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What Is Imposter Syndrome? Definition and Ways to Overcome It

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Have you ever thought, “I don’t deserve this,” or “I have no idea what I’m doing — is someone going to call me out for being a fraud?” That could be imposter syndrome talking.

Imposter syndrome happens when you feel uncertain or doubtful about yourself. This phenomenon is quite common in the workplace, and can negatively impact how you feel about your performance, coworkers, and career. Imposter syndrome is especially common as you feel job search anxiety and nerves about your first role — but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to overcome it. Here’s how. 

Imposter Syndrome Definition

Imposter syndrome is a form of self-doubt, a mental pattern of believing you aren’t good enough to have achieved all you have achieved. Although it isn’t characterized as an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) — a publication by the American Psychiatric Association classifying mental disorders — it is a real, valid, and widely recognized feeling. In fact, up to 82% of people have reported feeling imposter syndrome to some degree, according to research from the Journal of General Internal Medicine

A major component of imposter syndrome is experiencing doubt despite your accomplishments. You might feel imposter syndrome even though you’re high-achieving and others think highly of you. Instead, there’s a disconnect between your success and how you feel about yourself. 

How Does Imposter Syndrome Make You Feel?

Imposter syndrome makes you feel anxious, paranoid, and like a fraud. You might fear that you’re not capable or smart enough to have accomplished all you’ve done, or that your accomplishments happened by chance, luck, or other external factors.

Other signs of imposter syndrome include:

  • Trouble accepting praise 
  • Overachievement 
  • Feeling like a fraud
  • Fearful others will see you as a fraud
  • Anxious or depressive feelings
  • Self-sabotaging your success 
  • Feeling unworthy of success
  • Guilt
  • Burnout
  • Doubt
  • Feeling on edge or constantly nervous

Types of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is not one size fits all. There are five different subtypes — developed by Dr. Valerie Young, an expert on imposter syndrome — which can help narrow down the exact feelings you may be struggling with. Here’s what each type of imposter syndrome feels and looks like.

The Perfectionist

The perfectionist feels something isn’t worth doing if it’s not done 100% correctly. Any tiny mistake can make them feel like a complete failure and unworthy of anything they’ve achieved in the past.

The Superperson

The superperson tries to take on every role they can and ends up overexerting themselves as they try to be the best at everything they do. They link their worth to getting every job done. 

The Expert

The expert needs to learn everything possible and is disappointed when they don’t have the answer to something. They may find themselves constantly wanting to further their knowledge and get all of the answers. 

The Natural Genius

The natural genius expects everything to come easily to them. They may feel like a failure when something takes extra effort or time to learn. Because the natural genius thinks intelligence is innate — and they don’t have a growth mindset — when they struggle they feel like a fraud. 

The Soloist

The soloist struggles to reach out for help. If they don’t complete a task completely on their own, they may feel like they don’t deserve credit for the work. 

What Causes Imposter Syndrome?

There isn’t one all-encompassing cause for imposter syndrome. Instead, experts believe imposter syndrome is caused by a range of familial, cultural, and environmental factors. 

One of the most common theories attributes imposter syndrome to family dynamics. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who coined the term, wrote in their original paper that those who experience imposter syndrome are likely to “come from families in which support for the individual is lacking, communications and behaviors are controlled by rules, and considerable conflict is present.”

These dynamics — lack of support, control with rules, and conflict — aren’t only found in families, but in companies, too. Another theory is imposter syndrome stems from the company culture. Certain work environments stress the importance of perfection and peak productivity. These types of workplaces can lead workers to feel inadequate in their position and may lead to imposter syndrome. 

While imposter syndrome can affect anyone at any point during their career, it can especially manifest during your first job search and entry into the workforce. The transition from college to the workplace isn’t easy, and it’s common to feel doubtful about your achievements and performance.

It can feel a bit like a paradox: you’re feeling uncertain about your skills and experience, but you need to persuade the hiring manager you have the right skills and experience to land a job.

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Then, when you do land the role, you feel like a fraud for getting it. “New graduates may feel like they do not deserve the new job they secured and may overwork to prove themselves,” says Richard Orbe-Austin, a psychologist and executive coach who has co-authored two books on imposter syndrome. 

