Impostor syndrome (IS) refers to an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. While this definition is usually narrowly applied to intelligence and achievement, it has links to perfectionism and the social context.
To put it simply, imposter syndrome is the experience of feeling like a phony—you feel as though at any moment you are going to be found out as a fraud—like you don’t belong where you are, and you only got there through dumb luck. It can affect anyone no matter their social status, work background, skill level, or degree of expertise.
The term was first used by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s.1 When the concept of IS was introduced, it was originally thought to apply mostly to high-achieving women. Since then, it has been recognized as more widely experienced.
This article discusses the signs of imposter syndrome and some of the risk factors for developing it. It also covers different forms of imposter syndrome and ways that you can cope with these feelings.
Characteristics of Imposter Syndrome
Some of the common signs of imposter syndrome include:
- An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills
- Attributing your success to external factors
- Berating your performance
- Fear that you won’t live up to expectations
- Sabotaging your own success
- Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short
While for some people, impostor syndrome can fuel feelings of motivation to achieve, this usually comes at a cost in the form of constant anxiety. You might over-prepare or work much harder than necessary to “make sure” that nobody finds out you are a fraud.
This sets up a vicious cycle, in which you think that the only reason you survived that class presentation was that you stayed up all night rehearsing. Or, you think the only reason you got through that party or family gathering was that you memorized details about all the guests so that you would always have ideas for small talk.
The problem with impostor syndrome is that the experience of doing well at something does nothing to change your beliefs. Even though you might sail through a performance or have lunch with co-workers, the thought still nags in your head, “What gives me the right to be here?” The more you accomplish, the more you just feel like a fraud. It’s as though you can’t internalize your experiences of success.
This makes sense in terms of social anxiety if you received early feedback that you were not good at social or performance situations. Your core beliefs about yourself are so strong, that they don’t change, even when there is evidence to the contrary.
The thought process is that if you do well, it must be the result of luck because a socially incompetent person just doesn’t belong
Identifying Imposter Syndrome
While impostor syndrome is not a recognized disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it is not uncommon. It is estimated that 70% of people will experience at least one episode of this phenomenon in their lives.2
If you think you might have imposter syndrome, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you agonize over even the smallest mistakes or flaws in your work?
- Do you attribute your success to luck or outside factors?
- Are you very sensitive to even constructive criticism?
- Do you feel like you will inevitably be found out as a phony?
- Do you downplay your own expertise, even in areas where you are genuinely more skilled than others?
If you often find yourself feeling like you are a fraud or an imposter, it may be helpful to talk to a therapist. The negative thinking, self-doubt, and self-sabotage that often characterize imposter syndrome can have an effect on many areas of your life.
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