HomeHealth A-ZImposter Syndrome: Definition, Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Imposter Syndrome: Definition, Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Overview

The senior sales manager of a reputed company aced the challenging client meeting. The attendees and colleagues appreciated the manager’s efforts and praised how the manager answered all queries confidently. However, the manager is deep in self-doubt and feels like a fraud. Such a feeling  is called imposter syndrome. 

The blog explains imposter syndrome, its symptoms, traits, causes, and treatment options. 

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Individuals experiencing imposter syndrome often have a baseless feeling that they are undeserving of praise and accolades. They fear that others may soon discover that they are incompetent and unintelligent. 

In 1978, psychologists first described this syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a mental disorder that anyone can develop, irrespective of their job or social status. However, high-achieving individuals experience imposter syndrome. Many individuals experience symptoms for a limited time, such as the first week of a new job. But some may have it for a lifelong.

An individual can reduce such feelings by having an open conversation with friends, family, and  supportive peers. Also, a healthcare professional can help identify several coping mechanisms.

What are the types of Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is grouped into five categories. They are as follows:

  • The perfectionist: Here, an individual believes that  work or other aspects of life must be perfect. If not, the person starts to think that they are not as good as others think and start feeling like a fraud. As perfectionism is not a realistic goal, meeting the standard is impossible. They try to avoid doing something new if they believe they cannot do it perfectly the first time. 
  • The natural genius: A person who quickly learns new skills and can accomplish accomplishments with little effort; they think they should immediately understand any new information and processes. Failure to do so results makes them feeling like a fraud. They are ashamed and frustrated with their shortcomings. 
  • The expert: Few individuals believe that before any work becomes successful, they must understand and learn the entire process or topic. Such people spend a tremendous amount of time collecting information so that the main task takes more time to complete. They feel like a failure when they do not have all the information. 
  • The soloist: In this, a person feels unaccomplished when they need help as they want to complete everything alone. They believe they can handle everything alone; failure to do so only raises unworthiness and embarrassment towards themselves. But in reality, it isn’t true.
  • The superhero: In this type of imposter syndrome, the person believes that they must accomplish every task in every aspect of their life – from being a good student, friend, employee, or parent. However, when they don’t meet their expectations, they feel incompetent. 

What are the characteristics of a person experiencing Imposter Syndrome?

A person suffering from imposter syndrome has a sense of self-doubt that their achievements and ability do not meet the set standards. They set high standards for themselves that are not easy to achieve. Some of the characteristics of a person suffering from imposter syndrome are as follows:

  • A sense of being incompetent and fraudulent
  • Fear of being discovered
  • Unable to set realistic goals for themselves
  • Always doubting their success and ability
  • Overachieving
  • Self-doubt
  • Damaging their own success 

When to seek medical attention?

When imposter syndrome affects life, immediately contact the healthcare provider. The following are the aspects of life that can be affected:

  • Performance in work
  • Fear of taking responsibilities
  • Self-doubt
  • Mental health impact 
  • Unable to accept promotions

What are the causes of Imposter Syndrome?

During the infancy stage of the research studies, researchers noticed that imposter syndrome is connected with factors such as family dynamics and gender stereotypes. However, as more studies were conducted, it was believed that imposter syndrome occurs in people of all backgrounds, races, ages, and gender. 

It has also come to light that no single clear cause leads to imposter feelings. Instead, numerous factors combined may trigger imposter feelings. The following are the probable underlying causes: 

  • Childhood upbringing: A person raised in a family where parents pressured the child to perform better, compared siblings to one another, emphasized intelligence and harshly criticized every mistake may develop imposter syndrome. It is proven by research. Studies also suggest that people who experience high levels of conflict with low levels of support may be more likely to experience imposter syndrome.

For example: If a person was an academic achiever in primary and high school but for the first time academically lagged in college may start to doubt their capabilities and intelligence.  

