Feeling like a failure? Learn to cope with imposter syndrome

September 22, 2021 - 31 min read

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What is imposter syndrome?

What causes imposter syndrome?

Characteristics of imposter syndrome

Types of imposter syndrome

What kind of imposter are you? 15 questions to help you find out

How to deal with imposter syndrome

10 tips for dealing with your imposter syndrome

Bias and imposter syndrome

The prevalence of imposter syndrome and why it matters

“Any day now, they’re going to realize what a mistake they made in hiring me. I bet they’re already wondering.” 

How often do thoughts like this one cross your mind? For some people — many people — they occur quite often. When they do, they bring a cascade of emotions, most of them not helpful. 

These thoughts of being a fraud or having our enormous deficiencies exposed and the anxieties, insecurity, and dread that follow are all part of a phenomenon known as imposter syndrome.  

Unlike humility, imposter syndrome can do real damage: anxiety, an inability to savor success, and, in some cases, a belief that one can’t go on in their career.

This article will define imposter syndrome, discuss the different ways imposter syndrome shows up in our lives, and explore ways to deal with it. 

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What is imposter syndrome?

Two clinical psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, first identified and named the phenomenon back in 1978. 

With imposter syndrome, a person doesn’t feel confident or competent, regardless of what they achieve. They don’t experience the joy of success because they are always waiting for their inadequacy and fraudulence to come to light.

Although Clance and Imes originally defined imposter syndrome to describe a condition they observed in professional women, research shows that men and women can equally suffer from imposter syndrome. 

But humility is good, right? It’s just realistic to acknowledge that no person knows everything. The world does change quickly, and problems or situations people face might be more complex than they seem at first. Yet, imposter syndrome is different from a healthy dose of caution of open-mindedness. 

Humility and caution stem from an accurate assessment of one’s own capabilities against a complex situation.

The imposter phenomenon, on the other hand, stems from a sense of inadequacy in the environment despite objectively being competent.  It is notable in that it isn't about assessing the situation but about assessing themselves. They feel more inadequate than others facing the same complex situation, such that they don’t belong there at all. 

Imposter syndrome can cause people to feel a sense of time running out. It’s as if people have been putting on an act and they can’t keep the act up much longer. This is despite all evidence to the contrary. Remember, people often have these thoughts and feelings after achieving and overcoming obstacles throughout their lives. Why?

Many high achievers reach a point in their career where they feel like they are unable to keep going. 

Maybe they can’t keep going at the same rate as they have been, and that feels shameful. The shame makes people suffer alone and in silence. People don’t realize how many others suffer from imposter syndrome because no one wants to admit it out loud.

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What causes imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a cognitive distortion. It causes people to doubt their skills and accomplishments. They doubt others’ high regard for them. They doubt their own history and track record. 

But where do this doubt and distortion come from? Although it can drag at a person's mental health, imposter syndrome isn’t an official psychological condition and it has a variety of causes. Research has shown that imposter syndrome comes from a combination of factors:  

Family environment. Growing up, parents or other family members might have put outsized emphasis on achievement or been overly critical. 

Example: Sam rushed home to tell her parents she received a 98 on her 8th-grade math test. She studied the terms every night for a week and is very proud of herself. Sam's parents always brag to their friends about her accomplishments. When Sam excitedly tells her parents the good news, they say, “What happened? Why didn’t you get a 100?”

Social pressures. Being part of a social circle or group where approval or worth seems to be explicitly connected to achievement.

Example: Last quarter, Everett received his invitation to the monthly executive dinner immediately after surpassing his sales record and was the hero of the sales team. This quarter, his numbers are down. The executive dinner rolls around and the invitation is nowhere to be found. It's like he doesn't exist. 

Sense of belonging. Part of imposter syndrome is the fear of being found out and cast out. 

Any circumstance, even in the past, that made a person feel different or excluded from the group — language, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, religion, or physical or learning differences — can fuel the imposter phenomenon. The person can carry that persistent sense of not belonging long after the circumstance is resolved.

Example: At the weekly staff meeting, Tyler's manager calls on everyone else, despite having his hand up. When he finally calls on Tyler, with two minutes remaining, he avoids eye contact and dismisses Tyler's comment. None of Tyler's coworkers respond or acknowledge his insight. Tyler feels excluded and wonders if it’s because the new shirt he got on clearance looks cheap. He grew up wearing hand-me-downs and the team can probably tell he's not one of them.

Personality. Some personality types are more linked to internalizing feelings of pressure, doubt, and failure. Times of stress or transition, even unrelated to work, can make it worse.

