What Is Imposter Syndrome?: Causes, Types and How to Overcome It

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Do you often question your accomplishments and capabilities? Do you feel anxious and are persistently experiencing fear of being seen or exposed as a "fraud"? Are you worried that you’re not good enough for the project you’re working on?

You might be experiencing imposter syndrome.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome refers to an internal emotional turmoil wherein a person feels like a "fraud" in some aspects of his or her life despite the achievements and successes that he or she has already experienced in that field. 

It involves emotions or feelings of incompetence, underachievement and self-doubt. To try and counter these emotions, people suffering from imposter syndrome would be spending longer hours at work and keeping themselves up to higher and unrealistic standards. If this persists for a long time, it will eventually have a long-term negative impact on work performance and emotional wellbeing. 

A study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, reviewing a total of 62 studies, found that around 9-82% of participants confirmed that they have these feelings and thoughts commonly associated with imposter syndrome.

Signs That You Might Be Having an Imposter Syndrome

How do we know if we are having imposter syndrome? Here are some of the common signs to watch out for.

  • You are unable to realistically assess your strengths, skills and competence.
  • You always attribute your achievements to external factors rather than your own self.
  • You are undermining your performance.
  • You are always anxious and stressed out that you won’t meet your and other people’s expectations of you.
  • You are overachieving. 
  • You sabotage your own success
  • You doubt yourself 
  • You set very challenging targets and you feel disappointed when you don't meet them. 

Undeniable success does not counteract Imposter Syndrome

As mentioned, Imposter syndrome does not discriminate against anyone. Whether you are a staff at a small startup, an executive at a huge financial company or a well respected celebrity, you might experience it. Here are some known personalities who went out with their struggle of overcoming imposter syndrome. 

Tom Hanks, the Academy Award winning actor, said in an interview with NPR: “No matter what we've done, there comes a point where you think, 'How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?' 

Sheryl Sandberg, former Facebook COO, stated in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead: “And every time I didn't embarrass myself—or even excelled—I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up,” 

Lady Gaga, the multi-award winning pop icon and actress, admitted in her HBO special “I still sometimes feel like a loser kid in high school and I just have to pick myself up and tell myself that I'm a superstar every morning so that I can get through this day and be for my fans what they need for me to be.” 

Howard Schultz, Starbucks former Chairman and CEO declared “ Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.”  

Sophia Amoruso, a New York bestselling author and Girlboss Media founder mentioned on a  Facebook post “Is anyone ever 100% qualified for anything...HELL NO. I’m certainly not…How to go from total impostor to 99% confident (or, let’s be realistic, even 50%)? Homework. I hate it… Preparation breeds confidence — so bust out your textbooks and give yourself some homework.”

The five types of imposter syndrome 

Through several mental fitness research, experts in this field were able to categorize imposter syndrome in different types, namely The Perfectionist, The Natural Genius, The Superwoman/man, The Expert and The Soloist. 

The Perfectionists set unrealistic and attainable goals and they often feel little of themselves if they fail to measure up. Those in this category are often said to always have the control and they end up doing everything instead of trusting other people and delegating just for the fear that the others won’t do it right.

The Natural Geniuses have similarity with the perfectionists as they set a super high internal bar for themselves. However, the natural geniuses don’t self doubt based on others’ expectations. They are hard on themselves if they don’t get things right the first try or first time around.

The Superwomen/men think that they are fraud as compared to the people that they are with. To compensate for this, they always push harder and harder. They think that overloading themselves with work will measure up and cover up their insecurities. In the end, they will experience mental health issues such as burned out, depression, anxiety and stress and their personal relationships will also suffer. 

The Experts base their competence on how much they know about the subject. These are the people who think little of themselves when they have not checked everything in the skills requirements box when applying for job postings. They fear that they will be seen and exposed as unknowledgeable and inexperienced if they are not competent in everything. 

The Soloists  feel like they will reveal themselves as fraud to others if they ask for help. Thus, they tend to work by themselves all the time. They refuse help from other people to prove their worth. 

Imposter Syndrome Causes

There are several factors that can cause or trigger the development of imposter syndrome. Among these are family upbringing, new work opportunities, personality and social anxiety. 

Family relationships are crucial in a person’s development. An overprotective or controlling parenting style can lead to children with imposter syndrome in the future. Growing up in family with a highly valued achievement culture or having unsupportive parents can also result in self-doubting children. 

Imposter syndrome can also be triggered by new opportunities at work. In this situation, there is lots of pressure of higher expectations to be able to land the new job opportunity. Falling short of meeting these expectations can trigger self-doubt as well as inadequacy in skills and competence in the workplace.

How to Cope With Imposter Syndrome

From gaining knowledge and becoming more self-aware, to developing self-compassion and reframing your circumstances, there are several steps you can take on your own or accessing the support you need to overcome this limiting condition.

  • Know the signs and accept that you are experiencing the syndrome. Pay attention to how you look at yourself and how you react whenever you are in a challenging situation at work or at home.
  • Know that you are not alone. Imposter syndrome is NOT a mental illness and there are other successful people also experiencing it.
  • Bear in mind that no one is PERFECT. Give room for errors and learn from your mistakes. It is not that fall that matters, it is how you stand up after the fall. 
  • Be kind to yourself. Eliminate all the negative self-talks.
  • Ensure that your targets are measurable and realistic. 
  • Talk to a mentor or a life coach. There is nothing wrong with asking for help. Sharing your thoughts and experiences with someone else, not only offers you a different, more balanced perspective on reality, but can equip you with valuable tools and techniques to deal with your impostor syndrome. 

If you feel like you have lost your purpose, direction or have trouble navigating through a challenging time of your life, working with a life coach can provide you the clarity and confidence to get to where you need to go. 

At Balance Health, our experienced life and executive coaches including Judy Xu can guide you in one to one session, or part of transformative programs such as the Spark Your Life program. Contact us and we will gladly assist you in your personal transformation journey.








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