Impostor Syndrome

Have you ever had a nagging doubt of your own accomplishments or an irrational fear that you’ll be exposed as a fraud? You may have had a bout of impostor syndrome.

While not a mental disorder as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), impostor syndrome is a term used to describe the phenomenon of feeling like a fraud or not deserving what one has achieved. You may be convinced that others view you as more accomplished, successful, or intelligent than you really are and may view your successes as the result of luck. You may also feel afraid of or guilty about success. If you’ve ever experienced this, you’re not alone. Up to 70% of us will experience signs of impostor syndrome at least once.

Impostor syndrome is related to symptoms of depression, such as poor self-esteem and feeling a sense of failure. It can also be associated with anxiety. When first described in the late 1970s, impostor syndrome was observed mostly in women. Later studies determined that the phenomenon occurs roughly equally in men and women. It may occur more often in certain minority groups, particularly in certain settings. Although we usually think of impostor syndrome occurring in academia or the workplace, it can occur in other settings as well, such as a neighborhood (feeling undeserving of living in a “nice” neighborhood), in certain social interactions, and in romantic relationships (feeling unworthy of one’s partner and worrying that the partner would leave them if they really knew them).

Anyone can have a bout of impostor syndrome, but research has identified some correlates among individuals who struggle with the symptoms. People who lean toward perfectionism are more likely to experience these feelings, but perfectionistic behavior can also result from impostor syndrome as the sufferer anxiously tries to live up to their achievement. You are more likely to experience impostor syndrome if your parents were overprotective or had unreasonably high expectations of you. The onset of symptoms can correlate with a new success, such as a promotion, a new job, or graduating from college. The impostor symptoms may represent feeling unprepared or unqualified for the new status or role.

If you are struggling with impostor syndrome, there is hope! Talking it over with trusted peers, a counselor, or a mentor in your field can help you to work through your feelings and improve your courage and self-esteem surrounding your successes. If you find that you take the full weight of responsibility for your failures, yet you attribute your successes to luck or happenstance, re-evaluate your position. Are you really being fair to yourself?

Take some time to do a realistic self-assessment of your knowledge, skills, and abilities. Did you have unrealistic expectations of how much you would know or how you would feel before you achieved the success or achievement that resulted in impostor feelings? Recognize that you don’t have to be the absolute best to be worthy and deserving. Recognize that you’re always learning, making mistakes is part of growth, and you deserve whatever rewards your accomplishments have brought your way.