What Is Imposter Syndrome and How to Overcome It

Posted on June 9, 2021

Everyone feels like they're faking it at work from time to time. But, did you know that imposter syndrome is a real behavioural pattern that affects a large portion of the population?

While it's common to feel occasionally inadequate, people suffering from imposter syndrome are crippled from constant anxiety and fear. It can interfere with how they perform at work or in personal relationships. 

This blog will explore the topic of imposter syndrome. Keep reading below to learn what causes it in the first place, the different types of imposter syndrome, and what you can do to correct the issue. 

What Is Imposter Syndrome?

Experiencing imposter syndrome is more common than you may think. Most people feel it at least once in their lifetimes, yet it's a problem if it starts interfering with someone's career. 

Imposter syndrome is not a mental disorder. Rather it's a pattern of behaviour where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud. They have a hard time internalizing success. In the long term, it can affect their self-image and career aspirations. 

Clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes officially identified this behaviour in 1978. Originally they researched imposter syndrome in women. Later, researchers found that men can also experience these symptoms. 

While high-achieving professionals often feel imposter syndrome, it can affect anyone regardless of income, what industry they work in, or social status. 

During a 2020 literature review of imposter syndrome, researchers found that up to 82% of participants experienced these feelings based on the type of screening tools used. We will discuss in the next section what causes imposter syndrome. 

What Are the Causes of Imposter Syndrome?

In most cases, it's the result of situational or performance anxiety, driven by subjective past experiences. This means the cause of imposter syndrome has to do with your management of anxiety. Also, how what's happened to you in the past has shaped your reaction to external stimuli. 

Not only will you feel the physical symptoms of anxiety (higher heart rate, sweaty palms, or dry mouth) but previous memories associated with your feelings of anxiety will appear. Sufferers misinterpret these memories, focusing too much on the negative. 

Researchers have found that the cause of imposter syndrome traces back to childhood, even to as young as infancy. Neural pathways develop at an incredible rate during this period. Children are making sense of their environments and learning how to react to what's happening around them.

High stress or consistent exposure to negative reactions could be the starting point for an adult suffering from imposter syndrome. A mental health therapist can assist in reworking these neural pathways.  

What Are the Types of Imposter Syndrome

Now that you know the signs of imposter syndrome and what causes it, did you also know there is more than one type? These behaviours are as varied and unique as the people they affect.

Psychologists have been able to pin down five different forms of imposter syndrome: the perfectionist, the expert, the soloist, the natural genius, and the superhero. Let's take a look at what each entails.

The Perfectionist

Perfectionism is closely related to imposter syndrome. People who have to be perfect at everything set unrealistic goals for themselves. They experience incredible self-doubt when they can't accomplish them. 

In a working environment, the perfectionist can be a micromanager, having trouble partnering with others, and immediately question their abilities at the slightest hint of adversity. 

They will also never be satisfied with their results. Nothing will ever be good enough because they believe it could've been better. Perfectionists need to work on not being so critical of themselves and celebrating their successes. 

The Superhero

This group of people always feel as if they are an imposter. As a result, they push themselves to work beyond healthy limits to prove that they are as good as their colleagues. The truth is their behaviour is covering up their insecurities. 

Over time the workload becomes unsustainable, which can affect their mental health, relationships, and the job itself. These individuals could be labelled "workaholics" and they seek validation from constantly working. They seek regular approval from managers and take any criticism personally.

Superheroes need to build up their confidence to feel skilled at work, and then they need to set healthy boundaries to avoid working to burnout. 

The Natural Genius

Falling under this type of imposter syndrome is tough. They believe people will judge their worth based on whether they get something perfect on the first try. They feel shame and inadequacy if they don't master a task from the start. And they're more likely to quit if it doesn't work out.

They are similar to perfectionists in that work needs to be done at extraordinary expectations. Unlike perfectionists, everything needs to come easy to them or they feel they aren't enough. Typically, these are people who excelled at school and were told from an early age that they were "smarter" than others in the class. 

The best thing for a "natural genius" to do is to start viewing themselves as a work in progress. They should focus on continuous learning and development. It's not necessary to master something at the beginning and having nowhere else to go. 

The Soloist

This form of imposter syndrome is particularly debilitating. People affected by it won't ask for help. Admitting that they have a problem will expose them to be a fraud. They believe strongly that they must accomplish everything on their own.

Results are more important to them at work than defining their needs as a person. In time they'll become more isolated and feelings of anxiety will mount. 

While independence is a noble trait, not knowing when to seek assistance can be damaging in professional or personal relationships. 

The Expert

And the final type of imposter syndrome is known as "the expert." These people judge their experience or worth based on how much they know or what they can do. Not knowing enough is their biggest fear. It often leads them to avoid new jobs or promotions. 

Many of these individuals will sign up for too many training programs, certifications, or degrees to feel that they can be successful at a given job. And they won't ask for help because that shows they don't know something. 

Psychologists have found that these individuals actually end up displaying a form of procrastination. This is because they feel overwhelmed by the amount of new information needed to feel competent. 

Rather than continue feeding these feelings of inadequacy, the best way to correct this behaviour is to focus on what needs to be learned for a specific task at work. 

How To Overcome the Imposter Syndrome

As you can see above, imposter syndrome is a real issue facing millions of people. It's even possible you have felt one or more of these feelings before. It's not something you have to live with. Let's cover how you can overcome it. 

Imposter syndrome has always been a problem for human beings and will continue to be in the future. But, researchers are now finding that the COVID-19 pandemic may be exacerbating the issue.

Over a year of isolation and digital connections have caused some people to begin developing anxiety. This manifests as imposter syndrome. 

These feelings were enhanced due to the stresses of the pandemic. Workers weren't sure what was going to happen next. And they felt extreme isolation at home. Many people need in-person validation to feel as if they were doing a good job. Otherwise, they develop feelings of paranoia and inadequacy. 

Here's the big question: what can you do to combat imposter syndrome? First of all, you need to strive to face situations objectively. Don't let strong feelings or anxiety get in the way. 

Find a way to reflect on your strengths and take time to celebrate your accomplishments. You deserve it! 

The key to overcoming imposter syndrome is to change the way you deal with failure. Mistakes happen to everyone but you need to learn they are a learning opportunity. You should also actively stop your inner dialogue from taking a negative turn that'll lead you down the road of inadequacy. 

Stop being so hard on yourself and, most importantly, ask for help when you need it. 

Ready to Defeat Imposter Syndrome?

After reading this blog, we hope you better understand imposter syndrome, its causes, and how to stop it from happening. Remember that it's not a permanent fixture in your life. It's a behaviour that can be managed and eliminated using some of the techniques we mentioned above.

Of course, contact a professional therapist or psychologist if your imposter syndrome is growing out of control and affecting all areas of your life. They can work with you every step of the way to put an end to it.

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