What is imposter syndrome? Almost all of us have experienced a fear that our successes are due to a fluke, luck or other people, rather than our own hard work or skills. A minor or temporary dip in your confidence levels isn’t an issue. But it could be Imposter Syndrome if it is frequent, long-lasting or overwhelming. I’ve mentioned this briefly in previous blog entries, but I thought it was worth looking at in a bit more detail.

Despite the name, Impostor Syndrome is not a diagnosable medical or psychological syndrome at all. It’s simply a convenient name for a recognisable pattern of thinking. It is associated with depression and anxiety or low self-esteem, though, which are mental health issues.

Different factors affect the chances of someone developing Impostor Syndrome. Over-demanding or over-protective parents; tendencies to perfectionism; social background, and the attitudes (‘microaggressions’) of those surrounding us (e.g. women, women of colour and the LGBTQ+ community are particularly at risk. Issues like prejudice and racism play a part in explaining this last point – see this link).

Despite evidence of talent and effort, Impostor Syndrome convinces people that they only succeeded by luck, or by somehow duping other people. They feel they do not deserve their success.

What is Impostor Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome was first described by Drs Clance and Imes in 1978. It primarily affected high-achieving women, according to this study, and was linked to battling negative gender stereotypes. We now know that it affects people of all demographics. Up to 85% of all surveyed people admit to experiencing these fears at some point. Several celebrities have come forward with their own experiences with Impostor Syndrome. These include Michelle Obama, Neil Armstrong, Neil Gaiman, and Maya Angelou.

Those with Impostor Syndrome will often hold themselves to unrealistically high standards. They feel they should know everything about their subject to be competent, even though they don’t apply the same standards to others. They worry about being ‘found out’ as unqualified and struggle to accept compliments. There are five main types of impostor syndrome:

  • Perfectionist; focus on avoiding mistakes. A perfectionist ignores the amount of effort they put into something. They focus on small errors even if these didn’t prevent success. Or they think that not reaching an unrealistically high goal means whatever they did achieve is worthless.
  • Expert; focus on knowing everything. The Expert tries to gain as much knowledge and as many skills as possible ‘just in case’. They don’t wait to learn by doing when a task comes up.
  • Soloist; focus on doing everything themselves. A soloist feels that asking for help shows they are weak or unsuited for the task.
  • Natural Genius; focus on learning quickly and getting it right the first time. A natural genius feels that having to work at something means they can’t really be any good at it. They will avoid trying new things. Adults who were gifted as children often have this thought pattern.
  • Super Student; focus on handling as many tasks at once as possible. The super student takes on more work than they can handle and spends more time on it than anyone else. They lose valuable rest and recreation time and reduce their ability to perform any one task to the maximum standard.

How to deal with Impostor Syndrome

  • You can start by looking elsewhere on this blog for tips to improve your confidence in yourself.  
  • Celebrate your achievements instead of worrying over small imperfections. Excellence is a great goal, but excellence is not the same as perfect.
  • Try applying the standards you apply to others to yourself, instead of impossibly high ones.
  • Challenge the negative thoughts, again there are ways to do this elsewhere on this blog.
  • Look out for words like ‘must’ and ‘should’ in your thinking. These indicate rules you are making for yourself which may not be reasonable or possible to live up to. Try to reword them. For example, ‘I must get everything right’ becomes ‘It would be nice to get everything right’ or ‘I will try my best to get everything right’.
  • Learn to see ‘failures’ as feedback that helps you do better next time.
  • Consider contacting me for help if this doesn’t improve things. I can help you find ways to think more positively about yourself and your achievements, and perhaps find out where those doubts come from, and deal with them.

Author: Debbie Waller is a professional therapist, specialising in stress, anxiety and related issues, including gut-directed hypnotherapy to help with the symptoms of IBS. She also offers EMDR/Blast which is used for trauma, PTSD, phobias and OCD. For more information on any of these services, phone 01977 678593. 

Researcher: Rae Waller is an experienced researcher and writer with a special interest in mental health issues. Rae offers drafting, fact-checking, proofreading, and editing for anything from a leaflet to a website, a blog or a book, and can also provide diversity reading, especially for LGBTQ+ and autism-related issues. Please contact rae@debbiewaller.com for further information.