What You Need To Know About Imposter Syndrome

By Katelyn Piziali

Do you ever feel like you’re too hard on yourself? You do everything in your power—yet an intruding thought still insists you can do better? Maybe you get to where you want to be in life—the job, promotion, or place—but you still feel like you don’t deserve it. It’s like you’re just floundering through life, faking it until you make it. If this sounds at all familiar, you’re not alone. You’re just an imposter. But it turns out, most of us are.

What am I talking about? Imposter syndrome.

What Is Imposter Syndrome?  

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize accomplishments, and so they attribute their success to external factors like luck or timing. It’s also accompanied by feelings of inadequacy or failure—despite proven achievements—and a perpetual fear of being exposed as a fraud. It’s basically a severely debilitating form of self-doubt that impacts many people, especially high-achievers with perfectionistic tendencies.

While it’s colloquially known as “imposter syndrome,” it turns out that the perpetual condition doesn’t fit the criteria of a clinical syndrome, which is traditionally defined as a cluster of symptoms that causes intense distress or interferes with a person’s ability to function. The  internal experience is a phenomenon coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978.

While working at Oberlin College, the two colleagues noticed a trend among successful female students. These young women were all high-achieving pupils—and yet they all similarly struggled with feelings that they weren’t deserving of their accomplishments. They thought it was all due to luck. They lived in constant fear that they’d be expelled as soon as someone found out. So Clance and Imes partnered up to study women and wrote a report of their findings in  “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women.”

How Common Is It?

Imposter syndrome is actually a common affliction. Despite its daunting name, it’s not something to be gravely concerned about. Looking back on her research, Clance says she wishes she had called it “the imposter experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness. It’s something almost everyone experiences.”

So go ahead and relax. You’re not the only one who’s faking it until they make it. An estimated 70 percent of people experience imposter syndrome. While Clance and Imes originally theorized that imposter syndrome affected only females, later studies have proven that both genders commonly experience the phenomenon. Even famous people often feel like frauds on the inside. From actors Ryan Reynolds and Emma Watson to chef Padma Lakshmi and model Cara Delevingne, no one is immune to imposter syndrome.

Types of Imposters

There are different “competence types,” or inner guidelines, that people follow who struggle with self-confidence, according to imposter syndrome author and expert Valerie Young.

Young categorizes these types into five distinct personas, so you can identify your own bad habits keeping you from being your best.

  1. The Perfectionist

  2. The Workaholic

  3. The Einstein

  4. The Stubborn DIYer

  5. The Magician

The Perfectionist

Perfectionists are notorious for setting impossibly high standards for themselves—and then spiraling into self-doubt when they can’t measure up. They also tend to be control freaks who don’t know how to delegate because they think everything is just better when they do it.

Are you a perfectionist?

  • Do people call you a control freak or tell you to delegate more?
  • When you don’t meet your insanely high, personal standards, do you have a hard time letting it go?
  • Do you have an all-or-nothing mentality? That is, does your work have to be 100-percent perfect or you don’t bother trying at all?

For perfectionists, learning to accept mistakes and celebrate successes for what they are—a part of the process—is essential to breaking free from this all-or-nothing mentality. Nothing is ever going to be 100-percent perfect, and neither are you. And that’s perfectly OK.

The Workaholic

Workaholics feel like they’re skirting by in the workplace, barely acknowledged by their colleagues. This fear of being exposed as inexperienced or inadequate pushes some to work twice as hard just to prove themselves in the office. It’s a thinly veiled insecurity. And if not confronted, it may lead to an unhealthy work-life balance.

Are you a Workaholic?

  • Do you stay in the office later than most coworkers? Even when you’ve completed your work for the day?
  • Do you get anxious at the thought of not working on a vacation?
  • Have your friends and hobbies dissipated in order to create more room for work?

Workaholics are innate people pleasers, thriving on the validation they earn from working overkill. Once you can wean yourself off that external validation, however, there won’t be a craving to work yourself to the bone in an effort to please others. As you start to grow your own self-confidence, you’ll find more room back in your life for things other than work.

The Einstein

Do you remember those obnoxiously smart people from high school? The ones who just blinked and became valedictorian? Naturally gifted individuals like these may tend to be Einsteins—imposter types who measure their success based on how much effort they have to put into any given task. If it comes easy, they’re confident. But as soon as it requires a little grit, Einsteins sometimes become puddles of self-doubt and assume they must be awful at their predestined gifts. Einsteins share impossibly high standards with perfectionists—but differ in that they break down when they don’t get something right the first time.

Are you an Einstein?

  • Were you a straight-A student throughout school without having to try very hard?
  • Have you been called “the smart one” in your friend group or family?
  • When you’re facing a challenge, does your confidence crumble because performing poorly makes you feel ashamed?

To reverse this curse, try to see yourself as a continual work in progress. Just because you  stumble here and there, that doesn’t mean you are incapable, or a failure. Try to create realistic, concrete goals or behaviors you want to improve—and slowly chip away at them. Give yourself a chance. Soon enough, you’ll make progress that will only make your confidence soar.

