Understanding Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome (IS) is a psychological phenomenon where individuals doubt their accomplishments and fear being exposed as a "fraud." Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing IS remain convinced they do not deserve their success.

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What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who studied high-achieving women who felt they were not as capable as others believed them to be. These feelings of inadequacy persist despite evident success, and sufferers often attribute their achievements to luck or external factors rather than their own skills or efforts.


Examples of Imposter Syndrome

Academic Settings: A student who excels in their studies but feels they are not as intelligent as their grades suggest.

Workplace: An employee who receives praise for their work but believes they are fooling their colleagues and will eventually be exposed.

Parenthood: A parent who doubts their parenting abilities despite their child’s healthy development and happiness.


Prevalence of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome is surprisingly common. A systematic review suggests that approximately 70% of people will experience at least one episode of IS in their lives. It affects both men and women across various professions and educational levels.


Causes of Imposter Syndrome

Several factors contribute to the development of Imposter Syndrome:

Personality Traits

Individuals with certain personality traits are more prone to experiencing IS. Perfectionism is a significant contributor; perfectionists set extremely high standards for themselves and feel like failures when they do not meet these standards. This tendency leads to chronic self-doubt and fear of not measuring up. Additionally, those with high levels of neuroticism, characterised by anxiety, moodiness, and emotional instability, are more likely to experience IS. Low self-esteem also plays a critical role, as individuals who do not value their worth are more susceptible to feelings of fraudulence.

Family Background

Family dynamics and upbringing significantly impact the development of Imposter Syndrome. Children who receive conflicting messages about their achievements—praised for success but criticised for any shortcomings—may develop a persistent sense of inadequacy. Overprotective or controlling parenting styles can also contribute to IS by preventing children from developing a robust sense of self-efficacy. As adults, these individuals may continue to doubt their capabilities, attributing success to external factors rather than their efforts and skills.

Cultural Expectations

Cultural and societal pressures further exacerbate Imposter Syndrome. Stereotypes related to gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status can lead individuals to feel like outsiders in their professional or academic environments. Women and minorities, in particular, may experience IS more acutely due to the additional burden of overcoming societal biases and discrimination. This added pressure can reinforce feelings of being an imposter, as individuals internalise the belief that they do not belong or are not deserving of their success.


Types of Imposter Syndrome

The Perfectionist: Sets excessively high goals and feels like a failure when even minor mistakes occur.

The Superhero: Pushes themselves to work harder to prove they are not imposters.

The Natural Genius: Believes they must achieve success effortlessly and struggles when faced with challenges.

The Soloist: Prefers to work alone, feeling that asking for help would reveal their incompetence.

The Expert: Continuously seeks out more knowledge, fearing they will be exposed as unknowledgeable.

Each type of Imposter Syndrome manifests differently but is rooted in the same core issue: a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.


Identifying Imposter Syndrome

To identify Imposter Syndrome, consider the following signs:

  • Persistent self-doubt and fear of being “found out.”
  • Attributing success to external factors rather than one’s abilities.
  • Overworking to compensate for perceived inadequacies.
  • Avoiding taking on new challenges due to fear of failure.

These signs can manifest in various aspects of life, from professional achievements to personal relationships. Recognising these patterns is the first step towards addressing and overcoming Imposter Syndrome.


Strategies to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome requires a multi-faceted approach. Here are several strategies:

1. Acknowledge and Share Feelings

Acknowledging the feelings of inadequacy and sharing them with trusted individuals can help diminish their power. Research by Brené Brown emphasises the importance of vulnerability and sharing “shame stories” to reduce the impact of IS.
Sharing these feelings with a supportive friend, mentor, or therapist can provide a reality check and help put self-doubt into perspective. It can also reduce the isolation that often accompanies IS, as individuals realise they are not alone in their experiences.

2. Challenge Negative Thoughts

Cognitive-behavioural techniques can be effective in challenging and reframing negative thoughts. Question the validity of your self-doubt and replace it with evidence of your accomplishments. For instance, keep a record of positive feedback and achievements to remind yourself of your capabilities during moments of doubt.

3. Embrace a Growth Mindset

Adopting a growth mindset, as proposed by Carol Dweck, involves viewing abilities as improvable through effort and learning from mistakes. This mindset helps reduce the fear of failure and promotes resilience. A growth mindset encourages viewing challenges as opportunities for development rather than threats to self-worth.

Practicing a growth mindset involves:

  • Viewing setbacks as learning experiences.
  • Embracing challenges rather than avoiding them.
  • Seeking feedback and using it constructively.
  • Celebrating effort and persistence over innate ability.


4. Set Realistic Goals

Setting achievable and realistic goals can help manage perfectionistic tendencies. Break tasks into smaller, manageable steps and celebrate each achievement. This approach reduces the pressure to meet unattainable standards and allows for a more balanced view of success and failure.

5. Practice Self-Compassion

Being kind to oneself during moments of self-doubt is crucial. Techniques such as positive self-talk, self-care routines, and mindfulness practices can enhance self-compassion. Practicing self-compassion involves treating oneself with the same kindness and understanding as one would offer a friend facing similar challenges.
Mindfulness practices, such as meditation, yoga, and journaling, can also help individuals stay grounded in the present moment and reduce the impact of negative self-talk.


Seek Professional Help

In some cases, professional help may be necessary. If you have any concerns, you can speak to your qualified health professional or arrange a free and confidential appointment with Converge International by booking an appointment online.

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