Example: Campbell has a highly introverted personality. She tends to process her feelings internally rather than work through them by communicating outwardly. When Campbell internalizes negative emotions, she ruminates. This habit of negative self-talk causes her to belittle her achievements.

The effects of imposter syndrome make it worth addressing. The feelings of anxiety and inadequacy can lead people to avoid challenges or opportunities that would let them grow and shine

People may not seek out or fully explore useful relationships at work or school. Even if they do, the internal struggle necessitates a lot of energy. It can lead to frustration, shame, depression, and self-confidence. 

Left unchecked, imposter syndrome has a negative impact on people’s relationships, work, as well as job and life satisfaction. The effects can be worse for women and underrepresented groups.

 

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Characteristics of imposter syndrome

The most common characteristics of imposter syndrome are: 

Self-doubt: A lack of self-worth and self-efficacy results in persistent feelings of anxiety regarding their ability to succeed. Success at work is viewed as an unattainable and risky goal, not a reality that can be achieved with focus and dedication. 

Undervaluing contributions: People experiencing imposter syndrome undermine the worth of their achievements, which results in a persistent sense of incompetency. 

Attributing success to external factors: Imposter syndrome causes people to credit their achievements to situational factors beyond their control. 

When team members offer positive feedback in the form of praise, raises, or promotion, people will struggle to accept responsibility for their success. Instead, they may attribute the positive impact they created to chance, coincidence, good luck, or the contributions of their coworkers. 

Sabotaging self-success: Imposter syndrome reinforces feelings of inefficacy. It pushes people to go out of their way to make poor or risky decisions. 

The imposter phenomenon causes people to experience a fear of success. They believe it is unattainable no matter how hard or often they try to attain it — success isn't meant for them.

Imposter syndrome also results in people psyching themselves out. They tell themselves their contributions will be sloppy, insufficient, or purposeless. This self-doubt can cause them to apply less effort, attention, creativity, and persistence until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Setting unrealistic expectations: Imposter syndrome creates the sensation that our best isn’t enough. It pushes people to set unrealistically high standards to accommodate for feeling inadequate when accomplishing realistic, timely, complex, and challenging goals.

Continuous fear of not living up to expectations: No matter what goals people set, imposter syndrome negates their ability to achieve them. It causes people to feel as if they are not able to fulfill expectations they set and others set for them, despite their best efforts. They perceive these expectations as a burden they cannot shake instead of a challenge they’re excited to overcome. 

Burnout: To overcome a sense of incompetence, people push themselves. They expend their energy quickly. Work starts to become more of a chore than a source of meaning and purpose, and they lose much of their passion for what they do.

Types of imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome comes in many forms. Dr. Valerie Young defines five types in her book: The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer. Let’s explore these types, plus a couple more, below. 

In reality, people may find themselves fitting more than one type over time. See if you recognize yourself in any of these patterns of thought and behavior. This way, you can work to overcome them.

Types of Imposters

The Perfectionist: As the name indicates, this type has to be sure everything gets done with perfection. Achieving an outcome or completing a task is never enough. 

The perfectionist is always hungry for more success, better outcomes, and higher prestige. Perfectionism results in feeling unsatisfied no matter how much hard work they do and ambitious goals they achieve.

Example: A manager is always asking a direct report for updates on the project progress. When she gets the progress report, she’s constantly telling them how to improve their process and how the projects must be done every step of the way.

Underlying emotion: fear of losing control

The Superwoman/man/person: This type thrives in showing off their ability to take on a lot of work in a short period of time. They are willing to work overtime to achieve the validation of their colleagues and managers. 

They are trying to prove that they are capable of handling anything.

Example: An individual contributor who takes her job very seriously and offers her time and support to her colleagues. She goes out of her way to take on work even during holidays or scheduled time off. She is happy to do the work, even on her own time.

Underlying emotion: fear of free time and taking time away from work for personal fulfillment

The Natural Genius: This type of imposter thrives on being so quick and slick in getting things done. They believe that they got it right the first time. Feedback cycles, critique, or rework is threatening — if they didn’t get it right, they failed. They put minimal effort into their work yet often succeed. 

This pattern of minimal effort and good results was likely there throughout their lives. They never have to put in the extra work, until they do. 

Example: A new accountant who just graduated top of his class always found that the classwork came easily. He never had to spend late nights studying for anything. He gets into the workplace and feels overwhelmed with the expectations. He’s not always able to get his calculations according to his manager’s satisfaction.

When his manager asks him to spend some time with his colleague to learn the process, he feels uncomfortable and insulted. He doesn’t need anyone to tell him how to do his work more than once.

Underlying emotion: shame of failing 

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The Soloist: Like the Natural Genius, this type is not interested in getting support from others to do their work. However, the soloist resents others altogether. The Soloist is not willing to ask for help, regardless of the situation. 

