What Is Imposter Syndrome?

Believing Your Accomplishments Are Due to Luck, Not Talent

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Imposter syndrome is when an individual struggles with feeling insecure and like a fraud for gaining attention or accolades for their accomplishments. Those who experience imposter syndrome tend to believe they are undeserving, inadequate, and can feel overwhelmed by self-doubt.

While imposter syndrome is unwarranted, it's extremely common—even among the most famous, talented, and successful people. It is also known as imposter phenomenon, fraud syndrome, and the imposter experience

Women receiving an award in front of others
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Meaning

Imposter syndrome is the psychological pattern in which an individual believes that their own accomplishments came about as a result of having been lucky or having manipulated other people's impressions—not through hard work or genuine ability.

Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who coined the term in 1978, recognized this phenomenon in high-achieving women. Their study of 150 women showed that women with this syndrome, regardless of evidence of their earned success, lacked the internal acknowledgment of their accomplishments.

Signs

Imposter syndrome comes with a mix of feelings, thoughts, and other symptoms.

Common thoughts and feelings include:

  • Fearful they will be discovered to be a fraud
  • Believing compliments and praise are because the audience is being nice, not because it was earned
  • Feeling unworthy of success
  • Feeling like it was luck, not talent that got them where they are
  • Feeling anxious or depressed
  • Feeling undertrained

Along with these internalized thoughts and feelings, there are external signs you may recognize in yourself or others.

These include:

  • Minimizing positive feedback
  • Overpreparing
  • Not trying for fear of failure
  • Distrust of others

As you can see, the phenomenon can show up in many ways and can have a major effect on decisions and actions.

In their studies, Clance and Imes found evidence of anxiety and depression alongside the imposter syndrome for women.

Causes

Across the board, imposter syndrome is more common when trying something new and feeling pressure to achieve.

In the first studies of imposter syndrome, Clance and Imes believed the imposter mentality is developed from factors that include gender stereotypes, early family dynamics, culture, and attribution style.

Since the initial study, imposter syndrome has been discovered in people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. The list of contributing causes has also grown.

The main causes include:

  • Family dynamics: Family expectations and the value of success and perfection in childhood can stay with an individual throughout their life.
  • Cultural expectations: Different cultures put different values on education, career, and different definitions of success.
  • Individual personality traits: Perfectionism can lead to imposter syndrome.
  • Comparison: Playing the comparison game can lead to feeling down or inadequate if you are not achieving the same accomplishments at the same rate as others.

Clance and Imes discovered imposter syndrome through their study of women, but newer studies show an equal prevalence of imposter syndrome in men and women.

Sometimes women's imposter syndrome can be attributed in part to their low representation in corporate America. Women of color, in particular, are represented even less. The lack of role models can lead to low confidence, a lack of peer support, and a feeling of not belonging—all of these factors can contribute to imposter syndrome.

Types

There are five types of imposter syndrome that have been identified by Dr. Valerie Youn, the author of "The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It."

They are:

  1. The perfectionist: This type is focused on how something is done and will feel like a failure with even the smallest mistake.
  2. The expert: This type is concerned about what or how much they know or can do. They feel like a failure if they have even a tiny lack of knowledge in something.
  3. The soloist: This type cares about the "who." They feel they cannot take help from others if they want to be successful.
  4. The natural genius: They measure their worth by how and when accomplishments happen in terms of ease and speed. They are ashamed to take extra time or need to redo something.
  5. The superwoman/superman/super student: This type measures their accomplishments by how many roles they can juggle and excel in.

As you can see, these types are all dependent on being the best in some way. Imposter syndrome will take over if they are unable to do their job up to these standards.

Identifying

Identifying and taking action to combat imposter syndrome can be done alone or collaboratively with a professional. Identifying it can take time and self-reflection.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you fearful of being discovered as a fraud?
  • Do you feel guilt or shame about your accomplishments?
  • Do you resonate with any of the five types of imposter syndromes?

If so, you may be struggling with imposter syndrome—and that's OK. Identifying the problem is the first step to gaining a healthier attitude about your own accomplishments.

While the imposter phenomenon isn't in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or recognized as a mental health condition, it still may be important to work through it with a therapist, especially if you have feelings of anxiety and depression.

Overcoming

First and foremost, understand that imposter syndrome is common, and there are helpful tips and tools to use to combat it.

Here are some ways to overcome imposter syndrome:

  • Practice setting realistic goals.
  • Recognize your expertise.
  • Define what success means to you without including the approval of others.
  • Stay away from toxic competitions.
  • Don't rely exclusively on external validation.
  • Set limits and boundaries to avoid overworking.
  • Practice responding to failure in a healthy way.
  • Praise yourself for successes and efforts.
  • Remember nobody is perfect.
  • Determine your support system and lean on them when needed.

Imposter syndrome can feel overwhelming, and when it brings up feelings of anxiety, depression, and self-doubt, you may need a helping hand through it.

If you need help dealing with a mental health condition, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

While imposter syndrome is common, so is overcoming it with helpful tools and tips. As you grow and reach new milestones, you may begin to experience these signs of imposter syndrome again, so it's important to have these helpful tips and tools in your back pocket.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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