Imposter Syndrome Meaning: What it Is and How to Work Through It?
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“I’m not qualified for this job, I just got lucky.”
“I feel like everyone else in this class is smarter than me.”
“If people really knew how little I know, they would think I’m a fraud.”
“I’m afraid to speak up because I don’t want to sound stupid.”
“I feel like I’m faking it and it’s only about time before someone finds out.”

Have you ever found yourself ruminating over the notion that your position or job is undeserved or that your knowledge and expertise are inadequate? If so, you may be experiencing a phenomenon known as imposter syndrome. In this article, we will examine the concept of imposter syndrome in greater depth, including its definition, its prevalence, and practical strategies for overcoming it.

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon characterized by persistent feelings of self-doubt and fraudulence in one’s achievements, which can lead individuals to question their competence and qualifications. Such feelings can be particularly prevalent in high achievers or those in positions of authority, where the pressure to perform at a high level is often intense.

Despite the prevalence of imposter syndrome, it is not widely understood or recognized, which can exacerbate its effects and make it difficult to address. However, by recognizing the symptoms and causes of imposter syndrome, individuals can take practical steps to overcome it.

To this end, this article will explore the nature of imposter syndrome, including its defining features, common causes, and potential strategies for mitigating its effects. By gaining a better understanding of this phenomenon, individuals can take proactive steps to overcome their feelings of inadequacy and restore their confidence in their abilities.

So What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome is a psychological pattern where individuals doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” It can best be described as an individual’s internal belief that their success is not a result of their ability, intelligence, or effort, but rather a mere stroke of luck or contingency. What underlies this belief is a feeling of inadequacy or self-doubt, and the fear that one day the individual may be exposed as an ‘impostor’, despite evidence to the contrary.

This can lead to a diminished sense of belonging for the individual in academic or work-related environments. Those inflicted with imposter syndrome often tend to reject or undermine compliments paid to them by peers, colleagues, and mentors. They begin to perceive people who praise them as being ignorant of reality or having been deceived by their tactics.

As a result, they tend to feel the need to exert superhuman effort to perform at a normal level. In some instances, they even unconsciously self-sabotage their chances of success. It is important to recognize this syndrome, as it can have a significant impact on an individual’s mental health and well-being.

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Imposter syndrome can make us feel as though we’re wearing a mask

Historical Roots and Broader Impacts

The term “imposter syndrome” was first identified in the 1970s by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance. Initially, it was thought to apply predominantly to high-achieving women, but it has since been recognized as affecting people of all genders and backgrounds. It often manifests in feelings of inadequacy, chronic self-doubt, and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that overrides any feelings of success or external proof of competence.

Who Experiences Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a common phenomenon that affects up to 70% of individuals at some point in their lives. It is particularly prevalent among high-achievers, including those in leadership positions or highly competitive industries, as well as perfectionists. Individuals from racial, ethnic, and gender minority groups are especially susceptible to it, particularly in professions where success is not easily measurable, such as in the creative arts. It is worth noting that imposter syndrome is a significant issue that can have a considerable impact on people’s lives.

Research suggests that imposter feelings can stem from various sources, including a lack of self-confidence, fear of failure, and pressure to perform at a high level. These feelings can lead individuals to doubt their abilities, experience anxiety, and fear being exposed as a fraud. Additionally, imposter syndrome can negatively impact productivity, cause burnout, and hinder career advancement.

To mitigate the effects of imposter syndrome, individuals can take steps such as acknowledging their accomplishments, seeking feedback and support, and reframing negative self-talk. Organizations can also play a role in addressing imposter syndrome by creating a culture of psychological safety, promoting diversity and inclusion, and providing resources for mental health and well-being.

In conclusion, imposter syndrome is a prevalent issue that affects many individuals, particularly high-achievers and those from underrepresented groups. It is essential to recognize the impact of imposter syndrome and take steps to address it, both at the individual and organizational levels. By doing so, individuals and organizations can promote a culture of confidence, growth, and success.

What Are Some of the Reasons Behind It?

So, what causes imposter syndrome? Well, there is no one true answer. Feelings associated with imposter syndrome can be the result of a variety of factors, including perfectionism, fear of failure, childhood expectations, and change.

The imposter cycle may begin in one’s familial upbringing. For instance, a child labeled as “pretty” may grow up feeling that their achievements are solely attributed to their physical appearance. Similarly, a child labeled as a “high achiever” may become a workaholic to maintain that persona.

