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Imposter Syndrome

Overcoming Trauma-Induced Imposter Syndrome

The importance of growth mindset, boundaries, and authenticity.

Key points

  • Trauma-induced imposter syndrome can impact all aspects of life.
  • Shame around trauma can worsen issues.
  • A growth mindset is crucial in overcoming imposter syndrome and building self-confidence.
Trauma-induced imposter syndrome can occur no matter your accomplishments.
Source: peopleimages/iStock

Most of us experience it from time to time, a belief that we are just not good enough or worse, a fear of being “found out” as a fraud. These feelings can be fleeting for some, but for those who struggle with imposter syndrome it can fuel an internalized pressure to perform, perfect and achieve- leading to two distinct responses of either over-functioning or shutting down.

What many do not know is that imposter syndrome is commonly caused by interpersonal trauma involving a lack of safety or support in past relationships. The result is a tendency to overcompensate for those who hurt us in order to restore a sense of balance and safety. This form of over-functioning, while still feeling less than, becomes hardwired in the brain- making receiving recognition or praise for things we have earned or accomplished extremely difficult. Those with imposter syndrome will even dismiss or diminish their achievements, equating them to luck or happenstance. As a result, self-confidence, which aids in feeling a sense of control and mastery in life, suffers—making it difficult to take healthy risks and adopt a growth mindset, both of which play a key role in trauma recovery.

What Makes Trauma-Induced Imposter Syndrome Unique?

For those who have gotten through life without significant interpersonal trauma, imposter syndrome may present in more localized instances or experiences when feeling particularly challenged or pushed outside one's own comfort zone. These feelings of self-doubt can be temporary, and often improve as mastery occurs- with a common example being work performance. In a systemic review of 62 studies evaluating the prevalence of imposter syndrome, rates were highest in graduate and college students, nurses, medical students, and other professionals. Essentially, the greater the responsibility and/or expertise required in an area, the greater chance imposter syndrome can surface.

With trauma-induced imposter syndrome, the distinction lies in its universal nature, as it impacts most, if not all, areas of life. Examples include; parenthood, dating, marriage, friendships, work, and overall self-identity- making it difficult for someone to stand up for themselves or feel worthy of setting boundaries. It can also make it challenging to express emotions, especially negative ones, due to intense experiences of self-criticism.


According to professor, author, and podcaster Brene Brown, shame is an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” According to Brown’s research, one of the most powerful ways to reduce the negative experience of shame is by sharing “shame stories” with safe and supportive people. This is especially important when considering trauma-induced imposter syndrome as the root cause is often related to shame around the trauma itself. While it may feel difficult to share our shame, it can serve as a powerful conduit for healing trauma and reinforcing our own self-worth- especially when sharing with a safe, and supportive person.

Shifting towards a growth mindset is crucial for overcoming imposter syndrome.
Source: lzf/istock

Healing Trauma-Induced Imposter Syndrome

Healing from imposter syndrome differs for everyone, but there are fundamental ways to work towards healing that include:

Growth mindset. A growth mindset means believing mistakes are part of the learning process, and approaching mistakes or failures with curiosity and exploration as opposed to negative self-talk or self-blame. When practicing a growth mindset, the belief is that skills are not innate but are rather developed with sustained effort and persistence as opposed to perfection.

Developing a growth mindset also means opening yourself up to constructive feedback, and trying new things—even if you may not succeed. Other ideas include:

  • Seeking opportunities to learn new things.
  • Embracing mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow.
  • Sharing these efforts with someone you trust, even if you have not accomplished your goal “yet."
  • Sharing your experience of imposter syndrome with someone you trust.
  • Embracing mindfulness techniques such as breath work, Yoga, art, journaling, or mantra work- all of which engage you in the present as opposed to your past trauma.


Self-compassion is one of the more difficult thinking patterns for survivors of complex or interpersonal trauma to practice. Commonly, these individuals doubt themselves and struggle to believe they have internal value. This is why adopting a stance of self-compassion, often in the form of positive self-talk and regular practices of self-care, is critical for overcoming trauma-induced imposter syndrome.

A helpful way to put self-compassion into practice is to speak to yourself as you would a friend or loved one. If you are experiencing self-doubt or insecurity, you can imagine what you would say to someone you care about who was experiencing the same thing.


Boundaries can be difficult to establish with imposter syndrome, as fear and shame regarding disappointing others is common- especially when choosing to put your own needs first. There is a false sense of relief when putting other's needs before your own that reinforces the belief that you must over-function for others. The relief is temporary, however, and does not aid in trauma recovery.

Practicing saying “no” is a powerful way to overcome imposter syndrome, as it helps you live more authentically and reinforces supportive relationships while protecting you from unhealthy ones.

Perfectly Imperfect Healing

In the end, one of the most important steps is acknowledging that the way you feel is part of a syndrome of responses that are connected to trauma and not a representation of reality. Imposter syndrome can occur no matter your accomplishments, which is why striving to achieve more will not repair it. It can be difficult to persuade the parts of you that believe perfectionism and achievement are how to promote self-worth instead of self-compassion and learning from your mistakes. You are so much more than what you do or produce; rather, your worth is a reflection of an authentic connection with the self.

Portions of this post were adapted from my book What I Wish I Knew: Surviving and Thriving After an Abusive Relationship.


Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., et al. Prevalence, predictors, and treatment of impostor syndrome: A systematic review. Journal of general internal medicine, 2020.

Brown, Brené. "Shame resilience theory: A grounded theory study on women and shame." Families in Society 87.1 (2006): 43-52.

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