Well-being & Happiness

Imposter Syndrome: Causes, Types, and Coping Tips

Do you often feel like a fraud or phony in your work, school, or personal life? Learn about the causes of these feelings of inadequacy and how to overcome the imposter phenomenon.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome, also known as imposter phenomenon or impostorism, is the tendency to believe your success is undeserved and that someday people will realize you’re a fraud. The belief persists even when concrete evidence, such as degrees or awards, indicates that you are worthy of your accomplishments.

If you struggle with imposter syndrome, you tend to rationalize away your status and success. You may feel like you only landed your current job title because someone felt bad for you, or that your high GPA is just a matter of luck. The imposter phenomenon isn’t limited to school and work life. You might also experience it in your romantic relationships, parenting efforts, or even in your hobbies.

Imposter syndrome is not a diagnosable mental illness. Instead, it’s a cognitive distortion identified by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clancein the 1970s. Initially thought to only affect women, research shows that men can also experience the imposter phenomenon. Different estimates show that as many as 70 to 80 percent of us could experience imposter syndrome at some point in our lives.

However, it is possible to tame your fears and sense of inadequacy. It all starts with developing a better understanding of impostorism and its roots. From there, you can reassess the ways in which you view your own competency, internalize success, and compare yourself to those around you.

Effects of imposter syndrome

Despite how widespread it is, impostorism can be isolating. People generally don’t share their imposter experiences because part of the distortion involves fearing that others will realize that you’re undeserving or incompetent. Instead, you’re more likely to suffer in silence.

Imposter syndrome can affect many areas of your life. If you feel like an imposter in academia, you might believe you need to work yourself to exhaustion to fit in. At work, fear of being seen as a phony could lead you to turn down promotions and stunt your professional growth. Similarly, in your hobbies, a fear of failure can prevent you from trying out new things, like joining a sports team or experimenting with new crafts or creative endeavors.

In relationships, you might feel you’re unworthy of your partner’s love. Your self-doubt could lead you to constantly seek reassurance, placing a greater strain on the relationship. If you’re a parent with imposter syndrome, you might unfavorably compare yourself with other parents. Or you may have unrealistically high expectations that you unintentionally push onto your children, or even your spouse.

Imposter syndrome can also be a systemic issue. For example, if you’re a woman, a racial minority, or part of another marginalized group, feelings of self-doubt and perceived shortcomings can discourage you from making your voice heard or pursuing opportunities in college or the workplace. This can curb diversity and hinder the spread of new ideas and perspectives.

Imposter syndrome and anxiety or depression

Imposter syndrome often occurs alongside depression and anxiety. Depression can make it difficult for you to acknowledge your victories and strengths, while anxiety can lead you to fixate on how others perceive you. Failing to reach your own high standards will only further contribute to feelings of anxiety or despair.

5 types of imposter syndrome

Although imposter syndrome always involves high standards, not everyone who experiences this phenomenon has the exact same mindset. Different people will hold themselves to different standards and have different definitions of “competence.”

In her book, “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women,” Valerie Young Ed.D identifies five forms of imposter syndrome:

  • Perfectionist
  • Superhuman
  • Natural genius
  • Soloist
  • Expert

Not everyone will fit neatly into a single category. You might identify with traits of more than one subtype. However, having a basic understanding of these subtypes can help you recognize and address the underlying thoughts and beliefs contributing to your feelings of inadequacy.

  1. Perfectionist: You set unrealistically high standards for yourself and sometimes other people as well. Anything short of perfection feels like failure. You tend to be overly critical of your performance and doubt the quality of your work.
  2. Superhuman: Unlike a perfectionist, who may feel satisfied if they can meet high standards in one specific area, you expect to master multiple roles. Your focus is on how many things you can handle, so you tend to take on excessive responsibilities and overextend yourself in the process.
  3. Natural Genius: As well as setting unrealistically high expectations, you also judge yourself on speed and how easily you complete tasks. Your thinking might be, “I’m naturally talented. So, I should be able to excel without effort or much coaching.” You can feel frustrated when dealing with tasks that involve patiently honing skills or learning through multiple failures.
  4. Soloist: You believe that asking for help from others is a sign of incompetence. You want to prove your worth by working independently, and you struggle to accept support from others. If you have to reach out for help or succeed by collaborating, you may feel that the overall achievement “doesn’t count.”
  5. Expert: You are hyper-focused on knowledge. You feel like you must know everything there is to know before starting on a task or pursuing a new opportunity. You seek multiple degrees or excessive certifications to ensure you are the most knowledgeable on a specific subject. You fear situations where you may have to showcase your “limited” expertise.