Asking for help can leave them vulnerable and expose what they don’t know or can’t do.  

Example: An HR Director has to present new organizational changes and reports to her C-suite. As the deadline approaches, she abruptly orders her team to gather up information in a specific way the C-suite wanted it. This creates some chaos for the team. She kept the information to herself until the last minute rather than sharing the requirements with her team because she thought that she would handle everything herself. Then she realized time was running out.

Underlying emotion: shame in asking for help

The Expert: “I must have all the credentials before I can even think of applying to this job.” This type of imposter feels the compulsive need to have all the knowledge and experience before even attempting the job. They may be critical of others around them who “work to learn” or take aspirational roles, while also not recognizing that certainty and having all of the answers isn’t expected. 

In a fast-changing environment, no one is an expert in what to do next.

Example: A scientist working on a new drug discovery feels compelled to fully understand the results before sharing them with the team. The experiment nears the end of its funding and timeline. The scientist has not yet shared the progress updates.

Then, team members are uncertain and become restless. Worse, two team members have relevant insights that could have built on the scientist’s results if they’d had a chance to work through them. With even more pressure is on the scientist now, because he is the expert in this process. 

Underlying emotion: fear of inadequacy 

There are two additional types of imposters that are equally important to consider.

The Noticer: This type can’t be proud of their work or themselves because they immediately notice things that still aren’t perfect. Whether in a work product, a meeting or in the clothes they wear, the Noticer is forgiving of others but doesn't extend the same grace to herself. When a tough project ends, the Noticer feels relief, more deflated than elated. 

The Noticer is hyper-aware of the competition, real or imagined, and secretly believes that she will always miss the bar. 

Example: An account manager works with her team to prepare a working session with the client. The team works hard on it for several days, and the manager spends every night making it better. 

Despite changing direction more than once, they ultimately create a workshop that the client loves. The team celebrates but the manager can’t stop thinking about where her presentation was awkward and how much more charisma and comfort the other project lead had. 

Underlying emotion: fear of not belonging

The Discounter: The Discounter automatically rationalizes away evidence of their own competence, achievement, or high regard. “People think well of me because they really don’t know what they’re talking about.” This type of imposter doesn’t value or trust their network of supporters very much.

They doubt the quality or level of competition in any effort that they succeed at and are ashamed to share something that “anyone could have done.”   

Example: A newly-promoted Project Manager gives a well-received and engaging presentation on a planning process. Several peers congratulate him and thank him for making a formerly dreaded process more useful and relevant. Instead of feeling proud, he thinks about how no one values his group and how low their bar was — they were saying it was good, for their team.  

Underlying emotion: not being enough

What kind of imposter are you? 15 questions to help you find out

Is this you?

You might be ...

1. Have you been told that you micromanage? The Perfectionist
2. Do you feel your work must always be perfect no matter the price? The Perfectionist
3. Do you stay late in the office to get work done even when everyone else has left?  The Superwoman/man
4. Do you work on future projects to get ahead and not have downtime? The Superwoman/man
5. Do you reject work that you are not good at or that seems challenging? The Natural Genius
6. Do you sometimes choose to not give something your best effort because you’re afraid that your best effort wouldn’t be good enough? The Natural Genius
7. Are you uncomfortable when others see your work in process? The Soloist
8. Do you resent offers of help or even status requests? The Soloist
9. Do you feel shaky and restless when someone refers to you as an expert? The Expert
10. Do you stick with what you know and make sure you know it best? Are you always in search of the next certificate/degree? The Expert
11. Do you find it difficult to accept compliments and celebrate accomplishments? The Noticer
12. Are you often in “self-improvement” mode but feel embarrassed to tell anyone else? The Noticer
13. Do you answer a compliment with “Thanks, but…”? The Discounter
14. Do you often think others are “just being nice”? The Discounter
15. Do you often wonder how much longer you can keep up the Act? All of them

Note: If you’re a leader or manager, you might suspect that one of your team members or proteges suffers from imposter syndrome. For early warning signs to look out for and ways to help those who report to you, see this useful article on why imposter syndrome can be a competitive edge

How to deal with imposter syndrome

Trying is exhausting. It depletes rather than energizes. Yet people can, and do, keep going.

How do you keep going when you hit that brick wall? And how do we regain some joy in the work and our accomplishments?

First, understand that imposter syndrome is a form of saboteur. You are not helpless against it.

Also, don’t try to ignore it. Instead, tame the emotion by acknowledging its presence. Be aware of its impact on your body.

The SBNRR technique (stop, breathe, notice, reflect, respond) technique can help you slow down and consider the situation — and your own thoughts, feelings, and reactions — more mindfully.

