People who struggle with imposter syndrome believe that they are undeserving of their achievements and the high esteem in which they are, in fact, generally held. They feel that they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others might think—and that soon enough, people will discover the truth about them. Those with imposter syndrome—which is not an official diagnosis—are often well accomplished; they may hold high office or have numerous academic degrees.
Why do people with imposter syndrome feel like frauds even though there is abundant evidence of their success? Instead of acknowledging their capabilities as well as their efforts, they often attribute their accomplishments to external or transient causes, such as luck, good timing, or effort that they cannot regularly expend. Whether in the areas of academic achievement or career success, a person can struggle with pressure and personal expectations.
Personality traits largely drive imposter syndrome: Those who experience it struggle with self-efficacy, perfectionism, and neuroticism. Competitive environments can also lay the groundwork. For example, many people who go on to develop feelings of impostorism faced intense pressure about academic achievement from their parents in childhood.
Imposter syndrome can be closely related to perfectionism, in which people feel pressure to perform at their absolute best 100 percent of the time, and when they don’t, they feel incompetent and anxious. It’s helpful, although difficult, for people to change the way they view perfection to combat imposter syndrome.
Being caught between the desire to flourish and fear of achieving success can be painful and paralyzing. That fear may be indicative of specific fears such as the fear of responsibility, making a mistake, uncertainty, or an identity shift. Learning to tolerate discomfort and accept imperfection can help overcome the fears that prevent people from striving for success.
Overcoming imposter syndrome involves changing a person's mindset about their own abilities. Imposters feel like they don’t belong, so acknowledging their expertise and accomplishments is key, as is reminding themselves that they earned their place in their academic or professional environment.
People should stay focused on measuring their own achievements, instead of comparing themselves to others. Similar to perfectionists, people with impostorism often put a lot of pressure on themselves to complete every task flawlessly; they fear that any mistake will reveal to others that they aren’t good or smart enough for the job.
They perpetuate this excessive pressure because they believe that without the discipline they won't succeed and, instead of rewarding themselves, they only worry about the next task ahead. This cycle can be hard to break, but part of doing so involves reminders that no one is perfect and that a person can only do their personal best.
Imposter syndrome can stifle the potential for growth and meaning, by preventing people from pursuing new opportunities for growth at work, in relationships, or around their hobbies. Confronting imposter syndrome can help people continue to grow and thrive.
Reflecting on your concrete achievements, sharing your feelings with a loved one (preferably outside of the setting in which you feel impostorism), expecting to make mistakes at the beginning of a new experience, and seeking out a mentor who has charted a similar path are a few of the concrete steps that can fight imposter syndrome.
In certain situations, turning to a colleague or mentor who understands one's feeling of insecurity can be advantageous. But research suggests that reaching out to people outside of one's academic or professional circle may be a better tool to combat impostorism. Those individuals can put the person's concerns into context, recalibrate their perspective, and offer support and love.
Two types of messages can spark imposter syndrome in children: constant criticism, which makes them feel like they’ll never be good enough, and universal, superlative praise (“You’re the smartest kid in the world!”), which instills high expectations and pressure. Parents can prevent imposter syndrome by praising effort not outcome, and by helping children realistically understand their strengths and weaknesses.