"I don't belong here."
"I'm in way over my head."
"I'm a total fraud and, sooner or later, everyone is going to find out."
Have you ever thought these things? You are not alone. A recent NIH Imposter Syndrome Review suggest that up to 82% report having these thoughts at one point or another. Imposter syndrome involves feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence that persist despite your education, experience, and accomplishments.
Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes developed the concept, originally termed “imposter phenomenon,” in their 1978 founding study which focused on high-achieving women.
What Causes Imposter Syndrome?
There’s no single cause, rather a combination of factors that could potentially trigger feelings of self-doubt. Psychologists have noted underlying causes can include:
Pressured to do well in school
Being compared to your sibling(s) and/or other kids
Growing up in a controlling or overprotective environment
Growing up with people overly emphasizing your natural intelligence
Being sharply criticized for mistakes
Academic success in childhood can also contribute to imposter feelings later in life. For example, you performed really well early on in school. It was easy for you to learn new concepts and you constantly received praised for your accomplishments. Yet, in college, you find concepts more difficult to comprehend and retain. You begin comparing yourself to classmates who have higher grades and assume they are more gifted. As a result you start feeling inadequate, like you don't belong.
Types of Imposter Syndrome
Leading imposter syndrome researcher Dr. Valerie Young describes five main types of imposters in her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. These competence types reflect internal beliefs around what competency means to different people. Here’s a summary of how they manifest.
PERFECTIONIST. You focus primarily on how you do things, often to the point where you demand perfection of yourself in every aspect. Yet, since perfection is not realistic, you fail to meet standards. Instead of acknowledging the hard work you’ve put in after completing a task, you criticize yourself for small mistakes and feel ashamed of your “failure.” You might even avoid trying new things if you believe you can’t do them perfectly.
NATURAL GENIUS. You’ve spent your life picking up new skills with little effort and believe you should understand new material and processes right away. You believe competent people can handle anything with little difficulty. You begin to feel like a fraud when you have a hard time, when something doesn’t come easily to you, or you fail to succeed on your first try. As a result you feel ashamed and embarrassed.
SOLOIST. You believe you should be able to handle everything solo. If you can’t achieve success independently, you consider yourself unworthy. Asking someone for help, or accepting support when it’s offered, doesn’t just mean failing your own high standards. It also means admitting your inadequacies and showing up as a failure.
EXPERT. Before you can consider your work a success, you want to learn everything there is to know on the topic. You might spend so much time pursuing your quest for more information that you end up having to devote more time to your main task. Since you believe you should have all the answers, you consider yourself a fraud or failure when you can’t answer a question or encounter some knowledge you previously missed.
SUPER HERO. You link competence to your ability to succeed in every role you hold at work and at home. Failing to successfully navigate the demands of these roles proves, in your opinion, your inadequacy. To succeed, you push yourself to the limit, expending as much energy as possible in every role. Still, even with this level of effort, imposter feelings arise and you think, “I should be able to do more.”
The Role of Bias
There’s a big difference between secretly doubting your abilities and being made to feel as if you are unworthy of your position and accomplishments.
Gender bias and institutionalized racism play a significant part in imposter feelings. As Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey point out in their HBR article, the impact of systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases was categorically absent when the concept of Imposter Syndrome was developed. As a result, it puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests.
More recent and inclusive studies show that, while anyone can experience these feelings, they tend to show up more in women and people of color given that workplaces generally have less representation. Aware of bias, women of color work harder to disprove stereotypes. Believing that, in order to be taken seriously, they must dedicate more effort than anyone else. These negative stereotypes cause women of color to fixate on their mistakes rather than capabilities. Women of color also suffer more microaggressions and discrimination at work which reinforce feeling out of place and underserving.
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome can stop us from doing things we are very much capable of. Living in constant fear of someone finding out that we are a fraud makes us want to strive for perfection in everything we do. This is not realistic and can lead to working harder than we have to and holding ourselves to even higher standards. This pressure eventually affects our performance and emotional well-being manifesting in burnout, anxiety, depression and guilt.
So here is how we can help reduce these feelings.
ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR FEELINGS. Identify imposter feelings and talk to a trusted friend or peer. Trusted mentors can help bring outside context to the situation. Acknowledging and sharing these feelings takes their power away and helps make them less overwhelming. Opening up about how you feel encourages others to do the same, helping you realize you aren’t the only one feeling like an imposter.
BUILD COMMUNITY. Avoid the urge to do everything yourself. Instead, turn to peers, coworkers and of course VEST Members to create a network of mutual support. Remember, nobody builds companies and movements alone. A trusted network can offer you guidance, support, encouragement, and challenge you to grow. Sharing imposter feelings can also help others in the same position feel less alone. It creates the opportunity to share strategies for overcoming these feelings together.
CHALLENGE YOUR DOUBTS. When feelings of self-doubt surface, ask yourself if facts actually support these beliefs. For example, next time you say "I don't belong here", ask yourself why not? Fact-check your answers and look for evidence to counter those thoughts.
AVOID COMPARISON. Comparing yourself to others doesn't help you achieve anything. Rather it reinforces your feelings of inadequacy and leads to resentment. When we constantly compare ourselves to others, we waste precious energy focusing on other peoples' lives rather than our own.
FIX WORKPLACES. If you are in a position of power and influence at work, make sure that you are fostering an inclusive culture. Create an environment that fosters a variety of leadership styles and in which diverse racial, ethnic, and gender identities are seen as just as professional as the current model.
Perfection and growth do not co-exist. Watch how you talk to yourself. Would you ever talk to anyone else like that? Be kind and compassionate to yourself. Remove judgment and self-doubting language from your day-day activities, and remember: Success doesn’t require perfection and failing to achieve it doesn’t make you a fraud.
Check out our podcast with Ruchika Tulshyan on this topic