Children who invest a great deal of their identity in these roles may be afraid to perform them in any way that is less than perfect. Although not all children who receive childhood labels are guaranteed to develop imposter syndrome, a child’s familial upbringing may provide the ideal backdrop for it to develop.

Moreover, imposter syndrome can arise when an individual experiences a significant life transition, such as graduating from school, starting a new job, or being promoted in an organization. These events have the potential to shift a person’s perspective and disrupt their sense of stability and competence.

Furthermore, research has indicated a link between the personality trait ‘perfectionism’ and high levels of imposter syndrome. Those who exhibit perfectionism tend to set unachievable high standards, have a fear of making mistakes, feel inadequate, and are highly self-critical.

imposter syndrome meaning
The emotional distress underlying imposter syndrome often goes unchecked

Okay, But It’s Just a Temporary Feeling Right?

Not necessarily. Unchecked imposter syndrome can have significant implications on one’s mental health. Research suggests that high feelings of imposter syndrome are related to lower reported self-esteem, lower reported quality of life, and considered struggles with anxiety, self-doubt, worries, and depression. The inability to internalize success can lead to considerable emotional distress for those suffering from this particular condition.

Even more worryingly, the fear of failure persisting from imposter syndrome can limit one’s career growth and satisfaction, create conflicts, and undermine one’s academic self-concept.

imposter syndrome meaning
It can feel a bit puzzling when you’re trying to work amid feelings of phoniness

How Do I Work Through it Then?

Vying for perfection is impractical

What truly counts is progress, not perfection. By focusing on your progress and internalizing the idea that errors are natural and part of the learning process, you can experience personal growth and satisfaction.

Rewire your cognitive attributions

Identify stable and positive characteristics associated with your accomplishments. This would help in preventing you from attributing your success to luck or mitigating factors.

Pay attention to your self-talk

Your internal dialogue is pivotal to re-affirming the feelings that are tied to imposter syndrome. Try to assess whether your thoughts are empowering or disabling. If you catch yourself thinking “I’m the wrong person for this position”, reframe your thoughts to say” I have a lot to offer in this position”

Share your feelings with a trusted mentor/colleague

Discussing your feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt with someone you trust and respect can be beneficial in distinguishing reality from your perception of insecurity.

Create a list of your positive qualities and abilities

Construct a written list that identifies your strengths and what you contribute. Take input from others around you as to what your personal strengths are. Refer to the list when in times of self-doubt. For instance, if struggling with a new role, remember you were chosen by your respective supervisor for one or more of the abilities described on your list.

Seek out professional help

Understanding that imposter syndrome can be quite deep-rooted and in some cases resistant to self-help, you may want to seek out mental health services from trained professionals to overcome feelings of unworthiness or perceived fraudulence and pursue healthy self-growth in work-related environments.

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Navigating Through Imposter Syndrome

Acknowledging and understanding these feelings is the first step toward overcoming imposter syndrome. Here are some strategies:

  • Embrace Imperfection: Recognize that perfection is an unrealistic goal. Embracing your mistakes as learning opportunities can diminish the fear of failure.
  • Rewire Thought Patterns: Challenge and reframe negative thoughts. Recognize your achievements and attribute them to your skills and efforts.
  • Open Up About Your Feelings: Talking about your feelings with trusted colleagues or mentors can provide perspective and validation.
  • Document Your Successes: Keep a record of your accomplishments and positive feedback. Refer back to it during moments of doubt.
  • Seek Professional Help: In cases where imposter syndrome significantly impacts your life, consider seeking guidance from a mental health professional.

Conclusion: A Journey Towards Self-Acceptance

Imposter syndrome is a common experience, but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence. By understanding its roots, recognizing its manifestations, and employing strategies to challenge it, individuals can move toward a more realistic appraisal of their abilities and contributions. It’s about shifting from a mindset of doubt to one of confidence and self-acceptance.


Clance P. R., & Imes, S. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research, and Practice, 15(3), 1–8.
Mullangi, S., & Jagsi, R. (2019). Imposter syndrome: treat the cause, not the symptom. Jama, 322(5), 403-404.
Schubert, N., & Bowker, A. (2019). Examining the impostor phenomenon in relation to self-esteem level and self-esteem instability. Current Psychology, 38, 749-755.
Wang, K.T., Sheveleva, M. S., & Permyakova, T. M. (2019). Imposter syndrome among Russian students: The link between perfectionism and psychological distress. Personality and Individual Differences, 143, 1–6.