Why Imposter Syndrome Matters
In the age of social media and a success-driven society, imposter syndrome has made itself hashtag-worthy. No matter what name it is called (e.g., imposter phenomenon, fraud syndrome, perceived fraudulence, etc.)1 this psychological phenomenon affects individuals from all walks of life.
Although imposter syndrome has not been officially classified as a clinical disorder, it has been widely researched. A comprehensive analysis conducted in 2020, comprising of 62 studies1, revealed that up to 82% of individuals have experienced imposter syndrome.
This insidious condition undermines self-confidence, hinders personal and professional growth, and can lead to many negative consequences. This article explores imposter syndrome while uncovering its origins, how it affects individuals and, most importantly, how to manage it.
Imposter Syndrome: Origins and Evolution
Imposter syndrome was first coined by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. They found that successful women often experienced severe self-doubt and attributed their success to their luck rather than skill.² Still, as time progressed, more research revealed that women did not possess a monopoly on imposter syndrome. Anyone, at any time, can struggle with feelings of fraud regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic background or ethnicity.
Since Clance and Imes published their article, some researchers have disputed the idea of imposter syndrome. They argue that many groups were excluded from the Clance/Imes study, namely women of color and people of different income levels, genders and professional backgrounds. They further identify that imposter syndrome fails to consider the broader cultural and historical context and places the responsibility on the individual rather than examining the environmental causes.³
Types of Imposter Syndrome
This condition is not a one-size-fits-all condition. According to psychologist and imposter syndrome expert Valerie Young, there are several different types, each characterized by unique insecurities⁴. These types include:
- The Perfectionist: Perfectionists set unattainably high standards for themselves and feel like frauds when they don't meet them.
- The Superhero: These individuals strive to excel in every aspect of their lives, and any perceived failure triggers feelings of inadequacy.
- The Natural Genius: Natural geniuses believe that if they struggle or need to put in effort, they lack inherent talent.
- The Soloist: Soloists prefer to accomplish tasks independently and feel fraudulent when they ask for help or collaborate with others.
- The Expert: Experts feel the need to know everything about their field and dread being exposed as not knowing enough.
Several factors that could contribute to the occurrence of this problem include ⁵ ⁶ ⁷ ⁸:
- Childhood trauma
- Cultural and societal pressures
- Personality traits such as anxiety, neuroticism and introversion
- Major life changes (e.g., work promotion)
- High-pressure environments that emphasize perfectionism and competition
- Existing mental health challenges such as anxiety or depression
- Being a member of a marginalized demographic
The Impact on Well-being
Imposter syndrome places a heavy toll on one’s mental and physical health. Constant self-doubt and anxiety can lead to stress-related disorders, depression and even burnout. This syndrome perpetuates negative feedback, hindering a person's ability to enjoy their successes and lowering self-esteem. Imposter syndrome manifests in a range of behaviors and emotions, including⁹:
- Chronic self-doubt
- Feelings of inadequacy
- Difficulty accepting praise or recognition
- A constant feeling of being a fraud
- Fear of failure
- Low self-esteem
Managing Imposter Syndrome
Managing imposter syndrome is an achievable goal, and there are many strategies and techniques that can help¹⁰ ¹¹, including:
- Self-awareness: Be aware of your feelings of self-doubt. Imposter syndrome is a common experience and not a reflection of your abilities.
- Reframe your thoughts: Challenge negative self-talk by reframing it in a more positive and realistic light. Replace thoughts of inadequacy with affirmations of your competence.
- Seek support: Talk to trusted friends, mentors or therapists about your feelings to help alleviate the burden of imposter syndrome.
- Embrace failure: Remember that failure is a part of growth, and embracing your mistakes creates opportunities for personal development.
- Set realistic goals: Avoid setting unattainable standards for yourself. Break tasks into smaller, manageable steps and celebrate your achievements along the way.
Imposter syndrome is a harmful psychological phenomenon that affects many people. Recognizing the different types and manifestations of imposter syndrome is the first step in confronting it. The impact of imposter syndrome on mental and physical health underscores the importance of quick and effective resolution. By implementing strategies to manage and overcome imposter syndrome, people can unlock their full potential, regain confidence, and embark on a path of personal and professional growth.
Milini Mingo, MPA, CHCP, has been in the continuing medical education field for several years. Her work focuses on adult learning, program development, translational initiatives/content and accreditation
1. Bravata DM, Watts SA, Keefer AL, Madhusudhan DK, Taylor KT, Clark DM, Nelson RS, Cokley KO, Hagg HK. Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. J Gen Intern Med. 2020 Apr;35(4):1252-1275. doi: 10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1. Epub 2019 Dec 17. PMID: 31848865; PMCID: PMC7174434.
2. Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006
3. Feenstra S, Begeny CT, Ryan MK, Rink FA, Stoker JI, Jordan J. Contextualizing the Impostor "Syndrome". Front Psychol. 2020 Nov 13;11:575024. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.575024. PMID: 33312149; PMCID: PMC7703426
4. Young, V. (2011). The secret thoughts of successful women: And Men: Why capable people suffer from the impostor syndrome and how to thrive in spite of it. Crown Currency.
5. Li S, Hughes JL, Myat Thu S. The links between parenting styles and imposter phenomenon. Psi Chi J. 2014;19(2):50-57. doi:10.24839/2164-8204.JN19.2.50
6. Rice, A. (2022, January 27). What is impostor syndrome?. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/lib/impostor-syndrome#causes
7. Arlin Cuncic, M. (2023, May 22). How to stop feeling like an outsider when you have social anxiety. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/imposter-syndrome-and-social-anxiety-disorder-4156469
8. Bravata DM, Watts SA, Keefer AL, Madhusudhan DK, Taylor KT, Clark DM, Nelson RS, Cokley KO, Hagg HK. Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. J Gen Intern Med. 2020 Apr;35(4):1252-1275. doi: 10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1. Epub 2019 Dec 17. PMID: 31848865; PMCID: PMC7174434.
9. Huecker MR, Shreffler J, McKeny PT, et al. Imposter Phenomenon. [Updated 2023 Jul 31]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK585058/
10. Raypole, Crystal. “Imposter Syndrome: What It Is & How to Overcome It.” Healthline, 16 Apr. 2021, www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/imposter-syndrome#overcoming-it.
11. Weir, Kirsten. “Feel like a Fraud?” https://www.apa.org, Nov. 2013, www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud.