Careers advice

What is imposter syndrome, and how do you deal with it?

Don’t let imposter syndrome hold you back.

6 March 2023

What you'll learn:

  • What is imposter syndrome?
  • Who can suffer from imposter syndrome?
  • How to recognise imposter syndrome
  • How to deal with imposter syndrome

Constantly having to convince yourself that you’re capable of doing your job? Feel inferior to your colleagues? Worried that sooner or later you’ll get ‘found out’ as unable to complete your day-to-day tasks?

Trust us, as uncomfortable as you might be feeling, you certainly aren’t alone. In fact, feeling like this has a name – imposter syndrome. Suffering from imposter syndrome can cause you to have unhealthy stress levels, an awful work-life balance and make it difficult to get on with colleagues. But what does that term really mean, how can you recognise it, and what can you do about it?

What is imposter syndrome?

A simple definition of imposter syndrome is experiencing feelings of incompetence, inadequacy or fraudulence despite achieving clear successes. In other words, you feel like an ‘imposter,’ someone who doesn’t deserve to be in the position they’re in. It can relate to almost any aspect of your life – for example, your personal relationships – but is perhaps most commonly encountered in your career or education. Currently, imposter syndrome isn’t a diagnosable mental health condition, but it’s often associated with symptoms of both anxiety and depression, and it also has links to perfectionism.

The definition we’ve given is quite broad and, as we’ll explore below, imposter syndrome can manifest itself in many different ways, with a variety of symptoms.

Imposter syndrome can effect anyone at any stage of their career.

Who might experience imposter syndrome?

The short answer here is anyone. Imposter syndrome can impact people from all walks of life and all demographics, and high profile individuals ranging from Michelle Obama to Tom Hanks have talked about how it has impacted their lives. So, if you’re struggling with imposter syndrome at the moment, we hope you can take comfort in knowing that you’re far from alone.

Despite the potential for anyone to experience imposter syndrome, research suggests there are socio-demographic factors that can impact how likely it is for someone to face this struggle:

  • Coming from a minority background: people from minority backgrounds may be more likely to experience imposter syndrome due to a lack of representation in the top echelons of their industry, as well as discrimination leading to a stronger feeling of not belonging.
  • Having depression or anxiety as mentioned, imposter syndrome is associated with the symptoms of these mental illnesses.
  • Being from a family of high achievers: if you were born into a family of high achieving folk, you might put unfair pressure on yourself to emulate their successes. If you feel like you don’t achieve this, you might express your perceived inadequacy through imposter syndrome. 

  • Being a high achiever: this might sound counterintuitive, but successful people can be particularly vulnerable to imposter syndrome. They may feel that their achievements aren’t as impressive as other people are making out or that they attained them unfairly.

As well as these long-term triggers for imposter syndrome, certain short-term triggers can also cause it to flare up. For example:

  • Starting a new job.
  • Gaining a promotion or pay rise.
  • Achieving an award or being publicly praised for your work.

  • Having a toxic boss who makes you feel inadequate.

Short term triggers for imposter syndrome can include starting a new job or gaining a promotion.

How to recognise imposter syndrome

Dr. Valerie Young, a world-renowned expert on imposter syndrome and the founder of the Imposter Syndrome Institute, characterised five common ways that imposter syndrome can rear its head:

1. The ‘natural genius’

If you fall into this category, you probably think that to be truly good at something, it should come easily to you. This means that even if you can eventually master a skill or knowledge area, if it took you a long time to get there, it doesn’t really count. In your mind, speed and ease are the true measurements of intelligence or mastery, and you’ll probably feel ashamed when you find things difficult.

Warning signs of this type of imposter syndrome can include:

  • Avoiding challenges because you’re afraid of finding something you’re ‘bad at’.
  • Disliking the idea of being mentored because you feel you should be able to grasp something first time round, and on your own.
  • Rapid loss of confidence if you struggle with something.
  • Being accustomed to high achievement with minimal effort.

2. The perfectionist

Perfectionism is intimately associated with imposter syndrome. If you’re a perfectionist, you’ll probably set very high standards for yourself and experience anxiety and self-doubt if you fall even the slightest bit short of these. Perfectionist traits are often also associated with a degree of control-freakery: you’ll be nervous about letting someone in on your project or objective because you’re worried that they won’t seek the same high standards that you do.