The Stubborn DIYer

You know those people who absolutely refuse to ask for others’ help? You might be a Stubborn DIYer if you feel like asking for a coworker’s advice makes you a fraud. Stubborn DIYers try to do everything on their own, when, often, all they need to do is reach out for some help.

Are you a Stubborn DIYer?

  • Do you live by the rule that you must do everything on your own?
  • Do you often refuse help offered to you?
  • Do you focus on the needs of your work over your needs as a person?

If so, remember that you’re not a sham or inadequate if you need help. Coworkers and mentors are there to assist you, so take advantage of their expertise instead of beating yourself up for not being 100-percent self-sufficient.

The Magician

Magic tricks are just that: Tricks. Deceit and sleight of hand. That’s how these many imposter types feel they got to where they are today. It was all a fast one pulled over the hiring manager's eyes. When really, it all stems from an insecurity of feeling inexperienced or unknowledgeable.

Are you a Magician?

  • Do you avoid applying for jobs you aren’t 100-percent qualified for?
  • Are you continually taking classes or courses to learn new skills and improve your resume?
  • Even with time, do you still feel like a newbie on the job?

If you can’t accept compliments about your expertise, you’re probably a Magician. The good news is that you can never stop learning. But if taken to an extreme, Magicians can become procrastinators, which only piles on the stress and remorse. Always remember there’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking others for help and trying to remember that a lot more people feel like you than you think. Imagine the new kid sitting a few desks away from you on their first day on the job; you’re not the only one who’s lacking confidence. We all go through it, and if you work on it, we can grow out of it.  

How To Overcome Imposter Syndrome:

Recognize It

While most people suppress their inner imposter, it’s wise to keep your enemy close in order to recognize the behavior when it reemerges. If you can identify the intrusive thoughts and negative self-talk when they’re occurring, you’re one step closer to fending them off for good. When you’re experiencing “imposter” symptoms, make sure to write them down or record a voice memo about how you feel. Then read or play it back and counter those negative thoughts with self affirmations. You are not a fraud. You are more than capable. You deserve to be here. And don’t you forget it.

Figure Out The Self-Doubt

At its roots, imposter syndrome is a crippling form of self-doubt and lack of confidence in yourself. So what are you feeling unqualified about? (As Anna Faris loves to say). Is it your brand new job in a big city? A new project or responsibility you’ve been given? Whatever it is, stop underselling yourself and remember that you’re here for a reason. You got you here. But also, a manager or mentor believed in YOU—so you should, too.

Confide In Someone

Once you’ve figured out what’s tripping up your confidence, choose a trusted confidante and let it all out. Just make sure that if it’s work-related, refrain from sharing with a coworker. Try your mom, roommate or best friend. They will squash your irrational fears and remind you of your innate talents. As many say, “treat yourself like you would treat your best friend.”

Recall Your Accomplishments

You didn’t get to where you are today without a single achievement. So what are some of those achievements? If you want to have some fun with it, start filling a jar with slips of paper to document your accolades. Then, when you’re feeling fresh out of success, you can reach in and read one to yourself. Remember all the grit and dedication it took for you to pave your way to today. You’ve earned it, and each slip of paper is proof of that.

Trust Your Mentors

A persistent thought among imposters is that you’ve fooled your way through every hiring manager and boss to be sitting where you are today. Rest assured. You aren’t that sly. Have a little more faith in your managers and mentors because they wouldn’t offer you jobs, promotions, or opportunities blindly. Remember that they’re experienced human beings who recognize you as one, too. You’re here because you’re qualified, OK? And you’ve got the experience and criteria to match.

Take A Risk

A lot of what perpetuates imposter syndrome is fear. Fear that you’re not good enough. Fear that you’re a fraud. Fear of being found out. So flip fear on its head and ask yourself: What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Once you’ve got an answer, tell a friend, record a voice memo or write it on the bathroom mirror. Then, just do it. If it doesn’t work out, you can at least say you tried and be proud for taking a chance. Don’t let imposter syndrome stop you from living your life.

Reframe Your Language and Thoughts

Something as subtle as the way you talk and think can feed imposter syndrome unintentionally. Do you find yourself using phrases like “I just,” “I feel,” or “I think” a lot? You might not realize it, but you’re second guessing yourself through your own language. Reassert yourself by modifying your language to be more confident. Use phrases like, “I know” and “I’m sure”—the confidence will become consistent and you’ll believe what you preach.

Remember It’s Crazily Common

As easy as it is to fall into a mental pity party of one, you’ve got to remind yourself that you’re not alone. That coworker you’re intimidated by? They may feel just as inadequate as you. And Tom Hanks? Yes, him, too. Stars... they’re just like us. From celebrities the likes of Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet to great minds like Albert Einstein and Maya Angelou, high-profile icons have all harbored fraudulent feelings and wondered when someone will pull the curtain on them. It seems like everyone is an “imposter” these days. The truth is, the best of us are.

Worst Case, Try Therapy

If you really can’t seem to kick the imposter in you to the curb, don’t be afraid to reach out for professional help. Therapists and psychologists are trained to help you dismantle the vicious cycle of your “imposter” thinking. With their coping tools and techniques, they’ll help teach you how to diminish the imposter in you so you can go back to reaching your goals and succeeding.