Imposter syndrome

What is Imposter syndrome?

Contrary to the label, Imposter syndrome (IS) is not a psychiatric diagnosis. Rather it is a loose term used to describe an ego problem, in which individuals hold fast to the self-judgment that they are frauds in life. In most cases this sense of failure is felt in the workplace, although it can also be experienced at university, in creative work, in relationships, and in the community at large.

Imposter syndrome is an over-used term which is often confused with self-doubt. Thus a celebrity will admit to having ‘imposter syndrome’ in her first movie role, when she really means nervousness over her first big career challenge.

One study (based on American college students) claims that over 70% of people have suffered imposter syndrome at least once. This is likely an exaggeration in which the syndrome has been confused with self-doubt. True IS is something that develops over time, and is much more serious.

Self-doubt, is grounded in facts and context. For example, someone in a new and challenging job might doubt they can master it. However, as they grow in to the work and initial successes come their way, they grow more comfortable and doubts vanish. With Imposter syndrome those doubts never vanish.

Many actors – Tom Hanks for example, claim they have suffered from imposter syndrome. Well aware that they are only as good as their last film, and the fickle support of Hollywood and the media-watching public, actors can experience intense self-doubt, which is then confused with IS.

The same applies to professionals working in fields in which it is impossible to know everything. It is claimed that medical doctors in the US have a high prevalence of imposter syndrome. What this really means is that many intelligent doctors question their credentials when treating patients outside their area of specialism. The problem is made worse by the fact that some patients remain seriously ill or die, despite the best doctors can do.

A similar problem relates to lawyers, academics, scientists – and psychotherapists. All of these working in complex fields where complete knowledge is impossible. At the end of his life Albert Einstein made this observation:

“The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”

Imposter syndrome? Or a realistic assessment? Einstein recognised his genuine scientific discoveries, while also questioning the ‘supermind’ myth that had grown up around him.

By contrast, people with Imposter syndrome no amount of genuine success removes the basic perception that they are inadequate. Indeed, IS sufferers will wilfully dismiss their real achievements as due to ‘luck’ or circumstance.

Deep down people with IS believe themselves to be inadequate as people. Typically, they carry this self-judgment around with them wherever they go: at college, at university, to the first job, then to the first promotion and beyond. All the while thinking they are frauds who are about to be exposed.


  1. Hattie is in love with Jerome. Despite the fact Jerome loves her in return, she does not understand why he is with her. She ‘knows’ she is unattractive and boring, and that he could do far better elsewhere. She has the constant feeling that she is an imposter, pretending to be the ideal partner. This problem was also present in Hattie’s previous relationships, most of which ended due to her constant insecurity. Secretly, she thinks Jerome must be a fool, as he can’t see through her make-up and her brave talk. She dreads the day when he will wake up to the truth and leave her. Whenever she is with him, she plagues him with questions about where he has been and who he has met, for she is sure he will soon be tempted away.
  2. Martin is an artist with several exhibitions behind him, good reviews, and a regular stream of commissions. Despite this he ‘knows’ he has no talent, and his work is mediocre. He suffers from gnawing anxiety over every picture he produces, spending weeks trying to make it something more than sub-standard, but without success. He concludes that the public have been fooled by undeserved reviews and, eventually the commissions will dry up. Meanwhile, he feels guilty over charging fees for his work.
  3. Laura is starting a new job as senior manager in a marketing consultancy. She doesn’t understand why she got the job, as the other interview candidates were far more accomplished than her. Despite her success in her last job, and numerous good reviews from previous employers and satisfied clients, she ‘knows’ deep down that it was all due to luck and help from other people – and sooner or later her luck will run out. She has sleepless nights about the job ahead of her, for there is much to learn. She worries that her team will quickly realise that she is not up to the job once she has to ask for help on a project. She resolves to keep the dreadful secret to herself, and has panic attacks over what lies ahead.
  4. Daniel is half-way through a Masters degree in Biology and feels close to giving up. He achieved a first in his degree and was immediately offered a post-graduate place at another prestigious university. So far all his assignments have attracted top marks, and his tutor has suggested he consider going on to a PhD program. Yet Daniel is convinced that his success is only due to the fact that he is good at writing essays. He believes the other post-grads know far more about the subject than he. To compensate he works far into the night to try and keep his place on the course. His tutor looks mystified when Daniel tells him he is thinking of giving up his studies.

Signs of Imposter syndrome

  • Pessimism over personal abilities
  • Feeling unworthy of praise
  • Worry over pending failure
  • Anxiety over being found out
  • Feeling that you are always putting on an act
  • Attributing success to luck or circumstances, rather than personal ability
  • Dismissing real achievements
  • Overworking to compensate for ‘low ability’
  • Worry over the expectations of others
  • ‘Mind reading’ that other people have ‘seen through’ you
  • Feeling isolated and unwanted
  • Avoiding challenges as too risky
  • Temptation to give up rather than carry on with torture
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Panic attacks related to fear of being ‘found out’
  • Depression over personal failure
  • Burnout syndrome

Causes of Imposter syndrome

The immediate psychological cause of IS is a cognitive distortion: the self-judgment that no matter what has been achieved the person is still a fraud. As such it is a belief that is impervious to evidence. For that reason it can be hard to treat.