  • New and unexplored territories: Entering a new role or exploring an unknown environment can trigger imposter feelings. The imposter feeling is more common when transitioning and trying new things—for example, starting a new  job or college may make an individual incapable or a sense of not belonging there. However, such feelings fade once the person familiarises themself with the role and responsibility. However, the feeling can worsen for some without validation, support, or encouragement from teachers, supervisors, and peers.
  • Underlying mental health symptoms: The fear of not belonging or failure can cause people also to experience anxiety and depression. But if a person is already experiencing mental issues, they may also often suffer from self-doubt, low self-confidence, and worries. The imposter syndrome can worsen mental health symptoms and create an inescapable cycle. 
  • Personality: Healthcare professionals believe certain qualities increase the risk of developing imposter feelings. The following are the personality traits:
  • Perfectionistic behaviour
  • Confidence to manage and successfully handle responsibilities
  • Neuroticism is linked to higher anxiety, insecurity, tension, and guilt levels. 
  • Social Anxiety:  There are times when social anxiety and imposter syndrome may overlap with each other. In such cases, a person may believe that they don’t belong to a particular situation or cannot perform efficiently. Sometimes, a person may feel that their peers may discover that they are social incompetent . Therefore , social anxiety can drive a person towards imposter syndrome, but it doesn’t mean that patients with social anxiety should experience imposter syndrome or the other way around. In general, imposter syndrome causes people to experience anxiety in certain unknown situations where the person feels incompetent and inadequate.

How is imposter syndrome diagnosed?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not consider imposter syndrome an official psychiatric diagnosis. However, people with imposter syndrome may also suffer from other mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression. But individuals usually may not easily get diagnosed with imposter syndrome. People can get help from healthcare providers or physicians to manage the syndrome if it hinders everyday life.

Who is at risk of developing imposter syndrome?

As mentioned above, any individual can develop imposter syndrome. But, numerous factors contribute to developing imposter syndrome, such as the following:

  • New changes in life : A recent change in personal or professional life may trigger a sense of being an imposter. If a person recently received a promotion or joined a dream organization, they may feel undeserving of the new position and not perform adequately. 
  • Family dynamics: If a person spent their childhood among other gifted individuals, they might feel inadequate, and these feelings may not be justified. Others were best performers in their childhood and may experience challenges in their adult life, thus generating a sense of being an imposter. 
  • Being from a marginalized population: Research shows that people from some ethnic groups are at a higher risk of developing imposter syndrome as they may constantly experience discrimination. 
  • Mental disorders: Typically, individuals with imposter syndrome may also have mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety.

How to overcome imposter syndrome?

If a person is experiencing imposter syndrome, working twice as hard to perform better may not alter the feeling of being an imposter. The following strategies may be challenging but may help resolve imposter feelings. 

  • Talk to people: Talking to close friends and relatives about imposter feelings may help eliminate the negative feeling of incompetence and inadequacy. Negative emotions may increase if not openly talked about.  
  • Help others: It may not look productive, but helping others in the same situation may help build confidence. If a colleague seems awkward or quiet, sit with them and talk to them to see if you can extend your support to them.
  • Assess abilities: If a patient has a long-held belief that they are an imposter. It may be a good idea to take a step back and assess their abilities. Writing down accomplishments and the things they are good at and comparing them with the realistic self-assessment may give a clear picture of abilities. 
  • One step at a time: Instead of looking at perfection, complete the task reasonably well. Once the job is completed satisfactorily, rewarding oneself is a good idea. 
  • Start questioning the negative thoughts: As a patient starts getting negative thoughts, it is better to question whether they are rational. Asking questions like ‘does this thought make sense given all that I know?’ may help mitigate any negative thoughts.
  • Do not compare: When a person avoids comparing themselves to others, the feeling of not being good reduces. During conversations, focus on listening and learning something new instead of comparing.
  • Limit social media: Not everything one sees on social media is true. Comparing yourself on social media may fester inferiority feelings. Trying to portray what’s on social media may be unachievable and, therefore, starts off the cycle of being incapable or inadequate. 
  • Accept feelings: Do not fight the feeling of inadequacy; in turn, accept those feelings and learn from them. Only when the patient accepts these feelings can they start understanding their core beliefs better. 

Conclusion

Whenever the feeling of being an imposter sets in, do not shun the feeling but work towards understanding and learning from them. It is important to focus on completing the task successfully and not look for perfection. However, if the disorder hinders a person’s daily life, asking for help is essential .  

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How common is imposter syndrome?

Close to 25-30% of high achievers may experience the disorder. Research suggests that nearly 70% of adults may develop the feeling of impostorism at least once in their lifespan. 

Are women more prone to experiencing imposter syndrome?

In the 1970s, the imposter syndrome was first documented among high-achieving women. Though it exists among women, particularly women of colour, men are also vulnerable to imposter syndrome.

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