How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

No matter which type of imposter syndrome you have, overcoming it isn’t an easy process. You have to be ready to confront your feelings head-on. The first step is identifying the signs and recognizing you may be suffering from it. 

Be Open to Sharing

Rachel Lounds, an imposter syndrome specialist and mindset coach, advises people experiencing imposter syndrome to “identify and share your feelings.” Isolating yourself is one of the worst things you can do; instead, it’s better to be open and honest about what you’re going through.

“With it being so common, you are not alone,” Lounds says. “Sharing how you are feeling can be tremendously freeing and releases the feeling of being overwhelmed.” 

Sharing is productive, but make sure you’re not ruminating on your feelings. “You have to decide to act and change it!” Lounds says.

Focus on Yourself

It might sound counterintuitive to focus on yourself when imposter syndrome is about feeling negatively about yourself. Yet a big part of imposter syndrome is comparing yourself to others — you might feel you’re not as talented, smart, or capable.

Instead, shift your mindset to focusing on yourself rather than how you measure up.

“Try not to compare your work product to your colleagues’ – remember, you were hired for a reason and your area of expertise may not be the same as the person sitting next to you, and for a good reason!” Karin Anderson, chief financial officer of AK Building Services, says.

Hone in on Your Accomplishments

When you’re doubting what you’ve accomplished, it can be hard to think about your achievements rationally. Assess your abilities in a logical manner. Write down what you think comes easiest to you, what you have accomplished professionally, and where you think you have room to improve. When you can, write down concrete proof of what you’ve done — whether that’s a certification, award, or quantifiable result you achieved. This will help you realize there are areas you’ve already been successful in, and others you can still work on. 

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“Challenge those negative thoughts and doubts, avoid unnecessary comparisons and lean into your own power and uniqueness,” says Daphne Ursu, SHRM-CP, PHR and senior director of human resources for Good Karma Brands. “As a job candidate, you want the company to present to you who they really are, and you should do the same by being you. Tell them about your skills, experience and what you can do to help the company continue to grow and thrive.”

Find a Mentor

If you’re having trouble listening to your logical thoughts, “seek support from others who will help your name, your skills, and your accomplishments,” Orbe-Austin says.

A good mentor can not only help you uncover your strengths, but also “internalize your skills and talents,” Orbe-Austin says. 

Celebrate Every Win

We won’t sugarcoat it: the job search can be difficult. Rejection may fuel your feelings of imposter syndrome, so it’s important to celebrate every win you get.

>>MORE: How to Ask for Feedback After Being Rejected for the Job

“A win could be getting a response to an application you completed and an organization requesting an interview or acknowledgement of an application via the request of a writing sample,” Anderson says. “While these may not necessarily (although they may in some instances) lead to a job opportunity, it is an accomplishment, deserves to be recognized and is a sign that your background and skill set is in alignment with the organization’s desired skill set.”

Consider Talking to a Therapist

Imposter syndrome may be accompanied by anxiety and depression. Therapists can give you the tools you need to deal with your feelings of inadequacy and any related mental health issues. 

You are more than enough. Sitting in these feelings of anxiety and depression can stifle your growth and potential — but you can overcome them.

Imposter Syndrome: The Bottom Line

Imposter syndrome can negatively affect your perception of yourself — which can affect your relationships with others, your work performance, and overall life satisfaction. Yet this condition is highly common and something many new and soon-to-be graduates might face. You’re not alone.

“Recognize that imposter syndrome is common, and we all face it from time to time,” Ursu says. Be mindful of its presence and take massive action to be comfortable in your own skin and confident in what you can bring to the company. Perfection is not required, but progress is respected.”

You Are Extraordinary

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Avg. Time: 3-5 hours

Skills you’ll build: Describing imposter feelings, identifying causes of imposter syndrome, self-awareness, positive self-talk

Image credit: Canva

Erica Burns contributed to this article.

Zoe Kaplan is a Senior Writer at Forage. Prior to joining Forage, she wrote and edited career and workplace content for Fairygodboss, the largest career community for women.

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