Impostor Syndrome: How to Identify It, Use It and Overcome It

Some of your coworkers breeze through meetings and take on new projects as if they were born to do the work. Others seem to be doing fine, but tell everyone how nervous they are and need constant reassurance. Despite these dramatic outward differences, it is possible that both team members (and a significant amount of your staff) suffer from impostor syndrome.

While this concept has only been around for a few decades, more people are learning to identify the signs within themselves and take steps against it. Here is how you can identify and fight impostor syndrome.

What is Impostor Syndrome?

Learning about impostor syndrome can better prepare you to identify it in yourself and others. Executive coach Megan Dalla-Camina, Ph.D. defines impostor syndrome as “a psychological term referring to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.”

People who suffer from impostor syndrome often attribute their success to luck or timing, instead of their own knowledge and skills that led to their accomplishments.

In 1978, clinical psychologist Pauline Rose Clance coined the term “impostor phenomenon” together with Dr. Suzanne Imes. Clance says she experienced impostor syndrome after a test in graduate school, focusing on what she missed, not what she knew. She saw the same tendencies in her students when she started teaching. Even with excellent test scores and recommendations, they would feel like they were impostors surrounded by truly bright people.

Since the time the behavior was identified, psychologists and career experts have realized that not every case of impostor syndrome looks the same. Valerie Young, Ed.D., confidence speaker and impostor syndrome expert, has identified five types of impostor syndrome that you may experience or identify in others. These are:

  1. The Perfectionist. A person who sets high goals and becomes extremely upset if their plans or projects are not executed exactly as planned.

  2. The Superwo/man. A person who constantly takes on more work in order to feel like they are keeping up with everyone around them.

  3. The Natural Genius. A person who feels like taking a long time to master something is a sign of weakness, because their natural smarts should propel them to success.

  4. The Soloist. A person who feels like asking for help is a sign of weakness.

  5. The Expert. A person who feels like they will never know enough about a particular subject or area of expertise.  

You may be able to identify these traits in yourself or some of your peers — even those you think have it all together.


Who Most Often Experiences Impostor Syndrome?

Women and minority employees tend to exhibit the highest rates of impostor syndrome, and many articles related to the subject directly target women and African American professionals.

“A lack of representation can make minorities feel like outsiders,” Amy M. Gardner, professional coach, tells the American Bar Association. “The combination of discrimination and impostor syndrome can result in higher stress [levels] and more negative mental health outcomes.” She cites research that finds African-American college students with significant levels of impostor syndrome also have higher levels of anxiety and discrimination-related depression. Added to that, impostor syndrome worsens the impact of discrimination.

That said, impostor syndrome can be found any group of people, in any community and in any field. While you may not feel like an outsider in certain parts of your career or social life, feelings of doubt may creep up in others.

For example, Kristina Ciari at The Mountaineers asked the outdoor community why they might feel unwelcome. People shared their insecurities ranging from hiking as a “58 year old, chubby grandma” in a fit, youthful community, or standing out due to lack of diversity to income disparities that led to challenges with transportation or gear.

Vivian Kane, politics editor at The Mary Sue, wrote about how even Michelle Obama suffers from impostor syndrome. The former First Lady questions why people should listen to what she has to say or take her advice. “Listening to women’s stories,” Kane writes, “it’s clear that this is a shared feeling that we think we need to be perfect and at peak expertise before we put ourselves out there as being worth listening to.”

The more people come out and talk about impostor syndrome, the more we can identify it and prevent it from hurting our careers.


Why Do People Experience Impostor Syndrome?

Discrimination and representation often play a role in who gets impostor syndrome, but there are other factors that come into play. People with certain social disorders may be more prone to feeling like impostors or are more likely to struggle with inadequacy.

“It's easy to see how impostor syndrome and social anxiety may overlap,” writes Arlin Cuncic, author of “The Anxiety Workbook.” “A person with social anxiety disorder (SAD) may feel as though they don't belong in social or performance situations.”

That said, you don’t need to experience SAD to have impostor syndrome. It can stem from any number of factors including your upbringing or the stress of entering a new company or position. Some people develop impostor syndrome as a defense mechanism, protecting them from the sting of failure in the workplace.

“There is a significant self-presentation element to impostor syndrome,” says cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, host of The Psychology Podcast. “We are a very social species, and we often attempt to manipulate how others perceive us to attain optimal interpersonal benefits.”

