop further and had a range of interests such as starting his own company and learning a new language. However, he withdrew from pursuing these prospects because he did not want to risk failing or finding it hard.
As a result, he avoided these new experiences, did not give himself permission to try, and instead stuck to things he was guaranteed to be good at.
Behind Its Psychology: 5 Fascinating Research Findings
1. The vicious cycle of imposter syndrome
Imposter syndrome can be hard to break out of because people can get caught in a vicious cycle. Fear of failure and of being found out are the worst things imaginable for someone with imposter syndrome. This can be a cause of significant anxiety, and to keep this from happening, people develop a range of unhelpful coping strategies such as perfectionism and procrastination (Chandra et al., 2019).
These strategies may lead to success and praise from others. However, this praise is not internalized because people who are perfectionists attribute their success to their hard work and high standards, and people who procrastinate attribute their success to getting lucky at the last minute.
This maintains their belief that they are an imposter, and a vicious cycle begins, where they feel anxious again about being found out and engage in coping strategies to avoid failure at all costs (Rakestraw, 2017).
2. Stunted success with imposter syndrome
Ironically, over time, the vicious cycle of imposter syndrome may lead people to a lot of success in their career. However, higher levels of success do not necessarily shift their internal beliefs about their competence. Rather, they may further question how they found themselves in such successful positions, sometimes leaving them feeling like an even greater fraud.
They may avoid looking for or taking advantage of new opportunities, stopping them from fulfilling their potential (Chandra et al., 2019). By downplaying their skills and minimizing their achievements, they may unintentionally end up sabotaging their own career progression (Vergauwe et al., 2014; Mullangi & Jagsi, 2019).
3. The secrecy of imposter syndrome
Imposter syndrome comes with a feeling of great secrecy (Harvey, 1985) and a sense of shame. The trepidation of being found out increases the urgency to hide the ‘ugly truth’ because of the risk that people will not be accepting and may disapprove. As a result, many end up suffering in silence (Chandra et al., 2019) and alone (Matthews & Clance, 1985).
This has important implications for how clinicians and leaders can support people to manage imposter syndrome. Being able to name and acknowledge the presence of imposter syndrome can enable people to talk more openly about it (Chandra et al., 2019), and doing so in a group format may be beneficial and therapeutic (Bravata et al., 2019).
4. The terminology of imposter syndrome
Research that challenges the usefulness of the terminology ‘imposter syndrome’ highlights differences in the literature.
Clance and Imes (1978) originally used the phrase ‘imposter phenomenon’; however, popular literature and scientific research predominantly use the term ‘imposter syndrome’ (Feenstra et al., 2020).
The term ‘syndrome’ may unintentionally lead clients to label themselves and others as having a condition (Feenstra et al., 2020). A possible consequence is that people may further identify with having this ‘syndrome’ even though imposter syndrome is not an official psychiatric disorder.
It is important for clinicians to be aware of the impact that terminology has on individuals and find a workable language that is helpful.
5. The psychological and social treatment of imposter syndrome
Given that imposter syndrome is not recognized as a psychiatric disorder, there is limited research around evidence-based psychological interventions to address it. The high prevalence of anxiety and depression that comes with imposter syndrome means that Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is typically used as a therapeutic approach.
Although Bravata et al. (2019) state that further research around both individual and group interventions is needed.
Feenstra et al. (2020) advocate for research to focus on interventions that can be offered at a societal, interpersonal, and organizational level. They recommend broader efforts to challenge societal stereotypes to facilitate and create equal opportunities and positions for people, irrespective of age, gender, or ethnic background.
PositivePsychology.com’s Relevant Resources
Clients living with and managing imposter syndrome first need to recognize their unhelpful thinking patterns. Only then can they change behaviors associated with imposter syndrome and improve how they feel.
In addition, introducing clients to beneficial mindfulness and compassion-based skills can improve their emotional, physical, and social wellbeing.
We share several resources and exercises that can be excellent starting points.
1. An exercise about unhelpful thinking patterns
Imposter syndrome comes with many rules, ideas, and stories of how we should be and perform. These rules can become rigid and elicit self-critical thinking and negative feelings such as anxiety, anger, and shame if we do not follow the rules.
The Identifying Personal Rules exercise can help your clients increase their awareness about personal rules they hold, how much they abide by them, and their impact on wellbeing and aspirations.
2. Two mindfulness-based exercises
The Storytelling exercise is a short exercise to help your clients mindfully notice judgmental tendencies in the present moment, without judging themselves in the process.