Multiple factors can contribute to feelings of inadequacy or impostorism, including your personality, upbringing, and work environment.

Personality. Research shows that people who are highly neurotic—meaning easily upset or prone to anxiety—are more likely to experience imposter syndrome. The same is true for people who are perfectionists. Low self-esteem is also related to a higher risk of imposter feelings.

[Read: Personality Types, Traits, and How it Affects Mental Health]

Upbringing and parenting style. A person’s early relationship with their parents can play a role in the development of impostorism. For example, if your parents were overprotective or controlling, you may be more at risk. Similarly, it’s more common when a family puts a high priority on achievement or when parents are inconsistent in how they criticize or praise their children.

Being different from peers. Being different from peers might increase your susceptibility to imposter feelings. For instance, in the workplace or classroom, you might differ from those around you in terms of ethnicity, race, gender, age, or socioeconomic status. Hence why imposter syndrome seems to be more common in women and minority groups.

Social media. Many studies indicate that social media can affect your confidence and self-esteem. It’s easy to judge yourself harshly when you’re looking at a “highlight reel” of your peers’ adventures, successes, and achievements. One 2023 survey of LinkedIn users found that using the platform and browsing through other people’s posts triggered imposter thoughts. Those thoughts can then lead to negative emotions like anxiety and despondency.

Setting. Imposter syndrome seems to be very common in academia, especially in doctoral programs. It’s possible that these types of environments breed a culture of competitiveness. In the business world, marginalized individuals may feel undeserving when they notice that company leadership is dominated by people who are unlike them. For example, a woman may feel imposter syndrome when surrounded by only male leaders.

Symptoms of imposter syndrome

Impostorism is more than just ordinary self-doubt. After all, you can have self-doubt without feeling like a fraud or imposter. While Imposter syndrome isn’t a diagnosable condition, there are a few symptoms you can keep an eye out for (although not everyone with imposter syndrome experiences all of these characteristics):

Imposter Cycle. Some people get caught in what researchers call the “Imposter Cycle”. When faced with an assignment or task, your anxiety and self-doubt lead you to either overprepare or procrastinate, the latter being followed by a frantic push to get the work done on time.

Once the task is complete, you may briefly feel good about your achievement, but that relief doesn’t last. Instead of accepting positive feedback from those around you, you explain away your success:

  • If you overprepared, you might think, “I’m not actually good at this. I only succeeded because I had to put in an extreme amount of work.”
  • If you procrastinated, you might believe, “I’m not actually good at this. I only succeeded through luck.”
  • When the next task comes along, the cycle repeats. You’re once again filled with self-doubt and feel like you need to overwork or risk being exposed as incompetent.

Perfectionism. You might have a desire to be the best among your peer group. You want to be employee of the month, top of the class, the fastest, the smartest, the most productive. When you make mistakes or fail to reach those unattainable standards, you feel deep shame or humiliation. In situations where you’re surrounded by other intelligent or skilled people, you feel discouraged and dismiss your own abilities.

Overpreparation. You tend to want to be overprepared. Maybe you go above and beyond in studying for class, or perhaps you overwork yourself to be seen as a perfect parent or spouse. All of this eventually affects your mental health and puts you at risk of burnout.

Fear of failure. The thought of failure terrifies you because it brings on feelings of shame. It builds on that internal narrative that says you’re an imposter, you don’t belong. Failure also seems to bring you one step closer to being exposed as a fraud. To avoid failure, you overwork and overprepare.