By downplaying your own ability, you tend to get support from those around you. This can serve as a cushion in the event you do fail. It’s a sort of survival technique that seems better to those with impostor syndrome than boasting that you are going to do a good job and then having to answer for it if you don’t.

When Is Impostor Syndrome a Good Thing?

While you might think banishing thoughts of inadequacy is essential to success, there are actually some benefits to feeling insecure. Business and life coach Caroline Castrillon, founder of The Corporate Escape Artist, reports that roughly 70 percent of the population will experience impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. There are reasons, though, why this is a good thing, including:

  • It shows that you are challenging yourself and doing something new and exciting.

  • It keeps your ego in check, which allows you to appreciate opportunities and prevents you from getting too comfortable.

  • It shows that you are gaining experience by highlighting what you don’t know and can learn in the future.

Like most things in life, impostor syndrome may be good in moderation — especially if you know how to identify and control it. For example, Barri Rafferty, CEO of Ketchum PR, says she had to overcome feelings of impostor syndrome when asked to speak at the World Economic Forum.

“I'm not a technology expert, I didn't go to an Ivy League School, and I didn't literally write the book on A.I., as my counterparts did,” she told Business Insider. “Though I'm not steeped in the tech world, what I did bring to the conversation was the fresh perspective of someone with broad horizontal experience who could discuss best practices from across many industries.”

Essentially, it doesn’t matter that you have impostor syndrome. What matters is how you react to it and how it motivates you.

Cognitive neuroscientist Christian Jarrett, author of PERSONOLOGY, shares a study that shows how impostor syndrome affects men and women differently when they are under pressure. Researchers surveyed participants to evaluate their levels of impostor syndrome, then gave them five advanced exam questions. Regardless of their actual performance, the researchers told participants that they answered all five questions incorrectly.

“This harsh feedback seemed to especially affect male students with high impostor feelings – they reported higher anxiety, made less effort (as measured by time taken on the task), and showed a trend towards poorer performance,” Jarrett writes. “In contrast, female students with high impostor feelings responded to harsh feedback by increasing their effort and showing superior performance.”

If you use impostor syndrome to push you to do more, rather than convincing you to give up, then your feelings of inadequacy can actually help you essentially “fake it till you make it.”


How Can You Fight Impostor Syndrome?

When you find impostor syndrome creeping into your workplace, or even into your hobbies and social life, there are steps you can take to fight it. This won’t make your feelings of inadequacy disappear entirely, but as we know, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Take Steps to Accomplish What You Can Do

Instead of focusing on what you don’t know and can’t do, take control of what you can do. This will put you one step closer to success — even if it is a small step.

“At the end of the day, the only way you’re going to make any progress is by taking action and some steps towards accomplishing your business goals,” writes author and consultant Kimanzi Constable. “Building a business of any kind requires many tasks and steps you can take despite feeling like an impostor. It doesn’t have to affect the work.”

When you focus on small tasks, one at a time, you can get closer to your goals without feeling overwhelmed by the work ahead of you.

Entrepreneur and keynote speaker Peter Shankman battles impostor syndrome. He agrees that taking action is crucial. In a recent talk, he says one of the biggest problems with the condition is that it causes inaction due to fear of failure. His advice is to keep trying; try something new even though you may not succeed. Because "action wounds impostor syndrome."

Learn How to Self-Motivate

Relying on the praise of others for motivation is risky, especially if that praise isn’t there when you need it most. “External validation is a crutch,” says Dr. Isaiah Hankel, author, career development expert and Cheeky Scientist founder. “No one should have more power to make you feel better about yourself than you do.”

While it is okay to enjoy praise and appreciate compliments, you can’t rely on them to define and motivate you.

Turn Negative Thoughts Into Positive Opportunities

Career coach Ashley Stahl encourages people to take charge of their impostor feelings and turn them into opportunities and positive thoughts. For example, instead of saying “I don’t know anything about this,” you could say, “I don’t know about this yet, but I hope to keep learning about it.”

Changing negative thoughts is essential if you don’t want impostor syndrome to overwhelm you.

Additionally, Kyle Eschenroeder, cofounder of StartupBros, shares 21 tips you can use to prevent impostor syndrome from creeping in and derailing your career potential. Test different approaches to see which have the biggest impact on your mental health.

Impostor syndrome is likely to follow you through new changes and challenges in your life. If you can learn to identify the signs and know that you are up for the job, then you can overcome it and learn to appreciate your skills and confidence.

Images by: Aleksandr Davydov/©, Cathy Yeulet/©, pedrogoncalvesjardim, nastya_gepp