Though it is not recognized as a psychiatric disorder in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, imposter syndrome is an experience that can affect up to 82% of the population. Because this condition is not ‘clinical’ and cannot be officially diagnosed, the legitimacy of imposter syndrome is somewhat invalidated. This results in many people not being aware of what the phenomenon encompasses. It is important to remember that although imposter syndrome is not considered a mental illness, it is still a very prevalent issue that affects many people of many different backgrounds, especially those from underrepresented groups. Normalizing the experiences associated with imposter syndrome can help people who feel ‘fraudulent’ and doubtful about their success come to terms with their emotions and how to deal with them.
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome, or imposter phenomenon, is a term used to describe the thought patterns and ideas of high-achieving individuals who doubt their competency, and have a chronic fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as an imposter. Instead of internalizing their achievements as products of their own work and determination, these individuals believe that they have not rightfully earned what they have accomplished. Individuals with imposter syndrome believe that they have gotten to successful points in their lives out of pure luck and coincidence, not because they deserve to be there or put in hard work to be successful.
Some common characteristics of imposter syndrome include:
- Feeling unqualified or undeserving of opportunities
- Constant comparison to others
- Constantly feeling out of place
- Low self-esteem
- Low confidence
- Unable to receive compliments
- Constantly feeling on the brink of failure
- Dismissive of personal achievements
- Worry that you will be “found out” for being not good enough
- Attributing success to external factors
- Underestimation of personal knowledge and skill
Consider a student who gets into Harvard, one of the world’s hardest universities to get into. She studies hard throughout highschool, is a well-rounded student, and submitted a stellar college application. However, when she gets to campus, the student does not feel excited or proud of herself for being there. Instead, the student constantly questions herself and her position at the school. What am I doing here? Do I even deserve to be in this position right now? Everyone is so much smarter than me, the admissions office definitely let me in by mistake. Sure I got A’s in highschool, but I bet it was so much harder to get A’s at everyone else’s highschool compared to mine. Maybe my application was on top of the person’s they were supposed to let in. Oh, it’s only a matter of time before my classmates realize I don’t know anything…
If you have ever experienced these types of thoughts before, you are not alone. A 2019 study from BYU found that 20% of college students (1 out of 5!) face imposter syndrome at some point in their college career. Though many students have the proof to show that they deserve their achievements, they may still believe that they are not as smart as the world gives them credit for and they cannot possibly be the reason for their own success.
What causes imposter syndrome?
At some point or another, almost everyone will experience imposter syndrome to a degree. A number of different circumstances can have a big impact on how imposter syndrome affects people. Some common situations that can trigger imposter syndrome include:
- Transitioning into a new school or job. Like mentioned above, transitioning from highschool to college, college to graduate school, or from one job to another can be a reason for imposter syndrome to manifest. During these periods of transition, individuals are learning to cope with new environments that they might not feel properly equipped for. Instead of feeling assured that the successful experiences of their last environment will carry them through to the next, these individuals believe that their skills are not good enough and that they are not worthy of this opportunity. They convince themselves that good timing or good luck has gotten them through life, and they are waiting for that ‘luck’ to finally wear out.
- Competitive workplace environments. Many individuals who work in fast-paced, stressful workplace environments are also susceptible to imposter syndrome. About 3 in 5 (58%) employees will experience imposter in today’s workplace. Affected employees feel like they have to be unrelenting and aggressive in accomplishing their professional goals, or else they will be a ‘failure’. This ultimately leads to increased stress, increased procrastination, a loss of productivity, and burnout. Employees may also be unable to give themselves credit or accept recognition when it is warranted, leading to even more stress and low self-esteem. Research also shows that imposter syndrome within the workplace affects women more disproportionately than men, and those who are typically around 20-30 years old.
- Being a perfectionist. Those who struggle with perfectionism are often susceptible to experiencing imposter syndrome. Researchers have identified two types of perfectionists — adaptive and maladaptive. Adaptive perfectionists strive to set high personal standards and goals that are within their reach. Maladaptive perfectionists, on the other hand, set demanding, unrealistic expectations for themselves that they can almost never achieve. This type of perfectionism can lead individuals to be self-critical, insecure, and overly concerned with others’ critiques and opinions. It does not come as much surprise that individuals who experience maladaptive perfectionism can experience imposter syndrome when they inevitably fail to reach their unattainable goals. Major feelings of self-doubt, failure, and defeat make perfectionists feel like they are not good enough for their jobs, their classes, and their success. They can become so concerned with meeting a goal far from reach that the accomplishments that they are actually able to achieve almost feel too insignificant and unimportant to acknowledge or celebrate.
- Differing from the majority of peers. When individuals differ from the majority of their peers, either in terms of race, socioeconomic background, age, gender, religion, etc., they are more likely to experience symptoms of imposter syndrome. They may feel as though their differences are vices rather than something that makes them special and unique, and this ultimately hurts their self-esteem and confidence. For example, if a female student walks into a lecture hall and only sees male classmates in the seats, she may feel like she is not supposed to be in that room. Something about being different might make her question her position and wonder if she made a mistake by being there. Research also shows that members of underrepresented groups are more likely to experience imposter syndrome. Whether it be due to race or socioeconomic differences, individuals within these groups may feel like they have had to work twice as hard to get to the same place as everyone else. The fear of being out of place or being ‘caught out’ for being different is a main symptom of imposter syndrome, and it can be debilitating to their future success and evolution.
Tips to overcome Imposter Syndrome
When treating imposter syndrome, it is important to remember that it does not just make people feel insecure or bad about themselves. It is a mindset that people have when they feel like they do not belong or deserve the good things they have even when objective successes show otherwise. Feeling bad and feeling like you do not belong are distinctive things and should be approached differently as well.
- View your accomplishments objectively. You are where you are in life because of the work that you put into it. The tests you ace, the awards you win, the programs you get into, the promotions you earn — they did not just happen randomly. If you take stock of all the background work you did to earn your accomplishments, you will begin to see the bigger picture of why you are in your position.
- Share failures with others. A lot of the time, we only know about the highlights in other people’s lives. It may feel like you are not good enough to be in the company of people who are so much more qualified and put together than you, but you don’t know about the jobs interviews they blew, or the classes they failed, or maybe even the imposter syndrome they feel being in your presence! Being open with our failures helps us be more realistic about our circumstances and relate more to our peers.
- Give yourself credit (and let others give it to you, too). With imposter syndrome, it can be hard to accept praise and be proud of yourself when you accomplish something. Instead of shutting down a compliment or brushing off the importance of a success, slow down and be mindful about what you have just done. Respond to praise thoughtfully and remember the moments that you are given recognition. If others can see your potential and ability, you can too.