The deeper cause relates to insecurity. which may come from multiple sources. For example: the family of origin and racial/class backgrounds. Added to this are personal factors, such as anxiety, over-thinking and perfectionism; traits which may be genetic in origin. Finally, there is what one might call the universal problem of existential dread.

Family of origin

Research shows that many people with the disorder come from parental neglect, or from families in which there was high conflict and low support for the child. This creates a conditioned ego in which the person feels isolated, unwanted and unvalued.

By contrast, other research indicates that children with over-protective parents may be vulnerable to imposter syndrome, leading to a different type of ego conditioning. As they move into competitive college/career environments parental expectations may be unrealistically high, yet the child is ill-prepared for life in the modern jungle.

Race/class discrimination

Members of ethnic minority groups are also more likely to suffer. The reasons for this are complex. Individuals may be the only ones in the family to go on to higher education and a high-status career, thus bearing higher expectations on achievement alone. At the same time they may encounter discriminatory reactions that lead to exclusion. When these racist judgments are internalised in the ego they may lead to long-standing doubts over self-worth.

Anxiety disorders 

Research indicates that a high percentage of IS sufferers also have an anxiety disorder. More specifically, the trait of perfectionism is linked to it. However, it is not clear whether perfectionism is a cause, or an effect of Imposter Syndrome. It is possible that it is both: IS leads to worry about performance, leading to over-work and perfectionism. At the same time the perfectionistic trait fuels the idea that one is inadequate.

The deep basis for Imposter syndrome

The problem rests on an existential insight which is partly true: that we all of us repeatedly fail, and much of our success is based either on chance, or through the help and influence of others. Moreover, that we have far less influence over our fate than we think. This truth is obscured by the ego and its delusions of control and will-power. However, people with IS take this insight to the extreme and assume they are completely helpless.

Imposter syndrome seems ‘real’ to those who suffer from it, because it is partially true that we are all imposters. In the accents and manners we adopt, the clothes we wear, the thoughts we take over from others, the in-groups we join, and the way we imagine that success is solely down to individual effort. Now and then setbacks come along that remind us that we are not as smart as we think. If we are fortunate enough to have some mental health, we learn the lesson and start over. All the while accepting that success and failure are relative terms.

People with Imposter syndrome react to this existential insight with anxiety. To them it is unbearable that they are not in control of their destiny. The main reason for that is their egos are based on the all-or-nothing pursuit of success and recognition.

On this view success and failure are absolutes rather than relative terms (for example, one can fail an exam yet still graduate with honours). Closely tied to this is the idea that the self is defined by either: failure means self-annihilation, while success is for others.

Combatting Imposter syndrome

The first step, in therapy or outside it, is to trace the origin of this self-judgment. Childhood experiences? Unrealistic expectations gathered from parents and teachers? Peer group pressure? Discrimination and exclusion? Insight enables the client to contextualise the belief in earlier conditioning, and thereby to separate away from it. This also fosters self-compassion.

The next step, which follows closely from the first, is to normalise the problem. Showing the client that she is not alone in her beliefs, and that her anxiety arises naturally from the effects of earlier conditioning. While also demonstrating that this conditioning can be reversed, and healthier judgments are possible.

The third step is to move from the global to the specific. Instead of listening to thoughts about imposture to look instead at the facts in the here and now. To borrow from the examples given above: Hattie can focus on sharing her love for Jerome; Martin on the painting in front of him; Laura can address the job she can do to today; Daniel his next piece of course-work.

The fourth step, taken side-by-side with the third, is to focus on values rather than judgments. What is really important to Hattie is love; to Martin it is the act of creation; to Laura it is work; to Daniel it is knowledge. Thoughts connected to doing what one loves gradually eclipse thoughts about whether one is a success or a failure in arbitrary terms.

While all these steps are in progress the client learns the art of thought defusion. Accepting that thoughts (including thoughts that come from the ego) come and go, and it is not necessary to fuse with them. Learning instead to fuse with thoughts (and the actions that flow from them) that connect to deeper values. This step may (or may not) be taken with a critical examination of thoughts about imposture. For example, the client can ask: Is it really true that my exam grades are solely due to luck? Could it be that I played some part in that, too?

Finally it can help the client to build a wider context. In most cases Imposture syndrome (so-called) arises in specific contexts: work and study being the most common. Outside of these narrow domains clients engage with families, friendships, communities, sport, creative pursuits and many other things besides. The key here is to get the client thinking about areas of life where success and failure are relatively unimportant. Also to direct their attention to activities that ground them in the moment. In that way connecting them to the body and its reality, rather than to the abstract judgments of the mind.

Photo by Chris Yang on Unsplash

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