Picture this.You’ve just been given a great promotion! One which you have worked hard for. Once the initial elation has passed you find yourself lying awake at night worrying about whether you are competent enough to manage the task, and what others might think when they find out about your new role. You are suffering from imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internal fear of being exposed as a “fraud”, despite external evidence of their competence. Those experiencing this phenomenon struggle to shake the belief that they do not deserve all they have achieved and incorrectly attribute their success to luck, or even worse, believe that their success has come about as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more capable or intelligent than they actually are.

First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s, imposter phenomenon isn’t an official psychological diagnosis but psychologists and others acknowledge that it is a very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt.

Imposter feelings are generally accompanied by anxiety and, often, depression. Also common is the experience of having a strong internal critic (a form of negative self-talk) which undermines self-confidence and creates a ‘reality gap’ between how an individual feels about themselves and the positive feedback they are gaining from their environment.

In our work with emerging leaders suffering from Imposter Syndrome, we have found that many of them have a strong personal ‘story’ about themselves which sets limits on how successful they see themselves becoming. One client I worked with had begun her professional life as a personal assistant and worked her way to VP over a period of years.  Her personal script was that she was just a ‘girl from the country’ that had somehow got lucky enough to progress in her career. This personal script becomes a kind of unspoken contract with herself and set limits on how ‘successful’ she would allow herself to become. When she was promoted to VP, her current reality was so different from her personal script that she began to experience a high degree of self-doubt and anxiety about her VP role. Through coaching, she was enabled to become aware of and adjust her personal story about herself to reconcile with her current realities. 

Besides having a limiting personal story, there are a number of other factors that may contribute to individuals being challenged by Imposter Syndrome:

#1. Being a High Achiever

Many people who feel like imposters grew up in families that placed a big emphasis on achievement. In particular, parents who send mixed messages — alternating between over-praise and criticism — can increase the risk of future fraudulent feelings. Societal pressures only add to the problem. If self-worth is linked strongly to achievement, the chances of experiencing ‘Imposter Syndrome’ are enhanced

#2. Belonging to a Minority Group

The experience seems to be more common among minorities, and some minority groups may be especially susceptible. A 2013 study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin surveyed ethnic-minority college students and found that Asian-Americans were more likely than African-Americans or Latino-Americans to experience imposter feelings. Interestingly, the researchers also found that imposter feelings more strongly predicted mental health problems than did stress related to one’s minority status (Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 2013). In fact, it seems that differing in any way from the majority of your peers — whether by race, gender, sexual orientation or some other characteristic — can fuel the sense of being a fraud.

#3. Starting a New Endeavour

Imposter phenomenon seems to be more common among people who are embarking on a new endeavor. Whilst a measure of self-doubt is normal, those with imposter syndrome have real trouble believing that they are worthy of the position they currently hold or are capable of succeeding in it.

#4. Having Perfectionist Tendencies

Imposter syndrome and perfectionism often go hand in hand. Many times sufferers hold a conscious or unconscious assumption that every task they tackle has to be done perfectly, and, because they don’t want to be exposed, they rarely ask for help. When unsure how to proceed, therefore, they may procrastinate, putting off starting a task, out of fear that they won’t be able to complete it to the necessary high standards. Alternatively, they may over-prepare, spending much more time on a task than is necessary.

This pattern of behavior has a self-reinforcing tendency. After having gone through contortions to do a project perfectly, when they succeed, those suffering from Imposter Syndrome begin to believe that all their anxiety and effort has paid off. Consequently, they develop the belief that the stress and strain associated with their perfectionism is contributing to their success and they have a hard time giving it up for a more sustainable approach to project completion.

Is Imposter Syndrome something you suffer from?