What is Imposter Syndrome?

Written by Nicole Laoutaris
Last updated on: May 16, 2024

Feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt are totally normal in life, especially when we’re striving for something new or are levelling up in some way (e.g. working toward higher education, preparing for a promotion, or training for a competition). Sometimes, though, those thoughts are so constant that we have trouble getting through regular tasks, and it can be really discouraging.

Imposter syndrome is a thought pattern of constantly doubting your own skills, talents and accomplishments. ⁠⁠You might misconstrue your achievements as mere luck and believe, if you’re not careful, someone is going to pull back the curtain and reveal you as a fraud. 

You’ll know it’s not just occasional self-doubt when you’re chronically feeling like you’re unable to attain or maintain success. This can be detrimental to our emotional and cognitive well being—imposter syndrome is often associated with mental health conditions like anxiety or depression

Signals that you might be experience imposter syndrome and not just a bout of self doubt include:

  • Self-doubt is frequent and characterizes all of your experiences—past, present and how you anticipate the future
  • You think you’re going to be found out as a fraud or always fear punishment for poor performance despite objective and proven success
  • Attributing success to luck, even feeling distressed instead of happiness for achievements
  • Constantly seeking validation from authority figures, which allows others to dictate your success
  • Rarely asking for help and feeling as though you have to take on every task and complete it to perfection
  • Procrastinating often, putting off work out of fear you won’t be able to complete it well enough
  • Conversely, over preparing and spending too much time on a task and needing a prompt by someone else to stop and move on

Who experiences imposter syndrome?

Nearly everyone. If you’ve ever experienced these kinds of feelings, you’re certainly not alone. Studies show an estimated 70% of people experience feelings of imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. It tends to impact those who are high achievers and is often discussed in the context of our professional lives.

Is this new?

Imposter syndrome may seem like a more modern phenomenon. Without a doubt, feelings of being inadequate, overwhelmed and judged can be linked to our constant exposure to online content and social media showing others’ (perceived) perfections and achievements. 

However, imposter syndrome was first identified over 40 years ago by Drs. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes at Georgia State University. Their study focused on highly successful women in academia and professional life and they found a prevalence of feeling fraudulent despite their outstanding achievements. Originally, they thought this only affected women but, since then, research has shown it can affect any person, regardless of gender, but does disproportionately affect more marginalized people

Many celebrities have publicly acknowledged their own feelings of imposter syndrome, from Albert Einstein to Michelle Obama. Even the great American poet and civil activist Maya Angelou admitted to questioning herself: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”

It also often impacts high-performing athletes. Naomi Osaka, one of the world’s top tennis players who famously stepped away from playing at Wimbledon to care for her mental health, has said “I’ve never told myself that I’ve done a good job but I do know that I constantly tell myself that I suck or I could do better.”

What causes imposter syndrome?

It’s typically a series of experiences that leads someone to feeling incompetent. 

Researchers have found that family upbringing can be a predictor of imposter syndrome:  either success was demanded and one's value was only tied to achievement growing up, or there was a lack of support or constant conflict that confuses one’s perception of their value and contributions. These conditions can also be found in toxic school, work or community environments. 

Societal factors such as systemic racism and lack of representation can also reinforce a feeling that one does not belong or deserve to be there—it’s easy to understand how much easier it is to build confidence when everyone looks like you, acts like you, has the same background, and consciously or unconsciously signals that you belong.

Environments or social systems that prioritize individual achievement and punish mistakes instead of valuing lessons from failure, and which encourage “one-upmanship” can perpetuate imposter syndrome. 

When our confidence is tested over and over again, we may start compensating for all of that insecurity and self doubt by aiming for some idealized self image that’s completely imagined and we lose sight of our actual accomplishments. An Imposter’s experience tells them their real achievements are not valid. 