This is an ideal worksheet for clients who jump to conclusions based on first impressions or who judge themselves and others with very limited information.
The Leaves on a Stream exercise is a valuable mindfulness exercise for clients to differentiate between getting caught up with their thoughts and observing the thoughts from a distance without becoming overly attached to them.
The exercise will help your client notice that having a thought about being an imposter does not mean that they are an imposter. It is just a thought, and it can come and go just like a leaf on a stream.
3. Two compassion-focused exercises
Self-criticism works hand-in-hand with imposter syndrome and motivates people with the fear of failure and being found out. Compassion-based motivation can be a helpful alternative that allows clients to motivate themselves in an encouraging rather than self-critical way.
The Compassion-Based Motivation exercise guides the client through four key questions to help them discover less harmful forms of self-motivation.
Compassion helps clients cope with imposter syndrome tendencies in a more positive way and prevent further anxiety and suffering. The Developing Self-Appreciation exercise lets clients develop appreciation for their strengths and qualities and accept positive emotions and feedback.
4. Overcoming imposter syndrome
In this article, we thoroughly analyzed the meaning of imposter syndrome and the relevant research. Another valuable article of ours is How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome, providing 14 tests and worksheets and several tips to deal with this phenomenon.
A Take-Home Message
If a superhero, genius, soloist, perfectionist, or expert (according to the classification by Young, 2011) were to arrive in your office, be as well prepared as possible.
Understanding the research findings about imposter syndrome can equip clinicians to develop a thorough understanding of the psychology behind imposter syndrome.
With the enormous amount of knowledge about imposter syndrome available, your client may arrive at your doorstep with preconceived notions.
For that reason, it is important to build a new vocabulary with the client, moving them away from the incorrect perception that this is a psychological disorder and assisting them in shifting their internal narratives as well.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. If you want to improve your client’s mindset, a great way to start is by learning about strengths. Download these three Strengths Exercises for free.
If you’d like to help more people realize their strengths, our Maximizing Strengths Masterclass© is a comprehensive training template that contains everything you need to become a strengths-based practitioner and help others identify and develop their unique qualities in a way that promotes optimal functioning.
- Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., … Hagg, H.K. (2019). Prevalence, predictors, and treatment of imposter syndrome: A systematic review. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35(4), 1252–1275.
- Buczynski, R., Harrell, S., McGonigal, K., & Siegel, R. (n.d.). Working with core beliefs of ‘never good enough’: How social prejudice can cultivate imposter syndrome. Retrieved January 15, 2021, from https://s3.amazonaws.com/nicabm-stealthseminar/NeverGoodEnough17/confirmed/NeverGoodEnough-BonusVideo1.pdf
- Chandra, S., Huebert, C. A., Crowley, E., & Das, A. M. (2019). Imposter syndrome: Could it be holding you or your mentees back? Commentary: Teaching, Education, and Career Hub, 156(1), 26–32.
- Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247.
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- Harvey, J. C. (1985). If I’m so successful, why do I feel like a fake? St Martin’s Press.
- LaDonna, K. A., Ginsburg, S., & Watling, C. (2018). Rising to the level of your incompetence: What physicians’ self-assessment of their performance reveals about the imposter syndrome in medicine. Academic Medicine, 93(5), 763–768.
- Matthews, G., & Clance P. R. (1985). Treatment of the imposter phenomenon in psychotherapy clients. Psychotherapy in Private Practice, 3(1), 71–81.
- Mullangi, S., & Jagsi, R. (2019). Imposter syndrome: Treat the cause, not the symptom. Journal of the American Medical Association, 322(5), 403.
- Rakestraw, L. (2017). How to stop feeling like a phony in your library: Recognizing the causes of the imposter syndrome, and how to put a stop to the cycle. Law Library Journal, 109(3), 465–476.
- Reyna, C. (2008). Ian is intelligent but Leshaun is lazy: Antecedents and consequences of attributional stereotypes in the classroom. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 23, 439–458.
- Sonnak, C., & Towell, T. (2001). The imposter phenomenon in British university students: Relationships between self-esteem, mental health, parental rearing style and socioeconomic status. Personality and Individual Differences, 31, 863–874.
- Vergauwe, J., Wille, B., Feys, M., De Fruyt, F., & Anseel, F. (2014). Fear of being exposed: The trait-relatedness of the imposter phenomenon and its relevance in the work context. Journal of Business and Psychology, 30, 565–581.
- Young, V. (2011). The secret thoughts of successful women: Why capable people suffer from the imposter syndrome and how to thrive in spite of it. Crown Publishing Group.