Did you know that some of the most talented, skilled and competent people experience Imposter Syndrome? Apparently, the more successful you are the more likely you are to experience Imposter Syndrome. Many people from all walks of life and all genders feel like an imposter at some time in their lives. Others experience it often. The good news is you can learn how to manage Imposter Syndrome and tame your inner imposter.
This blog explores what Imposter Syndrome is, where the term came from, and who experiences it. Learn what type(s) of imposter you are and what Imposter Cycle you run. Learn how to manage Imposter Syndrome with some tips and resources provided.
As a Life Coach and Counsellor, I work with people to help uncover beliefs that drive certain behaviours. Imposter Syndrome is a belief that no matter how successful and accomplished people are, they fear it is only a matter of time before they are found out to be a fraud. The ‘imposter’ may believe any success is due to random factors such as luck or external matters outside their control. They find it difficult to own their accomplishments or to be realistic about their own talents and abilities. Praise may be treated with suspicion.
The aim is to change your inner imposter into someone you can work with, rather than fight against. It is important to understand the beliefs that allow your inner imposter to take over. You need to target your habits of behavior that support it. Finding a new role for your imposter means you can relax more, let your own cheerleader take over and be more realistic about the way you go about completing tasks.
You can manage Imposter Syndrome in various ways. There are some great resources to help and I’ll share some of these with you in this blog.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
To unpack this, firstly, an imposter is someone who pretends to be someone they are not. However, someone with Imposter Syndrome believes they are someone who is pretending to be someone they are not.
Secondly, a syndrome is a term used to describe a set of signs or symptoms that work together to create an effect. The effect in this case, is debilitating experience that can rob people of opportunities and enjoyment of life and work.
Thirdly, Imposter Syndrome is the name for a particular cognitive bias, or error in thinking. Despite evidence that a person is accomplished, highly skilled or talented, they believe they are not. They may believe: “I am a fraud”, “(I am) not good enough”, or “I don’t deserve this”, “it’s only a matter of time before I am found out”. The syndrome then kicks in with an unhealthy set of behaviours. People over-perform or avoid starting a task because of worry, anxiety and self-doubt. Perfectionism and procrastination (putting it off) are often part of the pattern. Comparing yourself to others only makes things worse.
Finally, Imposter Syndrome is when someone doubts their intelligence, skills, talents, or accomplishments despite evidence to the contrary. They have a persistent, internalised fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. They often suffer in silence and no-one around them would know they have self-doubt and are fearful of being found to be a fraud or a failure. They may be unable to internalise their achievements and own them, attributing their success to luck or over-working.
Where did the term ‘Imposter Syndrome’ come from?
First labelled “imposter phenomenon” (Clance and Imes, 1978), Imposter Syndrome has also been called impostorism, fraud syndrome, and the impostor experience. It has been around for a while and is experienced by many people.
Although it appears not to be on the increase, it is said that periods of change can bring on the syndrome (new roles during the pandemic, for instance).
WHO experiences Imposter Syndrome?
It is estimated that about 70 percent of people will experience Imposter Syndrome at some point in their lives. This might be related to a particular situation or role, a promotion or achievement-related task. Others may experience it on a more pervasive level.
Imposter Syndrome affects people from all walks of life and is not gender specific. Ironically, high achievers are more prone to experiencing Imposter Syndrome. In fact, research suggests that the more successful you are the more likely you are to suffer Imposter Syndrome.
Interestingly, it does not affect people who are not highly competent at what they do. This tells us it is a matter of perception versus reality, in addition to other factors that drive people to keep the cycle going.
Which type of imposter are you?
Leading researcher on Imposter Syndrome, Dr. Valerie Young, says that everyone experiences self-doubt at times, but people with Imposter Syndrome have chronic self-doubt. Their extreme, high standards and expectations are often unrealistic and no matter how well they do, they minimise their achievements.
Young identified five types of imposter. For more information, see Young’s informative book. Here is my summary of what I take from her descriptions and my slant on it.
- If you’re The Perfectionist, you are focused on achieving something beyond the highest standard and have to be ‘the best’. You may have unrelenting standards that make it difficult to accept anything less. You may see a mistake as a sign of a failure. Asking others for help is not OK.
- If you’re The Expert, you must know everything about a topic in order to feel competent. If you don’t know something, you may see this as a sign of failure. You may believe you shouldn’t be in your role or position and may fear being found out to be a fraud.
