Imposter Syndrome: Why Do You May Feel Like a Fraud?

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where one feels like a fraud or a fake despite having achieved genuine success. It can occur in various aspects of life, such as work, relationships, or friendships. Imposter syndrome is a common and frustrating experience because it hinders the development of self-confidence that one has earned and deserves to feel.

If you often feel self-doubt, even in areas where you excel, you may be experiencing imposter syndrome. This condition can manifest as nervousness and the belief that you will be "found out". It can also lead to negative self-talk and is often accompanied by symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Imposter syndrome is not a diagnosable mental illness. Instead, the term is usually narrowly applied to intelligence and achievement, although it also has links to perfectionism and the social context.

Types of Imposter Syndrome

The Perfectionist

This type of Imposter Syndrome is characterized by the belief that unless one is absolutely perfect, one could have done better. This can make one feel like an imposter because one's perfectionistic traits lead one to believe that they are not as good as others might perceive them to be.

The Expert

Sometimes, even experts feel like imposters because they might not know everything about a particular subject or topic or have mastered every step in a process. This makes them feel as if they haven't reached the rank of an "expert" yet because there's always more to learn.

The Natural Genius

There is a type of imposter syndrome where one may feel like a fraud simply because they don't believe that they are naturally intelligent or competent. If they don't get something right the first time around or it takes them longer to master a skill, they feel like an imposter.

The Soloist

It's common to feel like an imposter if you've had to ask for help reaching a certain level or status. You may question your own abilities since you couldn't get there on your own.

The Superperson

This type of imposter syndrome involves believing that you must be the hardest worker or reach the highest levels of achievement possible and, if you don't, you are a fraud.

How Do I Know If I Have Imposter Syndrome?

The concept of imposter syndrome was initially believed to be specific to high-achieving women. However, it has now been recognized as a more widely experienced phenomenon. Imposter syndrome can affect anyone, regardless of their social status, work background, skill level, or degree of expertise.

Although it is not officially recognized as a mental health disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), it is quite common. In fact, research suggests that approximately 70% of people will experience at least one episode of this phenomenon at some point in their lives.

If you're unsure whether you have imposter syndrome or not, you can ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you agonize over even the most minor mistakes in your work?
  • Do you attribute your success to luck or other external factors?
  • Are you sensitive to constructive criticism?
  • Do you feel that you will be exposed as a fraud?
  • Do you downplay your expertise, even in areas where you are highly skilled?

What Does Imposter Syndrome Feel Like?

Here are the common characteristics of imposter syndrome:

  • Difficulty in realistically assessing your competence and skills
  • Attributing your success to external factors
  • Criticizing your performance
  •  Fear of not being able to meet expectations 
  • Overworking
  • Engaging in behaviors that sabotage your success 
  • Experiencing self-doubt 

Impact of Imposter Syndrome

Impostor syndrome can drive some individuals to pursue their goals but at the expense of experiencing constant anxiety. This may lead to over-preparation or working harder than necessary to avoid being exposed as a fraud. Over time, this anxiety can worsen and potentially lead to depression.

This creates a harmful cycle where you begin to believe that the sole reason for your success in a class presentation was that you stayed up all night practicing. Alternatively, you may think the only reason you were able to get through a party or family gathering was because you memorized information about all the guests, allowing you always to have something to talk about.

The problem with impostor syndrome is that the experience of doing well at something does nothing to change your beliefs. The thought still nags in your head, "What gives me the right to be here?" The more you accomplish, the more you just feel like a fraud. It's as though you can't internalize your experiences of success.

It is understandable to experience social anxiety if you receive negative feedback early on about your social or performance abilities. Your self-perceptions are deeply ingrained, and even when presented with evidence to the contrary, they remain unchanged. You may believe that any success you achieve is due to luck rather than your capabilities.

Causes of Imposter Syndrome

Family Upbringing

Research indicates that parenting styles characterized by being controlling or overprotective may contribute to the development of imposter syndrome in children.

For instance, you may have grown up in a family where success and accomplishments held great importance. Alternatively, your parents may have tended to alternate between praise and criticism.

Research also suggests that individuals who come from families that experience frequent conflicts with low levels of support may be at a higher risk of developing imposter syndrome.

New Work or School Opportunities

It is well-known that when taking on a new role, it is common to experience impostor syndrome. For instance, starting college might make you feel like you don't belong and are incapable. Similarly, you may feel the same when starting a new job. 

Imposter syndrome tends to be more prevalent during transitions or when trying new things. The pressure to succeed and achieve, combined with a lack of experience, can trigger feelings of inadequacy in these new roles and settings.

Personality Traits 

Certain personality traits have been linked to a higher risk of experiencing imposter syndrome. These traits include:

Low self-efficacy:
Self-efficacy refers to your belief in your ability to succeed in any given situation.

Perfectionism is a major factor contributing to impostor syndrome. It may make you believe that there exists a perfect "script" for every conversation and that you cannot go wrong. You may also struggle to seek assistance from others and delay tasks due to your own exceptionally high standards.

Neuroticism is a personality trait associated with higher levels of anxiety, insecurity, tension, and guilt.

Coping With Imposter Syndrome

If you are struggling with impostor syndrome, ask yourself some challenging questions. Here are a few to consider

- What are some of the fundamental beliefs that I hold about myself?

- Do I believe that I am deserving of love and acceptance just the way I am?

- Do I have to be flawless in order to gain approval from others?

To overcome these emotions, it is essential to feel at ease while facing some of the deeply-rooted beliefs you hold about yourself. This activity can be challenging since you may not be aware of holding these beliefs. However, here are some techniques you can use to help you confront them:

Share your feelings:
Talking to others about your feelings can help to prevent irrational beliefs from festering internally.

Focus on others:
Although it may seem counterintuitive, try to assist others who are in the same situation as you. If you come across someone who appears to be feeling awkward or alone, try asking them a question to involve them in the conversation. As you continue to improve your social skills, you will gain greater confidence in your ability to interact with others.

Assess your abilities:
If you have long-held beliefs about your incompetence in social and performance situations, make a realistic assessment of your abilities. Write down your accomplishments and what you are good at, then compare these with your self-assessment.

Take small steps:
Instead of striving for perfection, aim to do things reasonably well and reward yourself for taking action. For instance, in a group conversation, share a personal story or offer your opinion.

Question your thoughts:
As you take baby steps towards assessing your abilities, question the rationality of your thoughts. Given all that you know, does it make sense to believe that you are a fraud?

Stop comparing:
When you compare yourself to others in social situations, you may find faults with yourself that lead to feelings of inadequacy or exclusion. Instead, try to focus on actively listening to the other person during conversations and showing genuine interest in learning more about them.

Refuse to let it hold you back:
No matter how much you feel like an imposter or out of place, do not let it stop you from pursuing your goals. Keep going and refuse to be defeated.

Final Words

Imposter Syndrome makes you doubt yourself, feeling like you're not good enough despite achievements. It's common but can be beaten by acknowledging it, being kind to yourself, and realizing your true abilities. Don't let it hold you back—believe in yourself.