paranoia talking through a door to self
Health / Mental health

Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Imposter Syndrome!

“I’m going to be found out for being a fraud. I’m not meant to be here. I don’t know anything. Everyone seems to know what they’re doing except me!”


That sinking feeling of being exposed, feelings of inadequacy, insecurity and dread. Thinking you’re going to be found out for being somewhere you’re not meant to be, that you’re an imposter—all symptoms of imposter syndrome. This can actually be quite debilitating and on occasion, stop people reaching their full potential.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome causes an individual to experience anxiety and feelings of inadequacy, believing they are not successful despite external evidence to the contrary. The individual will doubt their abilities, lack confidence and believe they are not competent fearing that their fraudulence will be brought to light at any moment.

Imposter syndrome isn’t about having a healthy sense of humility—this is an accurate assessment of one’s abilities. An individual with imposter syndrome assesses their abilities inaccurately, believing they are more inadequate than others facing similar situations.

male sitting on a peer looking out to sea

Sometimes there may be a feeling of time running out, feelings of shame and a sense of going through things alone. Most people with imposter syndrome do not admit it. All genders have been shown to struggle with imposter syndrome equally.

Characteristics of imposter syndrome

  • Self-doubt—feeling anxious and unable to believe in themselves as an individual
  • Undervaluing contributions—despite high levels of achievement, believing themselves to be incompetent and not valuing their contribution
  • Feeling unworthy of success—feeling undeserving of attaining any level of success
  • Feeling ill equipped—no matter what level of training is attained the individual will feel they’re not good enough
  • Attributing success to external factors—unable to take credit for their achievements. More likely to attribute success to luck, coincidence or contributions of co-workers
  • Sabotaging self-success—the cognitive distortion of imposter syndrome pushes people to make poor/risky decisions. People even fear success as it “isn’t meant for them”. Individuals believe they are inefficient, insufficient and purposeless; this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Feeling stuck in an unrelenting cycle/burnout—to “prove” their inadequacy, unrealistic goals may be set. However, feelings of depression, anxiety, shame, exhaustion and even paranoia may lead ultimately, to burnout due to persistent mistrust in other people and lack of self belief.

What causes imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome isn’t an official psychological condition, it is a cognitive distortion i.e. a change in the way someone thinks. The individual doubts their own history, evidence in front of them and what people say to them. But why is this?

Family environment

Growing up in an environment where there was an emphasis on achievement, where praise was withheld and criticism was forthcoming will encourage and individual to grow up with critical automatic thoughts.

Imagine a small child running home excitedly to tell their parents about getting 98% on a spelling test only to be asked which spellings they got wrong…

Social and cultural expectations

What do we define as success these days? Buying a house? Having children? Rising through the ranks within a chosen career? Within some cultures only certain careers are seen as successful.

A young person, finding their identity has a helpful meeting with their careers advisor and is considering graphic design or architecture as a uni course. But they don’t feel they can discuss it with their parent or wider family as they’re all doctors and lawyers…

Personality traits

male in headphones with people in background laughing and pointing

Individuals who internalise their feelings are more likely to have imposter syndrome. This is because they may not test out their feelings feelings with external evidence. While there’s nothing wrong with being an introvert, combined with anxiety and rumination a vicious cycle can be set up.

Community belonging

A sense of belonging is vital for everyone’s mental well-being. Not fitting in may be due to a number of factors—gender, language, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, neurodivergence or any other physical, mental or learning difference. An individual may feel they’ve never fitted in or it may only belong within a specified setting.

It’s important to be aware in work places where tokenism may have taken place. These people may feel they’ve been hired to represent their demographic background. Leaders who don’t value and uplift these various background once hired are not truly inclusive.

Sam has always felt on the outside of any group. They’ll try to join in but struggles to find a gap in the conversation, then the conversation moves on. They often find people talk over them so prefer to stay quiet. Even when they do say something, they feel ignored or other people often take credit for what they say.

If you were Sam’s manager and they came to you saying they were struggling to fit in, how would you support them?

Imposter syndrome needs addressing as it can have a lasting impact on people’s lives. Individuals avoid challenges and new opportunities. It can lead to poor mental health impacting relationships, work and life satisfaction.

7 types of imposter syndrome

Individuals often fit more than one type but the categories are as follows:

1. The perfectionist

A completed task is never enough, there is always a more perfect(!) way to have completed the task. Anything imperfect or lack of process leaves them exposed and floundering. These individuals may be prone to micromanaging their colleagues and nothing they do will be good enough.

“I fear losing control”

2. The soloist

Unwilling to ask for help at all costs, will only work on their own—working with others would leave them vulnerable/exposed. These individuals won’t want to give status updates or let other people see work in progress.