Denial of your abilities. You tend to explain away your accomplishments, talents, and skills. You overlook or completely reject praise, compliments, and positive feedback from others. This isn’t the same as being a modest person. Instead, you attribute your success to random chance or some other external factors.

Fear of success. You may fear that being successful will result in other people raising their expectations of you. For example, a promotion at work could result in more responsibilities. You might feel that as those expectations and demands rise, so do the chances of you being exposed as a fraud. You might also fear success because it could make you feel more distant from those around you. For example, maybe you worry about being rejected by your peers.

Dealing with imposter syndrome tip 1: Reframe your view of competence

Perhaps you relate to one or more of the five forms of imposter syndrome listed above, such as the expert or natural genius. Once you have identified your form of imposter syndrome, you can try a few strategies to change your perception of what it means to be competent and successful.

If you’re a perfectionist:

Consider that perfectionism can actually be a roadblock to success. It can make it harder for you to be present, hinder your creativity, and keep you from taking risks and pursuing opportunities. It can also affect your relationships with peers, especially if you expect them to live up to impossibly high standards.

Practice being imperfect. Tell yourself that, “Good enough is often good enough.” In many cases, you can make improvements later. Submit work that’s likely to receive a B+ rather than an A+. Be a few minutes late for a meeting. Leave your desk just a little more disorganized than usual.

If you judge yourself on how easily you master a task:

Remember to be patient with yourself. Repetition and persistence are often the paths to improvement. It might help to reframe challenges as opportunities or experiments rather than hurdles that you need to clear with ease.

Take up a task or hobby that you’re unfamiliar with. Try your hand at a new language or experiment with a new recipe. Allow yourself to get comfortable with being a novice and learning through repeated failures. If you feel frustrated, remind yourself, “Everyone is a work in progress, and I will always have room to grow.”

If you believe you need to know everything before starting a task:

Keep in mind that the quest for knowledge is actually an unending pursuit. Recognize your limits and acknowledge that you don’t need to know everything to start a task. Sometimes it’s more important to simply identify who has the knowledge that you’re lacking and ask for their help.

Practice relying on others for information. Start with a goal of asking one or two questions each day. Feeling uncertain about a professor’s instructions? Not sure how to handle a new task in the workplace? Ask a peer or mentor. This can help you confront the fear of being seen as “stupid.”

If you hesitate to ask for assistance:

Know that asking for help is also a sign of competence. It’s important for you to acknowledge your limits and know when to seek assistance.

Embrace the idea of teamwork. Outside of school or work, consider taking up a hobby that requires collaboration. For example, you can join a local sports team or try out co-op video games with friends.

If you believe you need to “do it all” yourself:

Consider the benefits of narrowing your focus. Knowing when and how to delegate frees you up to put your time, effort, and resources toward a single goal.

Challenge yourself to decline or delegate work. Practice saying “no” when someone wants you to take on new responsibilities, especially if you’re already stretched thin. You could also identify a few responsibilities that you currently have and ask someone else to take them on. For example, ask your significant other if they’re willing to make dinner or handle some other household chores. This can help you let go of the idea that you need to do everything.

Tip 2: Own your success

People with imposter syndrome often chalk their success entirely up to outside factors. But it’s important to acknowledge that a combination of internal and external factors often contribute to achievements. Try out the following exercise:

  • Start by listing your achievements. The list can include anything from earning a certification or promotion to winning a contest or receiving an award.
  • Next to each item on the list, write an external factor that played a role in your success. For example, you may believe you only got a job offer because someone recommended you.
  • In a third column, give yourself some credit. What actions did you take that helped your success? If someone recommended you for a job, you likely did something to earn their confidence, and performed well in an interview. You also took the initiative and seized on the opportunity to apply for the position.

The goal here is to acknowledge that, to some extent, luck, timing, and other factors always play a role—not just in your accomplishments, but in the accomplishments of everyone.

Other tips for owning your success

Practice accepting compliments. You might instinctively dismiss your achievements, either verbally or internally. But the next time someone offers you praise, take a moment to pause and simply say, “Thank you.” Or take an extra step and tell the person that you appreciate them acknowledging your accomplishment. This exercise can help you break the cycle of diminishing your achievements and learn to internalize positive feedback.

