Imposter Syndrome: Understanding and Overcoming It

Girl experiencing imposter syndrome

The term ‘imposter syndrome’ is becoming increasingly prevalent in recent days, but not everyone has a complete understanding of how and why it happens. Imposter syndrome is an internal psychological experience whereby high-achieving individuals go through self-doubt, often feeling like they are undeserving of their intellect, skills, or successes. More often than not, those who experience imposter syndrome think of themselves as a fraud despite having external evidence of their competence.

Understanding Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome, or imposter phenomenon as used interchangeably, was first introduced in an article from 1978 titled, “The Imposter Phenomenon In High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutics Intervention” by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. Within the research, imposter syndrome was defined as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness”.

Though their observation focused on women in higher education and professional industries, they had found that imposter syndrome can affect anyone despite their social status, work background, or skill level. With that said, the general idea is that it often affects high achievers who find it hard to accept their accomplishments.

Since then, the original article has been referenced and expanded thoroughly in scientific literature as well as formal and informal media. Despite the lack of medical definition for imposter syndrome till this day, extended research has established that the phenomenon is particularly common in academics, especially within the healthcare field.

Imposter Syndrome, girl going through it

Some of the common symptoms of imposter syndrome may include:

  • Self-doubt
  • Inability to realistically assess one’s own competence and skills
  • Attributing one’s own success to external factors
  • Berating one’s own performance
  • Having fear of not being able to live up to expectations
  • Overachieving
  • Sabotaging one’s own success
  • Setting unrealistic and overly challenging goals, and feeling disappointed when falling short


According to Dr. Valerie Young, an expert on imposter syndrome, the phenomenon can be broken down into 5 types:

  1. The Perfectionist – This person believes that unless he or she is absolutely perfect, they could have done better. Their perfectionistic traits tend to make them believe that they’re not as good as they think they are.
  2. The Expert – This person is convinced that they are an imposter as long as they do not know everything and haven’t mastered a certain subject. They won’t feel as if they are an ‘expert’ as long as there are still things for them to learn.
  3. The Natural Genius – This type of imposter just doesn’t believe that they are naturally intelligent or competent. They tend to feel like a failure if they don’t get something right the first time, or when it takes them longer to master something.
  4. The Soloist – This person will feel like a failure if they had to ask for help to make progress or reach a certain level of status. They are convinced that they aren’t good enough because they couldn’t do it on their own.
  5. The Superperson – This type of imposter believes that they must be the hardest worker or reach the highest levels of success possible. If they don’t, they think of themselves as a fraud.

Why Imposter Syndrome Happens

Imposter syndrome is a cognitive distortion that may be a result of a combination of factors. An unhealthy family environment, where the parents may have been overly critical, is one of them. Social pressures are yet another factor. This happens when validation within a social group is linked directly to achievements.

Another factor is the yearning for a sense of belonging, which involves the fear of being rejected or cast out from a group, whether that involves race, social status, or a community. Additionally, it could also be that an individual internalises feelings of pressure, doubt, and failure. During times of stress, these feelings may further be exacerbated.

Imposter Syndrome: Understanding and Overcoming It

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Recognise the signs

A surefire way to overcome an issue is to recognise the signs by learning the facts beforehand. Look up resources such as articles, research, podcasts, and videos to gain a deeper understanding of your experience.

In the meantime, assess your internal dialogue and make sure you aren’t talking down to yourself. Negative self-talk can have detrimental effects and really bring you down. How would you support a friend who’s struggling? That’s the kind of support you should offer yourself.

Talk about your feelings

More often than not, it might be difficult to process these feelings on your own. What you can do instead is talk about your feelings with others so that you’d feel less lonely and also give room for others to share their thoughts.

Reach out to people you trust, and make sure you’re forging healthy relationships with people who feel safe. For instance, sharing your feelings with those of a similar background may help you feel like you’re not the only one going through this experience.

Celebrate your successes

People who experience imposter syndrome tend to disregard or minimise their successes, which only makes things worse. When someone compliments you or congratulates you, be aware of how you respond and speak about yourself.

Don’t forget to applaud yourself for your achievements and reflect on how hard you’ve worked to make things happen. If you can, save some positive messages and comments others have made about you, and reserve them for when you’re feeling low.

Get rid of perfectionism

Not everything is about the outcome, and you don’t have to aim for perfection. Every so often, the journey and progress matters more than the destination. You would have still come a long way even if you don’t achieve the highest levels of success.

Adjust your standards accordingly and avoid seeing your failures as the ultimate defeat. If anything, you can reframe your failures as chances you can learn and grow in order to do better next time. There is always a lesson to be learned.

Cultivate self-compassion

When you’re experiencing imposter syndrome, it can be beneficial to practise mindfulness. This can help you let go of perfectionism and transform how you see and talk to yourself. At the end of the day, you have to be okay with being you as you are, regardless of what you achieve.

It takes conscious daily effort to truly cultivate self-compassion, and it doesn’t just matter what you say but also how you say things to yourself. When you find yourself judging yourself, stop yourself at your tracks and treat yourself as a friend you’d be kind to.

Share your failures

It may be difficult to do at first, but sharing your failures within a group can help you realise that other people also have similar struggles. Seeing someone’s best and comparing that to your worst can worsen your experience with imposter syndrome.

You have to learn to comprehend the fact that rejection and failures happen to everyone, even the top entrepreneurs in the world. If you’re able to discuss the learning moments of your failures, this will also help you feel relief.

Accept it

The more you learn to deal with your experience with imposter syndrome, the less it will get in the way of your well-being. With that said, this will be an ongoing process and your feelings with imposter syndrome won’t go away forever.

At least, when you know you’re making progress in dealing with it, you won’t have such a hard time the next time this happens at a different stage of life, and you’d already know what you can do to feel better about it all.

Imposter Syndrome: Understanding and Overcoming It
Photo: Getty Images, Facebook

Real Stories: Imposter Syndrome

Many people have experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their lives, and it’s more common than you may think. To attest, below are several stories from some famous people who have gone through imposter syndrome.

For instance, Asian-American Crazy Rich Asians actress Awkwafina has always been open about feeling imposter syndrome, mentioning, “I’ll always have imposter syndrome. I’ll always hate myself a little bit, maybe a little bit more every day”. “But I think a good amount of it is good to keep you on the ground, because you don’t want to just be like, ‘I’m winning!’”

Former first lady of the USA, Michelle Obama, once mentioned when discussing her memoir Becoming, “”I still have a little [bit of] impostor syndrome, it never goes away, that you’re actually listening to me. It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously. What do I know?”. She added, “I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is.”

When Saturday Night Live! alumna Tina Fey was previously asked about her success, she simply said, “Ah, the impostor syndrome!? The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania, and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh god, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’”. “So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.”

A Word From A Space Between

A lot of imposter syndrome has got to do with fear, but you don’t necessarily have to be held back by it once you apply the right tools and strategies to manage these feelings. Turn those feelings into gratitude – after all, there is always something to be grateful for.

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