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What is imposter syndrome?

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD

Illustration of a woman sitting inside a head filled with masks showing different emotions

Imposter syndrome is a pattern of questioning your own abilities or accomplishments and believing they aren’t good enough. You may feel like a fraud, worry other people will discover you’re not as good as you seem, or believe you’re inferior even when evidence says otherwise.

Is imposter syndrome a mental illness?

Imposter syndrome is a cognitive distortion—a faulty set of thoughts, feelings, and beliefs—but it isn’t a mental illness. It can’t be diagnosed or treated like a mental illness can, but it can affect your mental health if left unchecked.

It’s normal to feel inadequate or unsure of yourself from time to time, but the persistent self-doubt of imposter syndrome can make it hard to believe you deserve success. And if these feelings become so distressing and extreme that they interfere with your daily life, that may be a sign of an underlying mental health condition such as anxiety or depression.

Imposter syndrome vs. anxiety

Imposter syndrome and anxiety share many qualities, but they’re not the same thing. Anxiety involves worry or fear that’s out of proportion to a situation. Imposter syndrome is more related to self-doubt and questioning your own worth.

Imposter syndrome vs. low self-esteem

Low self-esteem is when you have an overall negative view of yourself and your abilities. People with imposter syndrome may feel intense self-doubt, but it’s often linked to specific situations, abilities, or accomplishments. You may feel like a fraud one day and confident the next. Low self-esteem, on the other hand, is more persistent.

Types of imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome can take different forms in different people. Valerie Young, EdD, a leading expert in this syndrome, outlines five main types:

Perfectionists tend to fixate on how things should be done and have impossibly high standards for themselves. Even small or insignificant errors can make them feel like a failure.

Experts believe they lack the necessary knowledge, experience, or qualifications to succeed in their field, so they constantly seek out more information, training, and credentials—but more is never enough.

Soloists are lone wolves who feel like they need to do everything themselves. They rarely, if ever, ask for help because they think it’s a sign of failure.

Natural geniuses think that if they don’t immediately become good at something, it’s because they just don’t have what it takes.

Superhumans/superheroes think they should be able to take on—and excel in—as many roles as possible. If they can’t be an excellent manager, coworker, friend, spouse, parent, neighbor, and volunteer all at once, then they believe they’re failing.

Signs of imposter syndrome

Whether you identify with one of the above types or not, common signs of imposter syndrome include:

  • Belief that you’re inadequate or a fraud
  • Low self-confidence
  • Self-doubt
  • Procrastination
  • Perfectionism
  • Negative self-talk
  • Tendency to compare yourself to others
  • Fear of criticism, failure, or being exposed
  • Worry or anxiety over living up to expectations (your own or others’)
  • Difficulty accepting compliments or praise
  • Difficulty believing you’re capable of success
  • Sense of self-worth that’s based on your accomplishments or other external factors

Risk factors and triggers

Up to 82% of people experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives.1 Celebrities including Maya Angelou, Tom Hanks, and Michelle Obama have opened up about their personal struggles with it.2, 3, 4 Experts don’t know its exact causes, but it often seems to be a combination of internal and external factors.

Certain personality traits, such as perfectionism and neuroticism, may make you more prone to imposter syndrome.5 The way you’re raised and exposed to gender stereotypes may play a role.6 And while imposter syndrome affects people of all genders, ages, and backgrounds, it seems to be especially prevalent among people of color, transgender and nonbinary people, and other people with marginalized identities.7 Professional milestones such as graduate school or a job promotion can also trigger it.8, 9

The impact of imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome isn’t always a bad thing—for example, it can help motivate you to strive for excellence in your work or personal life. Some people are able to move past this syndrome on their own over time, but for others, no amount of personal success seems to help.

Long-term effects of imposter syndrome can include:10

  • Anxiety (including social anxiety)
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Difficulty forming and sustaining relationships
  • Worsened job performance and less job satisfaction
  • Increased risk of burnout

How to overcome imposter syndrome

It can be hard to see yourself as worthy of success when you feel so much self-doubt, but it is possible to overcome that feeling. The following tips can help you take control of your inner critic and build more confidence.

Notice your negative self-talk or criticism. Acknowledging these thoughts as they happen improves your self-awareness, which can help you shift your mindset.

Challenge yourself to reframe your thoughts. When a negative thought enters your mind, try to look at it from a different perspective and come up with three positive statements to counteract it.

Journal about your worries and anxieties. Writing down your thoughts can help you identify feelings or beliefs that contribute to imposter syndrome.

Avoid comparing yourself to others. Everyone has their own unique journey and experiences. If you’re already feeling inadequate, comparing your life to someone else’s can make it worse.

Remind yourself of your abilities and accomplishments. Make a list of all the successes you’ve had, including notes about why you think you had them.

Focus on the progress you’re making, rather than the outcome. Break down large tasks into smaller ones and concentrate on the process of completing them.

Practice accepting compliments and praise with grace. Instead of brushing off a compliment out of habit, practice thanking the person instead.

Ask for support. Talking to a friend or loved one who understands what you’re going through can make a big difference in how you feel about yourself.

Be kind to yourself. Celebrate small wins, and practice self-compassion when you make mistakes.

Get help from a professional as needed. Talking with a therapist or counselor can help you understand where your imposter syndrome is coming from and develop a plan for working through it.

Visit our directory to find a provider. You don’t have to face mental health challenges all alone.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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