What is Imposter Syndrome?

What is Imposter Syndrome?

What is Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a cognitive distortion that can be described as the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own effort or skill. This means that despite objective evidence and past experiences proving that an individual is more than capable, they continue to feel as though they are not.

The term  “imposter syndrome” was originally used to describe an experience unique to high-achieving women, but has since been discovered to apply to about 70% of the population. Imposter syndrome, ironically, is commonly experienced by high-functioning and high-achieving individuals. Imposter syndrome is an unhealthy way of thinking, not a diagnosable disorder. However, imposter syndrome is associated or co-morbid with mental health issues like depression and anxiety because of the effects of negative thought patterns. 

Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome 

Individuals dealing with imposter syndrome feel like frauds even with evidence proving their capabilities. They often disregard the evidence and look for external factors to attribute their successes to. They may blame it on luck, timing, blending in well, or even decide that the accomplishment must not have been that hard to achieve if they were able to pull it off. The general symptomology of imposter syndrome can look like:

  • Fear of eventually being discovered as a fraud or incapable 

  • Feeling shame to a high degree when a mistake is made

  • Sensitivity to corrections or constructive criticism

  • Inability to accept objective evidence as confirmation of capability or expertise

  • Downplaying expertise or skill

  • Experiencing low self-confidence, anxiety, or depression as a result of negative thought patterns or beliefs (cognitive distortions)*

Types of Imposter Syndrome

Dr. Valerie Young has established 5 imposter types that you can find below. Dr. Young’s TED Talk may be a good watch for those looking to learn more about and work on imposter syndrome.

The 5 types of imposter syndrome

  1. The perfectionist: This type believes that the process and outcome must be perfect. If it is anything short of perfect they believe that they must be an imposter or fraud because of their perfectionistic beliefs

  2. The Expert: The expert type feels that they must know everything there is to know about a given subject or else they would be a fraud. They feel that since there is more they could learn they couldn't be an expert. It is important to keep in mind that this is not realistic as there will always be more you could learn.

  3. The Natural Genius: That natural Genius type feels that they must be a fraud because a certain skill doesn't come naturally to them. They think negatively about themselves because it took practice or hard work to get somewhere.

  4. The Soloist: The Soloist feels like an imposter if they have to ask for help along the way. They believe in order to be competent they must handle it all on their own.

  5. The Super Person: The Super Person believes that they must be the hardest working person or most successful person. If they do not achieve the highest level or work harder than everyone else they believe themselves to be a fraud.**

How to Treat Imposter Syndrome 

Many people who experience imposter syndrome might feel the need to work harder until they feel like they are capable. Since objective evidence doesn’t do much for these individuals, working harder won’t change anything. In fact, feeling anxious because of imposter syndrome can cause you to overwork or overprepare, which then perpetuates the cycle of believing you wouldn't have succeeded if you hadn’t done all that extra work. Relying on praise for good work will only relieve the anxiety for a short period of time leaving one dependent on the next instance of praise to feel good again, creating another negative cycle.

As mentioned earlier, Imposter syndrome is not a diagnosable disorder, it is a cognitive distortion.  Cognitive distortions are defined as “faulty or inaccurate thought patterns, beliefs or perceptions”. Treating imposter syndrome requires a change of thought patterns rather than changing anything else about oneself. Here are some tips for managing imposter syndrome:

  • Acknowledge the imposter feelings and talk to trusted people about it. The more you share the more you will realize that others struggle with similar thoughts and feelings.

  • Create a network of support in the areas of life where you struggle with imposter syndrome such as work or school

  • Challenge your cognitive distortions. Ask yourself if there is any evidence supporting your beliefs about yourself, then think of the evidence that proves your ability

  • After refuting negative thoughts or beliefs about yourself, replace them with positive beliefs about yourself. Make a list of your positive qualities if needed and go from there

  • Catch yourself when comparing yourself to others. Accept that it isn’t possible to be the best at everything and that is true for everyone. Highlight your personal strengths rather than comparing yourself to other people’s strengths. This is the difference in thinking between those who struggle with imposter syndrome and those who don’t.***

When to Seek Help

A good indicator of whether you should seek counseling or not is determining if the issue is causing distress or impairment in any area of your life. Sometimes the symptoms resulting from imposter syndrome may cause difficulty or impairment in life areas such as work, school, or social life. If imposter syndrome is leading to other difficulties in your life such as low self-esteem, anxiety, performance issues, depression, or general dissatisfaction with an area of life, it may be a good idea to reach out to a counselor for guidance. Please call Heritage Counseling at 214-363-2345 for more information about counseling services for imposter syndrome and other mental health struggles.