Team sat around a table in a meeting at work
Team sat around a table in a meeting at work
24th Apr 2023

Understanding the meaning of imposter syndrome, and tips to help you develop coping strategies.

Imposter syndrome, also known as imposter phenomenon, is a psychological pattern where individuals doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a "fraud". It can affect anyone, regardless of gender, age, profession, or background.

The causes of imposter syndrome aren’t fully understood, but it is believed to be a combination of several factors such as perfectionism, fear of failure, social comparison, and past experiences1. Research suggests that imposter syndrome can have a negative impact on individuals, leading to feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. It can also affect relationships and the ability to perform well at work2.

While imposter syndrome can create feelings of anxiety and self-doubt, it's important to remember that it's a common human experience. As Dr. Naomi Humber, Head of Mental Wellbeing for Bupa Health Clinics comments: “We all have moments of feeling like an imposter, but imposter syndrome is not a reflection of our abilities, but rather a manifestation of our own self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud. Remember to acknowledge and address these feelings, rather than allowing them to hold us back.”

Understanding the definition, signs, and causes of imposter syndrome can help you recognise it and develop coping strategies to overcome it.

What are the signs of imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome can manifest in a variety of ways, but some common characteristics which contribute to imposter syndrome include:

  • Feeling like a fraud or a fake
  • Believing that success is due to luck or external factors, rather than your own abilities
  • Fear of being exposed as not good enough

People who struggle with imposter syndrome may exhibit a variety of behaviours, such as:

  1. Perfectionism: Those with imposter syndrome may hold themselves to extremely high standards and feel like they can never meet them, leading to self-criticism and self-doubt.
  2. Overworking: Trying to compensate for their perceived inadequacies, people with imposter syndrome may work excessively hard and sacrifice their personal life, leading to burnout.
  3. Self-doubt and second-guessing: People with imposter syndrome often struggle with decision-making and may constantly second-guess themselves, leading to anxiety and stress.
  4. Comparing themselves to others: Those with imposter syndrome may constantly compare themselves to their peers and feel inferior, leading to feelings of inadequacy.
  5. Dismissing their accomplishments: People with imposter syndrome may downplay their successes and attribute them to external factors, such as luck or connections, rather than their own abilities.

These behaviours can lead to a cycle of negative thinking and feelings of inadequacy, which can be difficult to break without addressing the underlying beliefs and thought patterns associated with imposter syndrome.

Overcoming imposter syndrome

Although the experience of imposter syndrome can feel overwhelming, there are things you can do each day to help ease these feelings. As Dr. Naomi says: “One way to tackle imposter syndrome is to focus on the facts, not the feelings - reminding yourself of your accomplishments and qualifications and recognising that everyone has moments of self-doubt.”

Some strategies that can help include:

Recognising and challenging negative thoughts and beliefs: Be aware of negative thoughts that may contribute to feelings of imposter syndrome, such as self-doubt, inadequacy, and a lack of confidence. Once identified, these thoughts can be challenged with evidence to the contrary and reframed with a more positive perspective.

Embracing failure and learning from mistakes: Failure is a natural part of learning and growth. Instead of fearing it, it's important to understand that it's an opportunity to learn and to try again. Mistakes are a valuable part of the process and by recognising them, you can use your learnings to improve.

Practicing self-compassion and self-care: Be kind to yourself - take care of your physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing by getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and engaging in activities that bring you joy.

Seeking support from friends, family, or a medical professional: Talking to someone you trust can help you gain perspective and find solutions to the problems that are causing your imposter syndrome. Medical professionals, like therapists, can also provide guidance and support in developing healthy coping mechanisms – also, check with your employer as some will have access to trained professionals who can help you.

Reducing the use of social media and avoiding comparison: Social media can fuel feelings of imposter syndrome by making it easy to compare yourself to others and think that you are not measuring up. Be mindful of how much time you spend on social media, and avoid comparing yourself to others, remembering that peoples’ social profiles are simply a small ‘snapshot’ of their lives. Instead, focus on your own progress and accomplishments.

1 According to Imposter Syndrome | Psychology Today. Last accessed January 2023

2 The International Journal of Behavioral Science shows that people are negatively affected by workplace imposter thoughts. Study from 2011, updated in 2022. Last accessed January 2023