Celebrate successes. Make a habit of rewarding yourself when you complete a task. The reward can be as simple as taking a break in your favorite coffee shop, or as lavish as a trip to a spa. The point is to create a mental connection between you and your success. Consider also treating yourself even if you didn’t succeed but gave it your best try. Acknowledge your efforts.

Keep visual evidence. Visual reminders of your accomplishments can also help you take ownership of your successes. You don’t necessarily need to create an entire trophy room. A more subtle approach could be to keep a file that includes high test scores or letters of recommendation written for you.

Tip 3: Reassess the gap between yourself and others

Having an inflated view of others can make you feel like you’re out of your league. You might build others up while tearing yourself down.

Open up. One of the simplest ways to challenge that perceived competency gap between you and those around you is to share your feelings with a mentor, trusted individual, or therapist. Talking to others about your feelings can reduce the sense of isolation that comes with imposter syndrome. Sharing also gives other people the opportunity to share their perspectives on you. You might be surprised to find that others admire your talents. It’s also possible that they’ll relate to what you’re going through.

Be careful who you share your feelings with. Talking to peers or people you’re competing with might only tempt you to draw more comparisons between yourself and them. In some cases, it might be best to talk with people who are outside of your direct professional circle. If you’re part of a marginalized or minority community, talking to people who are similar to you can prove useful.

Look for the backstories. You might assume that the people around you have reached success with minimum effort, or that they’re naturally more talented or intelligent. Challenge those assumptions and get curious about other peoples’ journeys. Ask questions, read books, and listen to interviews with people you admire. You’re likely to find that even the most successful people have struggled and run into setbacks. You might also notice the ways in which luck and other outside factors have played a role in their success.

Cut back on social media. As previously mentioned, social media can tempt you to unfavorably compare your accomplishments with others and fuel feelings of inadequacy. Although social media can come with benefits, it’s possible to overdo the time spent on these platforms.

  • Use an app that tracks how much time you spend on social media daily, and then aim to gradually reduce that time.
  • Disable notifications or, if possible, set aside specific times of the day when you put your phone on airplane mode.
  • Dedicate more time to offline interactions and hobbies.

[Read: Social Media and Mental Health]

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Tip 4: Stay mindful of your thoughts

Mindfulness practices can help mitigate imposter feelings. Mindfulness involves a nonjudgemental awareness of present sensations, thoughts, and emotions.

[Read: Benefits of Mindfulness]

After a work meeting, for example, you fixate on all the little mistakes you made, whether you failed to speak up or simply said the “wrong” thing. You might feel frustrated by your performance, or get stuck in a loop of negative self-talk, such as, “I’m so stupid. I don’t belong here.” These emotions can also come with physical symptoms, such as muscle tension.

Be an observer. Mindfulness involves a nonjudgmental approach, so don’t disparage yourself for having certain thoughts or feelings. Just observe them as they show up and pass through your mind. It might be helpful to picture a conveyor belt, and then imagine each thought as an item moving along the belt.

This allows you to slow down and put space between you and those racing thoughts and fears of inadequacy. Recognize that you are not your thoughts, and thoughts are not the same as facts.

Challenge your thoughts. Once you’ve noticed a negative thought pattern, you can begin to challenge it. When you think, “I’m not qualified for this position,” consider the evidence to the contrary. Perhaps you’re frequently complimented on your skills. Or you could switch to a more optimistic view, such as, “I made a mistake, but I can improve and grow.”

You might also find it helpful to counter negative inner self-talk with meditation. Try out HelpGuide’s 10-minute mindfulness meditation Being Kind to Yourself.

Expect imposter feelings to resurface. Even after you become aware of your imposter feelings and work to overcome them, they’ll likely still crop up from time to time. The feelings can be particularly stubborn during major shifts in your life—such as starting a new job or transferring into a new degree program.

Don’t feel discouraged. Keep in mind that you’re not alone. Other people around may also be dealing with the same internal struggles. What matters most is that you’re aware of the distorted thoughts and take the time to look after your well-being.

Last updated or reviewed on April 29, 2024