Stop: Allow yourself to stop in your tracks and take a moment to pause. 

Breath: Give yourself a deep breath and let your thoughts go and not be attached to them.

Notice: Notice your feelings, your body, your surroundings, your peers, the situation, your reaction, and anything else that you can notice. 

Reassess: Evaluate the situation and the reason you felt a need to fall into the imposter syndrome.

Respond: React intentionally. It can be more informed and composed now that you have calmed yourself a bit.

In addition to this technique, there are several tips to overcoming imposter syndrome. 

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10 tips for dealing with your imposter syndrome

Here are some other tips you can use when struggling with any version of feeling like an imposter.

Understand the voice. The positive intelligence assessment can help reveal the different saboteur voices that keep you from advancing. 

Assess the evidence. Making a simple 2-column list — on one side, “Evidence that I am inadequate” and on the other side, “Evidence that I am competent” — can help bring perspective. This list enables you to combat imposter syndrome by collecting, acknowledging, and reflecting on proof of your competency.

Refocus on values. Take your focus away from outward signs of success or achievement and remind yourself of what really matters to you.

Reframe around growth. Life and a career are a journey. You can’t grow, learn, or make progress without stretching yourself.

Get out of your head. Rumination, a pattern of circling thoughts, goes hand-in-hand with imposter syndrome. Find someone to talk to or write down your fears — they are less powerful when they aren’t circling.

Practice self-compassion. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling like a fraud. Now that you understand where the doubt and inadequacy come from, give yourself credit and compassion for how far you’ve come. 

Be kind to yourself. You are a human. Humans make mistakes. You will, too. “Practicing self-compassion will help you tame your inner critic.” 

Keep failure in perspective. Instead of focusing and defining your failure in the abstract, take time to write down the likely outcomes if some part of your effort fails. Rarely is it the end of the world.

Practice mindfulness. Use the SBNRR technique to pause and re-evaluate. This technique gives you the opportunity to situate yourself in the present. It’s a reflection point that enables you to recognize the capacities you have and used to successfully reach this point. 

Seek trusted feedback from your network. Make a practice of periodically getting feedback from people you trust and respect. Knowing that you have a source of meaningful feedback can help you let go of wondering what everyone else is thinking of you.

Bias and imposter syndrome 

It’s important to consider systemic influences on imposter syndrome, the ones operating outside of your head. Biases exacerbate imposter syndrome. These prejudices result in discriminatory views, policies, and procedures for people of color and underrepresented populations.

When managers and team members treat people differently based on race, socioeconomic class, religion, gender, and sexuality at work, they create a company culture of second-guessing, self-doubt, and stress. 

This causes people to question their ability and worth in the workplace, resulting in a greater prevalence of imposter syndrome. 

Equally, when diversity isn’t done right when it results in “tokenism,” it can make a person of an under-represented group feel both as if they don’t really have the skills to be there and at the same time cause them to set even higher standards for themselves to prove to everyone not just their own value but the value of their entire group.

Combined, these two tendencies create an impossible situation. They feed imposter syndrome and are detrimental to the person’s mental health. 

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The prevalence of imposter syndrome and why it matters

Imposter syndrome is common among workers, especially those who are driven to achieve. It stems from low self-esteem, but it can be easy to underestimate because people hide it and soldier through. Close-minded, cut-throat, or biased work environments make it worse. 

Imposter syndrome can also be amplified in work environments with surface-level diversity. Whether intentional or not, organizations engaged in this type of diversity appear all-inclusive by hiring people who represent various demographics.

But their leaders don't understand or value what those differences can offer and don’t invest in lifting employees of all backgrounds up once they are hired. The good news is that imposter syndrome can be recognized and addressed. 

To overcome imposter syndrome, recognizing your capacity and worth is not enough. Your executives, leaders, and teams must also do so. They must prioritize your mental well-being and well-being just as much as your physical skills and performance. 

Leaders must recognize opportunities for investing in mental health and personal growth. This means investing in resources that support people beyond therapeutic intervention or psychotherapy.

Virtual,  digital coaching and group support, as well as inclusive leadership that encourages vulnerability, can all lessen the experience of "feeling a fraud." It also means fostering company cultures that push all people forward by recognizing their worth.

Work environments must foster inclusion, belonging, and advancement for all.

Join BetterUp in determining what real diversity looks and feels like at work and how each person can use their discomfort and challenges as opportunities for growth. The workplace can become a place where your people can reach more of their full potential. 

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Published September 22, 2021

Amal Saymeh

BetterUp Fellow Coach, MBA, CPCC, PCC, BCC

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