- If you’re The Superhuman, you push yourself to the limit. You may take on too many roles and expect yourself to excel in each. You may expect yourself to be the best team leader at work, super-mum at home, chief builder on the weekends and best partner all the time! You may think you should be able to manage everything ‘perfectly’ and take it all in your stride. If you don’t, you may feel ashamed and believe you’re a failure.
- If you’re The Natural Genius, you may think you should already know how to do something and expect yourself to do it easily and fast. It may not be acceptable to have any setbacks or difficulties with a task. You may think learning a new skill means you’re not smart enough or that you’ve failed in some way (should be more talented?)
- If you’re The Soloist (or Rugged Individualist), you want to complete the task on your own. You prefer to work alone and don’t ask others for help because you believe you should be able to do it alone. Asking others for help may be seen as a failure.
How does the Imposter Cycle work?
According to Clance (1985), the Imposter Cycle starts with an achievement type of task, which brings on anxiety, self-doubt and worry. People tend to respond either by over-preparing or procrastinating. If the task is completed, they may experience some brief relief and sense of accomplishment.
If there is positive feedback, it may be disregarded or not believed. It becomes difficult to take credit and to attribute success to someone’s own abilities. Instead, it is attributed to luck (if they procrastinated), or to hard work (effort) if they went into over-drive in their performance and preparation.
Imposters often have strong beliefs that if they don’t continue the cycle they will fail (Clance, 1985). So, the cycle continues with more of the feelings and self-doubt being loaded onto the next task.
Are there any benefits of Imposter Syndrome?
There may be some benefits to self-reflection and working towards high standards to be the best you can be. This is generally a learning process of developing the necessary skill over time, allowing yourself to make mistakes, and having a realistic view of your own achievements.
On the other side of the fence, are the poor performers , who may be over-confident in their abilities and over-estimate how capable they are.
This is known as theDunning-Kruger Effect (Dunning & Kruger, 1999). This is another cognitive bias where people hold overly favourable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. They have a false belief that they know more than they do and have little insight into their lack of skill, knowledge or expertise for a task.
How to manage Imposter Syndrome
According to Dr Valerie Young’s work on Imposter Syndrome, the fastest way to ‘feeling as bright and capable as you really are’ is to adjust your beliefs about what it takes to be competent’. She also has some great advice: “if you want to stop feeling like an impostor, then you have to stop thinking like an impostor”. 4
Some of my tips on how to manage Imposter Syndrome
- Don’t panic – there are some benefits to self-reflection!
- What kind of imposter are you? Do you relate to some of the 5 types described above?
- What does your inner imposter feel like on a bad day?
- What beliefs drive your inner imposter? Hint: they always start with “I am —”
- What imposter thoughts do you have? Write them down. Are they critical? Are they based on facts? What would be more helpful to hear? Write these thoughts down.
- What new role could you give your inner imposter? Something worthwhile that uses those skills but leaves behind the need to worry or over-perform? How about Fact Checker or Quality Control?
- What does it mean ‘to be competent’? What are you trying to achieve? How would you like others to see you/think of you?
- Make a list of your achievements and the things that may make others proud.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses and get skilled up (by not over-skilled if that’s not the best use of your time)
- What is your Imposter Cycle (described above)?
- Make a realistic plan for achieving a task and stick to it. Ask for help when you need it.
- Don’t compare yourself to others; it’s not helpful.
- Get comfortable with accepting praise and reward yourself for a job well done.
The good news is that you can learn how to manage Imposter Syndrome. Acknowledge your achievements and own them – they are yours. Believe that you deserve the success you’ve achieved. And remember that experiencing Imposter Syndrome means you’re up there with some of the most talented, skilled and hardworking people.
And remember, a true imposter never experiences Imposter Syndrome. They are already a fraud!
Other articles by Linda Magson that may be useful
Mindtools. Imposter Syndrome Infographic.
Tammy Camilleri. The Imposter Syndrome Workbook.
Valerie Young. Chapter 6: The Competence Rulebook for Mere Mortals in The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Crown Business, 2011
 Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne A. (Fall 1978). “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” in Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice. 15 (3): 241–247. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.452.4294. doi:10.1037/h0086006.
 Young V. The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. Crown Business;2011.
 Clance, P. R. (1985). The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the fear that haunts your success. Georgia: Peachtree Publishers.
 Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121–1134. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.111