Clance, Imes and other researchers identified some common characteristics that result from these series of experiences:

  • The need to be special and the very best: You dismiss your own talents and conclude you’re the worst if you’re not the best.
  • Superhuman/perfectionist striving: You set impossible standards as your goals and evaluate yourself against those—you expect to do everything flawlessly which leads to feeling overwhelmed, disappointed and overgeneralizing yourself as a failure.
  • Fear of failure: You experience anxiety when given a task and any mistakes or imperfection prematurely creates feelings of shame and humiliation.
  • Denial of praise: You tend to attribute your successes to something or someone else, and may even develop arguments that you are undeserving of accolades.
  • Guilt of success: If success is unusual in your family or community, you could feel disconnected or rejected. You may fear your success creates new, higher demands and greater expectations from those around you. You feel uncertain about maintaining success and may decline additional responsibilities as a result.

What can you do about it?

Kim Foster Yardley, a Clinical Psychologist on First Session who specializes in performance therapy, says many of her clients need help with imposter syndrome and building up their confidence. ⁠⁠

She says, “People have this idea that confidence is innate, but confidence is situation-specific. Some people are more confident than others, but it’s also a skill. You can learn to build your confidence in a deliberate and international way.” Kim also identifies self-awareness as the number one foundational skill when it comes to managing ourselves. 

Some tactics and approaches you can use to become more self aware and combat imposter syndrome include:

  1. Challenge yourself: When you question yourself or have a negative thought about your abilities or qualifications, ask yourself if this is accurate and if this emotional response is real.
  2. Adjust your thinking or actions: Try to examine your beliefs about why you didn’t deserve your accomplishment. You can try to change some habits too, such as giving yourself a cut-off time on work (deciding you’ll stop your draft after two hours, not five) to learn that your fears of failure will not be realized if you stop overworking.
  3. Remind yourself of your successes: When you want to invalidate a win, try listing your successes and letting them sink in. Over time you’ll start to build a new belief system about yourself.
  4. Talk to others: Mentors can help us see our successes or identify real and attainable areas for improvement. Try talking to friends or colleagues, you’ll likely receive positive reinforcements that will help you move out of negative thought cycles. You may also find that others who you admire experience these feelings too, and this can help shake you back into reality.

For leaders:

Bonus tactic #5: Try considering how you can positively influence your professional environment to combat imposter syndrome. It will only help foster innovation, help everyone move on faster from mistakes, and curb burnout. 

Dale Bricker, a Psychologist on First Session who specializes in self worth, workplace stress and imposter syndrome says that leadership is about, “Developing empathy, developing strong listening skills, the ability to delegate, the ability to get input from your team, the ability to create a safe work environment … an emotionally safe work environment where people feel that they can approach you, that they can put their ideas forward, that they can make mistakes and that it will be okay if they do that.”

Finding a licensed therapist who specializes in self-esteem, workplace performance, and imposter syndrome can help. Therapeutic approaches for imposter syndrome could include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is designed to help challenge the distorted thoughts that can lead to negative or unproductive emotions and behaviours. 

Feeling less alone can be very powerful to overturn negative belief systems about our abilities and successes. When a Princton professor decided to post a “CV of failures” identifying grants he was declined or programs he didn’t get into, it quickly went viral garnering supportive comments from every corner of the internet. Similarly, an organization called F*** Up Nights runs events all around the world in which speakers tell stories of their failures—they’re in 90 countries now and have told 15,000 stories of failures to-date. That’s why group therapy has also shown to be effective for imposter syndrome as it can help put things into a more realistic context when you hear that others are having the same self doubts you are. 

Find a therapist with First Session. You can compare hundreds of licensed therapists, counsellors, psychologists and psychotherapists; and filter by province, specialization, therapy type and more. Watch intro videos, and book online or in-person appointments. Remember, many initial consultations are free.

Looking to combat imposter syndrome by creating a psychologically safe workplace? First Session creates custom workshops tailored to your employees’ needs and company goals, and facilitates positive conversations about mental health.

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About the Author

Nicole Laoutaris

Nicole Laoutaris is a freelance writer and adult learning professional based in the Greater Toronto Area. She specializes in educational content for brands and companies in industries such as mental health, pet health, lifestyle and wellness, cannabis, and personal finance. Nicole holds a double undergraduate degree in Communications and Film studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, and post-graduate certificate in Corporate Communications from Seneca College. She currently lives in Hamilton Ontario with her spouse and her cat.