“I think asking for help is shameful”

3. The natural genius

An individual who’s always found work easy with minimal effort. They thrive on quick, slick work, getting it right first time. This individual is threatened by having to work with colleagues or learn from others, believing this would slow them down. These individuals will only ever tackle things they know they’ll excel at and won’t put effort into tasks they fear failing.

“I think failing is shameful”

4. The superwomen/man/person

Thrives when juggling multiple tasks in a short period. Shuns time off, prefers overtime, thrives when helping others. Believes others need them and struggles when not needed. These individuals will always be looking to get on with the next project instead of balancing work and home life.

“I hate having free time, being alone and I need to be needed”

5. The expert

This individual feels as though they need all the information before they can make any step forward. Sharing information before they’ve finished full data gathering and analysis would leave them feeling vulnerable. These individuals are always seeking more education but fear being called an expert.

“I always feel inadequate”

6. The noticer

Always putting others first, noticing small changes such as what someone is wearing. This individual will feel very anxious about what others think of them, real or imagined, finding it difficult to take compliments.

“I feel I don’t belong”

7. The discounter

Easily discounts any evidence of their achievements. They do not value their network of supporters, assuming they’re just being polite or nice. They believe anyone would have made their accomplishments.

“I’m never enough”

How to overcome imposter syndrome

Remember that imposter syndrome is sabotaging your life, not aiding it. Becoming aware that it’s unhelpful and wanting to be rid of it is the fist step. The STOPP technique can help:

  • Say “stop”—this stops the cascade of negative thinking
  • Take a breath—this help slow any anxious breathing and aids the rest of the technqiue
  • Observe the situation objectively—imposter syndrome has us viewing things from a distorted angle. Observing a situation just as it is without judgment will help us move forward.
  • Perspective—changing our view point or perspective may help us get out of the rut of imposter syndrome
  • Practice what works—what values and principles are important to you? Do you want to stick to negative thinking or do you want to move forward positively?

Mindfulness can also be a helpful technique. It isn’t about emptying the mind, it’s about staying in the moment rather than ruminating in the past or worrying about the future. Practicing mindfulness means that when we need it, when stressed or anxious, it comes naturally. To remain present, without judgment, in the moment means not getting caught up in judgments about not being good enough, feeling inadequate, shameful or feeling as though you don’t belong or are not needed.

Be kind and compassionate with yourself

2 females hugging

You’re a product of your history. You’ve developed imposter syndrome for a reason. Ask yourself what you’re afraid of and nurture that side of yourself. Fearing failure, loss of control, being shamed, being inadequate or not belonging are all valid fears. But they can all be nurtured in other, more healthy ways. Comfort the child within and let them know that they are safe. You are now an adult and in charge of your decisions.

While imposter syndrome is not an mental health condition, it may be a symptom or unresolved childhood issues; counselling or psychotherapy may be necessary, there is no shame in asking for help.

Many people have self-doubt, letting go of it can be hard but you’re taking the first steps so give yourself credit for how far you’ve come!

Assess the evidence

When you’re feeling in a good, rational place, write a list of “evidence that I’m inadequate/not good enough” and on the other “evidence that I’m competent/good enough”. Be honest with yourself. Add to it over a few days. When you feel imposter syndrome come knocking, take out the list and remind yourself of the evidence.

Focus on your values and internal truths

What’s really important to you? Try looking at this list of 216 values, don’t think about what other people would want you to say, what stands out to you? Perhaps career, getting married, having children and buying a house feel less important now!

By focusing on your values, it helps you to put things in perspective. Imposter syndrome can drag you down but getting to know the real you and your values will lift you up.

Keep failure in perspective and remember nobody is perfect

While you may be a perfectionist, it’s important to remember that, objectively, nobody is perfect, we’re all human, we all make mistakes and occasionally fail. Without wanting to sounds corny, points of failure, genuinely are moments of growth, there’s no point in viewing them as anything else. If we use imposter syndrome to beat ourselves up for our mistakes we won’t get anywhere. We’re not weak for making mistakes or failing, by growing from them, we’ll only get stronger.

Keep people around you who you trust

While imposter syndrome tells you not to trust the people around you, it’s important that you start trusting people when they tell you “you’re doing ok”. If you have people around you who mistreat you, bully you or invalidate you, you’re in the wrong place. Surround yourself with people who you can be honest with and people who you can trust to be honest with you.

You may be entitled to adjustments in your workplace (in the UK, under the Equality Act 2010). Although this can be hard, it’s important that you have equal access to work as your colleagues. It’s important you find someone you can trust to talk to someone about what adjustments could help.

There is hope

Recognising imposter syndrome is the first step, wanting to address it is the next and using the above tools and tips can help you overcome it. Talking to those around you is important but professional help is available for you to reach your full potential and break free of imposter syndrome!