Signs of perfectionism include:

  • Feeling the need to get everything exactly right, first time around.
  • Setting unrealistic goals, and getting worried or upset when you don’t attain them.
  • Micromanaging others because you don’t trust them to work as hard as you do.
  • Difficulty delegating tasks to others because you want everything to be done your way.

3. The superwoman/man

If you identify with the superwoman/man persona, that means you think that you’re way behind your peers, so you have to work extra hard to even get near to their level. This can often lead to late nights in the office or taking on way too heavy a workload, which puts you at serious risk of professional burnout.

Classic symptoms of this type of imposter syndrome include:

  • Regularly staying late in the office or taking work home with you.
  • Always feeling like you should be working, and perhaps even finding downtime stressful.
  • Feeling that those around you are streaks ahead of your knowledge and skills.
  • Believing that you don’t deserve your current role.

Regularly staying late in the office to complete work can be a sign of imposter syndrome.

4. The expert

Do you believe that your suitability for a job depends on how much you know? If so, you might fall into the expert category. The problem here is that, no matter how experienced you are, you’ll never feel like you know enough. In your head, This can mean you worry about being ‘exposed’ as a fraud, when someone finds out you know less than you “should” do.

If you think this sounds like you, look out for:

  • Feeling the need to constantly gain certifications just to prove you know stuff – this can actually turn into a form of procrastination.
  • Being uncomfortable when someone calls you an expert.
  • Not applying for jobs unless you feel you tick every box on the job listing.

5. The soloist

If you fall into the soloist category, you put a huge amount of emphasis on doing everything yourself. You reject offers of help and won’t seek assistance even if you really need it.

Think about whether:

  • You feel the need to prove yourself by going it alone.
  • Worry about sharing the workload because you don’t trust other people to hold themselves to your high standards.
  • Prefer to research things for yourself, rather than trusting a knowledgeable expert on your team.

How to deal with imposter syndrome

1. Track your success

One way you can prove to yourself that you’re more than capable of doing your job is keeping an active record of all of your wins.

Depending on what works best for you, this could be anything from measuring your KPIs to show that you’re smashing them out of the park, to keeping a document of all the nice things people have said to you at work. You can then look at this whenever you’re going through a phase of doubting your abilities and it’ll bolster your confidence.

Acknowledge when things go well, as well as when they could have gone better.

2. Talk to your manager

We get that this could be a difficult conversation to have, but if things are really getting on top of you, it’s important you don’t suffer in silence.

If you speak to your manager, there’s a good chance they’ll have experienced something similar themselves earlier in their careers and so might be able to suggest some strategies that have worked for them. Also, from an objective point of view, they'll be able to show how the work you’re doing is benefitting the team, and the company at large.

3. Recognise when you’re being a perfectionist

This is easier said than done, but try to recognise when you’re pushing yourself too hard as a result of your imposter syndrome.

Your success tracking should help here, as you’ll be able to see how you achieved great results in the past and gauge what you need to do in order to repeat this.

It’s also about recognising early warning signs in your head, and stopping yourself from spiralling downwards. If you start feeling like things are getting on top of you, take a step back and take a breath. You’ve succeeded before, and you’ll do it again.

4. Develop a healthy response for when you do fall short

We all fall short from time to time, in our personal lives and at work. While this might sound like your worst nightmare, because it happens to everyone, you need to work out how to respond in a way that doesn’t reinforce your negative preconceptions about yourself.

Perhaps the best way to do this is conduct your own little retrospective to work out what went wrong. Not only does breaking things down help you step away from the feeling of disappointment you’re likely feeling, you’ll also learn how to avoid making these mistakes next time.

You should also see yourself as a work in progress. Sure, it’s nice to get things right the first time and move on, but the old cliché about learning more from your mistakes than your successes is true. Each time you fall short of your goals, take the learnings from this experience and carry them forward to next time.

5. Fake it ‘til you make it

Everyone, and we mean everyone has done this at one point or another in their career, and it does not mean you’re incapable. In fact, you should take courage from your ability to think on your feet and get through those difficult situations. You’re only going to get more confident with time. It’s all part of building your resilience in your career.

6. Actively learn from others

If you know that you find it difficult to admit your blindspots and are easily threatened by others, challenge yourself to actively seek opportunities to learn from those around you. This could involve anything from going to a workshop led by a colleague to approaching someone to help you with a specific issue.

Keep a list of the things you learn like this, as this will provide you with tangible evidence that you don’t have to go it alone, and that there are real personal and professional benefits to reaching out to others.