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It’s All in Your Head: Understanding Imposter Syndrome

Updated: Jan 14, 2022

Can we talk about imposter syndrome?

“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.” Maya Angelou

You’ve been working hard for over a year: skilling yourself, reading every book and article on a specific subject, gaining hands-on experience through projects and contracts. You’ve become a superstar at what you do. Your colleagues come to you often for advice or support. You’re doing well for yourself. But there’s that feeling that you just can’t shake; the feeling that you don’t belong in the spaces you exist in, that everything you’ve achieved is just luck, that you aren’t worthy of your skills or talents, that you have no clue what you’re doing, that you’re a fraud who will soon be caught and likely punished for these “sins''.

This feeling doesn’t arise only in our careers or work lives. They pop up in our pursuit of education. They arise in our hobbies. They can even pop up in our relationships when we question why certain people are friends with us or why our relations value us.

That unnerving feeling is known as imposter syndrome (also known as the imposter phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience)

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome definition

  1. A concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalise their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.

  2. Doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud.

  3. A collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.

  4. Term coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 to describe an inability to connect with one’s success, causing one to develop high levels of self-doubt, a distorted perception of self and fear of being found out to be a fraud by those around them.

The term imposter phenomenon and its study arose when doctors Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes noticed that high-achieving professional women were often plagued with feelings of self-doubt, incompetence and the fear of not performing well in future in comparison to their male counterparts.

Types of imposters

The Perfectionist

The perfectionist sets extremely high expectations and goals for themselves. They require their work or output to be 100% perfect otherwise they have missed the mark and aren’t good at their job. Even when they achieve any form of success, they believe that they could have done things better.

The Expert

The expert hopes to achieve something big and commendable. This “something-big” might be a dream for a career, job, or business. However, for the expert to start embarking on this journey, they MUST know everything that needs to be known and learnt before they jump into this new endeavour. If the expert doesn’t feel that they have learnt everything they need to excel at whatever it is they are envisioning, they feel unworthy and incompetent. They strongly believe this even though learning is never ending process. The expert is unlikely to dive into a new venture because they don’t want to mess up or look “stupid”.

The Natural Genius

The natural genius believes that if they have to struggle to learn something it’s proof they’re not good enough to pursue it. They often restrict themselves to tasks and skills that come naturally or easily to them. This however restricts their growth and puts them in a box. The natural genius’ greatest desire is to get things right on their first try in order to feel worthy, intelligent and deserving.

The Soloist

The soloist feels that for them to be deserving of the space they occupy they must be able to accomplish everything on their own. They will willingly suffer under the pressure of multiple tasks or goals because they perceive asking for help as weakness.

While the perfectionist is likely to micromanage in order to get things 100% right, the soloist is likely to take on all the roles and do everything on their own even though they need assistance and support.

The Superhero (also the Superwoman or Superman)

The superhero pushes themselves to go above and beyond always. Because imposter syndrome makes superheroes feel like they stick out like a sore thumb, they feel the need to work harder than everybody else. They need to do this to prove they aren’t a fraud. They feel that even though they stick out, they should stick out for their excellence. The superhero feels the need to outshine everyone to cement their place.

Where imposter syndrome stems from:

  • Familial (critical parents, parents that focused on achievement, parents that didn’t praise achievement and saw them as commonplace)

  • Major life transitions (starting a new job or business)

  • Lack of representation in the space one occupies (sexism, tribalism, colourism, classism can cause an individual who has gained an opportunity that people like them don’t ordinarily get to develop imposter syndrome)

  • Anxiety (general and social anxiety)

How imposter syndrome is affecting you

The imposter cycle

“For most people we start a new thing, work hard to overcome barriers, and once we're successful remain appropriately confident in our ability to continue to perform well.

For others, however, they start out the same as stated above, except that obtaining some success doesn't translate into more confidence. Instead it increases the fear of being found out to be a fraud and the person continues to work hard, to overcome obstacles, only to feel as though they still aren't good enough.

The character keeps running even after they've won the race! No victory lap, no celebration, no slowing down to catch their breath....just continuing to run and hurdle through life even though they've done well and the race was over. That's Imposter Syndrome! Constantly chasing after the success you've already attained OR running from the fraud that doesn't exist.”

People that deal with imposter syndrome go through the imposter cycle: always plotting, planning and working without taking a break to enjoy their achievements.

This leads to:

  • Burnout. Burnout is almost always an end result because you feel the need to keep working and achieving to deserve the space you occupy or the opportunities you have.

  • Inability to find contentment. No achievement is ever good enough because you’re always looking at the next goal to tackle without taking time off to celebrate the most recent wins.

  • Low self-confidence. Feeling like a fraud does nothing for one’s self-confidence. You’re always looking over your shoulder wondering when the other shoe will drop and you’re booted out the opportunity you have. This affects how you feel and speak about yourself.

  • Perception Dysmorphia. Psychotherapist Stevon Lewis describes perception Dysmorphia as the difference between how people with Impostor Syndrome see themselves versus how they are seen by the rest of the world. “The dysmorphia aspect captures the tendency of those who struggle with Impostor Syndrome to fixate on, and obsess about, very minor, or nonexistent, imperfections in their performance and/or abilities.” Stevon Lewis This causes you to put everyone else on a pedestal while looking at yourself as a joke or fraud.

