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You’re Not a Fraud. Here’s How to Recognize and Overcome Imposter Syndrome

By Mia Belle Frothingham, published Nov 02, 2021

by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Have you ever told yourself:

"I don't belong here."

"I am fooling everyone."

"I'm a total fraud, and everyone's going to find out."

"What am I doing?"

You're not alone if you have ever felt like an imposter at what you do or at work. It is estimated that 70 percent of people will experience this at least once in their lifetime. These thoughts are related to the imposter syndrome.

What is imposter syndrome and how you can combat it?

What Is Imposter Syndrome?
  • Imposter syndrome, also called perceived fraudulence, refers to an internal experience of self-doubt and believing you are not as competent as others perceive you to be.
  • Despite the objective success in education, experiences, or accomplishments, it is characterized by chronic feelings of fraudulence, incompetence, and inadequacy.
  • It can be hard to internalize success and genuinely believe that one is capable. Impostor syndrome can affect anyone, from a first-year college student to the most successful CEO, regardless of job or social status.
  • Still, typically high-achieving individuals are more often experiencing this. Simply put, the imposter syndrome is feeling like a phony. One could feel as though at any moment one is going to be found out as a fraud - that one doesn't belong where they are, and they only got there through dumb luck.
  • Many people experience symptoms for a short time, such as entering a new role; but, for others, the experience can be lifelong.

What it feels like

Imposter feelings convey a match between your self-perception and how others perceive you. Even as others praise your talents, you owe your successes to "timing" or "good luck." You don't believe you earned them based on your merits, and you worry others will eventually realize the same thing.

A person with impostor syndrome has:

  • a sense of being a fraud
  • difficulty internalizing their success
  • fear of being discovered

And while, for some, the impostor syndrome can drive feelings of motivation to achieve, it typically comes at a cost in the manner of ongoing anxiety. One might over-prepare or work much harder to "make sure" that nobody discovers one is a fraud.

Hence, you pressure yourself to work harder to:

  • become deserving of roles you believe you don't deserve
  • ease feelings of remorse over "tricking" people
  • keep others from recognizing your failures
  • make up for what you deem your lack of intelligence

The work you put in can keep you in this cycle forever. Your additional accomplishments don't comfort you. In fact, you consider them nothing more than the product of your efforts to preserve the illusion of your success.

The recognition you earn is labeled as pity or sympathy, and even though you link your accomplishments to luck, you take full responsibility for any mistakes you make. Minor errors reinforce your lack of ability.

Unfortunately, this fuels a cycle of guilt, anxiety, and depression over time. You live in constant fear of discovery, so you strive for perfection in everything you do - you might feel worthless when you can't achieve your goals, and not to mention overwhelmed and burnt out from your continued efforts.


Five Types of Imposters

According to leading imposter syndrome researcher Dr. Valerie Young, there are five main types of identified "imposters."

These competence types reflect one's inner beliefs about what competency means to them. Let's take a closer look at them.

The Natural Genius

This imposter spent their life picking up new skills with little to no effort, and they believe they should understand new material and methods in record time. They set themselves lofty goals and feel crushed when they don't succeed on their first try.

They have this belief that competent people can handle anything with little difficulty, which can lead them to feel like a fraud when they begin to struggle.

If something doesn't come easily to them or fails on their first try, they might feel ashamed and embarrassed.

The Perfectionist

This type of imposter primarily focuses on how they do things, to the point where they demand perfection - coming from themselves - in every aspect of their lives.

However, since perfection isn't a realistic goal, they can't meet these standards. So, instead of acknowledging the hard work they put in after achieving something, they might criticize themselves for tiny mistakes and feel ashamed of their supposed failure.

This imposter might even try avoiding new things if they believe they can't accomplish it perfectly the first time.

The Soloist (or Rugged Individualist)

These imposters tend to be very individualistic and prefer to work alone. They believe they should be able to handle everything individually. If they cannot achieve success independently, they will consider themselves unworthy. 

Self-worth often stems from their productivity, so they tend to reject offers of help. The imposter sees asking for help as a sign of weakness.

Asking someone for help, or accepting someone's support when offered, means they fail at their own high standards. And it also means they are admitting their inadequacies, presenting themselves as a failure.

The Superhero

These imposters link competence to their ability to succeed in every role they hold: employee, parent, student, or friend. In their opinion, failing to navigate all of the demands of these roles successfully proves their inadequacy.

To succeed, they feel they must push themselves to the limit, expending lots of energy and as much as possible for every role. But even still, with this maximum effort, their imposter feelings may not be resolved.

They might think that they should be able to do more and that it should be easier.

The Expert

This imposter has to learn everything there is to know about the focused topic before considering their work a success. They might spend too much time pursuing their quest for more knowledge that they end up having to devote more time to their primary task.

Even though they are often highly skilled, they underrate their expertise.

Since they believe they should have all the answers, they might regard themselves as a fraud when they can't answer a question or encounter some knowledge they previously missed. They are never satisfied with their level of understanding.


How it Affects Your Life

Regardless of the different types of imposters, all of the symptoms associated with imposter syndrome can affect these aspects of a person's life.

Work Performance

One may fear that their coworkers and supervisors expect more from them than they can manage. This person may feel unable to deliver.

This person might hold themselves back and avoid seeking higher achievements due to the fear of not succeeding and the fear of doing things the wrong way. All of this can affect work performance.

Job Dissatisfaction/Burnout

Sometimes, one may not feel sufficiently challenged in their profession, but a fear of failure or a coworker finding out they are fake stops them from pursuing a promotion or additional responsibility.

One works to overcome feelings of inadequacy, and there is a high-risk possibility of burnout. Research suggests that people with impostor syndrome tend to remain in their roles because they do not believe they can achieve higher.

The person may underestimate their skills or fail to acknowledge how other positions might emphasize their abilities.

Avoid Seeking Promotion

Related to the aspect above, undervaluing skills can lead those with impostor syndrome to negate their worth.

One may avoid aspiring for a promotion or a raise because they do not believe they deserve it.

Taking on Responsibilities

Imposters may focus heavily on smaller and more manageable tasks instead of taking on more duties to prove their abilities.

Therefore, they may avoid taking on extra tasks for fear that they will compromise the quality of their other duties.

Self-Doubt

Success creates a cycle of self-doubt for people with imposter syndrome. Imposters, even when achieving a significant milestone, may be unable to recognize their accomplishments.

Rather than celebrate their achievements, this person may worry that others will discover the truth of their abilities.

Attributing Success to External Factors

Imposters deny their competency; they feel their successes are due to external factors or luck. But when things go wrong due to outside reasons, the person may actually blame themselves.

Focus on Tasks/Goal-Setting

The fear of failure and the drive to be the best can sometimes lead to overachievement. The imposter may set highly challenging goals and experience heavy disappointment when they cannot achieve them.

Mental Health Impact

The fear of not being adequate enough can lead to mental health complications in some cases. One may experience:

  • frustration
  • depression
  • fear of being a fraud
  • lack of self-confidence
  • anxiety
  • shame

How to deal with it

Most experts do not consider imposter syndrome a mental illness, and unfortunately, there is no easy treatment regimen for it. Instead, moving past such consistent and overbearing feelings of inadequacy and fraud requires persistent mindfulness and behavioral/cognitive strategies.

People with imposter syndrome should focus on self-reflection and mindfulness of their thinking. Several different tactics can be involved.

Reframe one's thoughts. It helps to be mindful of one's beliefs and emotions. One can use these classifications to put your ideas in perspective.

For example, one receives a raise, feeling distressed or guilty because they don't believe they deserved it. It is encouraged to go back and analyze why one has this belief and truly examine if it is valid.

Question one's self. Every time one has a negative thought about their capabilities or wonder if they're suitable for a job, pause and ask: is the thought actually accurate?

Is this emotional experience authentic, or am I responding based on outside variables? Does this thinking help or restrain me?

Embrace success. It can be irresistible to invalidate even the most minor win if one has imposter syndrome. Resist this urge by listing every triumph and permitting them to resonate emotionally.

Over time, this technique will give you a realistic picture of your achievements and help prove your self-worth.

Talk it out. Whether it's a friend, mentor, or therapist, it is wise to talk to someone else about these feelings. Acquiring an outside perspective can shake irrational beliefs and ground oneself back in reality.

Practice self-compassion. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has become a widespread approach to overcoming imposter syndrome.

It helps people reflect on their feelings and foster more compassionate, productive ways of connecting to themselves.

Takeaway

Multiple people experience symptoms of impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. It is crucial to remember that perceptions do not always mirror reality.

Emphasize that success does not demand perfection. Real perfection is virtually impossible, so failing to achieve it does not define you as a fraud.

Ways of overcoming imposter syndrome include talking about fears and questioning negative thoughts. Maintaining a record of achievements and celebrating successes can be truly valuable.

Giving yourself kindness and understanding instead of judgment and self-doubt can help you maintain a practical perspective and encourage you to pursue wholesome self-growth.

Do you or a loved one need mental health help?

USA

Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

1-800-273-8255

UK

Contact the Samaritans for support and assistance from a trained counselor: https://www.samaritans.org/; email [email protected].

Availiale 24 hours day, 365 days a year (this number is FREE to call):

116-123

Rethink Mental Illness: rethink.org

0300 5000 927

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About the Author

Mia Belle Frothingham is a Harvard undergraduate in her senior year majoring in Biology & Psychology. She is a passionate author, science communicator, and aspiring astrobiologist and astronaut with a great interest in clinical, cognitive, and behavioral psychology. Mia is the author is Our AstroLegacy (available on Amazon & Kindle) – the purpose of her book is for self-awareness in discovering one's place in the universe. She poses existential interrogations like who are you? What is human? What is real? What do we actually know? And gives answers through Astrobiology, Psychology, and Evolution.

How to reference this article:

Frothingham, M.B. (2021, Dec 31). You’re Not a Fraud. Here’s How to Recognize and Overcome Imposter Syndrome. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/imposter-syndrome.html

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