  • Constant need for validation. Because no achievement is ever good enough and you are unable to enjoy your own accomplishments, you may NEED other people to remind you of how great you are at the things you do.

How to cope with imposter syndrome

Speak up!

Talk to someone you trust about your feelings of inadequacy. You might be shocked to find out that the person you thought was the most qualified and most intelligent either in your team or in another career path altogether also feels imposter syndrome creep up often. Speaking up breaks the shame that imposter syndrome comes with and frees you to make room for better thoughts about yourself.


It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day that we forget how much progress we’ve made and much we’ve achieved. Time sometimes rushes by and when you’re busy balancing multiple tasks, it’s likely that your mind will always be set on the next goal. If you’re mind is set on the next goal, you’re not thinking of the wins you’re collecting. Documentation helps you keep track of all your wins so that any time you feel like a fraud or a joker, reading about your wins and the things you’ve overcome resets your mind into seeing yourself as worthy, strong and knowledgeable.

This can look like a simple folder filled with emails about the great job you’re doing or screenshots of compliments you’ve received on the work you’ve done. It can also be a journal that documents all the days and times when you had a win. Use both external and internal validation if you need to raise your spirits.

Stop the comparison

Dealing with imposter syndrome means downgrading your achievements because they don’t look like everyone else’s. Because you want to outshine, you’re more often than not looking outward than inward. Comparing yourself to others will have looking at everyone else’s end result or product without understanding the process they went through to get to where they are. Imposter Syndrome will have you thinking everyone else has a magic wand that they swing to conjure results while you have to toil. Comparison doesn’t tell you the full story about what everyone else did to get to where they are, to gain their success. These feelings give others more grace than we give ourselves. Nipping them in the bud, gives you room to focus on your path, your progress, and growth.

Feelings vs Fact

You have been doing a piece of work but it just doesn’t look right. It doesn’t look like what you had envisioned. Now you feel stupid or unworthy.

These are the kinds of feelings will arise as a result of imposter syndrome. However, feeling stupid or unworthy doesn’t make you stupid and unworthy. These are feelings. They are fleeting.

Remind your inner bully that you are intelligent, worthy and hard-working. Remind your inner bully of all the times you have proven this to be true.

Take notes

It’s important to learn when you start feeling like a fraud, when imposter syndrome is triggered.

Is it when a new project begins?

Is it when you’re applying for a new job or when you get a new job?

Is it when you meet accomplished peers?

Before those feelings spiral, work with your inner bully to find out what about the situation you’re in is making you feel like a fraud.

Does the job or project that you want require more skills than you have? Is there something you can do about gaining those skills? Can you ask for support? Are you still able to apply for the job because you know you can handle the duties and responsibilities?

Go through the motions of reminding yourself that you are deserving with or without the win especially because you’re willing to learn and push forward.

Respond to failure

Failure is the kryptonite for a person dealing with imposter syndrome. It’s like a confirmation that you truly are a fraud. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s important to see failure as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Rewrite the rules

Remind yourself often that:

It’s okay to ask for help.

It’s okay not to know everything. Learning is a never ending process.

It’s okay to clap for yourself even when no one else will.

It’s okay to be the only person with your background in the room and be deserving of a seat at the table.

It’s okay to fail as long as you pick yourself back up.

Stop dismissing your accomplishments

Minimising the reason behind your accomplishment to luck does nothing for you. That kind of modesty is actually hurting you if you deal with imposter syndrome.

Perhaps so many things fell into place for you to gain this opportunity; you had the right connections, the right set of skills, the right proposal, the right support system. The fact still remains that you took the opportunity and you excelled. Your having the right ingredients might have been luck. But your ability to use them to make something out of them all wasn’t. It was your hard work, talent, skillset and smarts.

Give yourself grace

People dealing with imposter syndrome are likely to look at everyone else as flawed human beings who are learning and growing. But won’t do the same for themselves. You’re human too. You make mistakes just as everyone makes mistakes. You don’t have to get it right on the first take. You can learn from your mistakes and grow. You can ask for help and support and doing so doesn’t make you weak. Give yourself enough grace in realising that you’re not a failure because of your mistakes because you have the opportunity you pick yourself up over and over again.

Can imposter syndrome be a good thing?

Working with your imposter syndrome might be what helps you get out of your own head if you use it as a tool for growth:

Use it to recognise your knowledge gaps

You’ve found a job listing for a company that you’d be excited to work for. The job description looks like the kind of work you’ve been in school perfecting or are skilled for. However, when you look at the requirements listed, you can’t check all the boxes. Instead of deciding that you aren’t good enough for a job that you already know you can do despite the requirements, working with your imposter syndrome would mean applying for the job anyway and then going out of your way to gain the other skills for your own growth.

Use it to deal with complacency

If you deal with imposter syndrome, nothing you create or do is ever good enough. Working with your imposter syndrome could mean ensuring that you’re always striving for better and refusing to settle for less. Of course it’s also important to always take a step back and appreciate everything you do achieve along the way.

“The worst enemy of creativity is self-doubt.” Sylvia Plath
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