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16 Mar 2023

Imposter Syndrome

Caitlin Young, Cognitive Behavioural Therapist at Psych Health, shares her thoughts on imposter syndrome: what it is, how it can manifest and how to minimise it or banish it from your life.

Allow me to share to a short anecdote with you. I recently celebrated a one-year work anniversary. In the same week I reached this professional milestone, I received a meeting request from my manager asking for us to set up a time for us to talk. Instead of assuming it was going to be a positive review of my achievement, I was plagued with debilitating thoughts: “You are a fraud and they are going to sack you”.

I was derailed by my belief that my hard work to reach this milestone was not good enough and that I had fooled myself into thinking I could do my job. Hello, Imposter Syndrome.

This is a typical example of my how imposter syndrome can run rife in your life, impacting your confidence and self-esteem.


What is Imposter Syndrome?

The term ‘Imposter Phenomenon’ was first developed by psychologists Dr Pauline Rose Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes. Together, they recognised that most high-achieving undergraduate students experienced a sense of doubt towards themselves regarding their academic achievements. 

Clance and Imes researched this phenomenon and identified that the feelings of being an imposter could be experienced by anyone, no matter their gender, race, age or occupation. Two great examples of this are Maya Angelou and Albert Einstein who each declared that despite the incredible accomplishments they had achieved in their respected fields, they both felt an ‘unwarranted’ sense of success and questioned their skills and abilities.  

When an individual struggles with Imposter Syndrome, they have a nagging doubt within themselves that they have not earned their accomplishments. They will feel fraudulent and will believe that their ideas and skills are not worthy of attention.

Imposter Syndrome is not necessarily connected to people who are highly skilled who question their accomplishments – rather, any person who ruminates and questions their accomplishment or undervalues their contribution might be suffering from a degree of Imposter Syndrome. 

One of the difficulties related to this syndrome is pluralistic ignorance, which is when a person will doubt themselves privately and think they are alone in how they are feeling. They will not speak up or they will refrain from sharing how they are feeling about themselves – and by not sharing their doubts or fears with others, they will continue to inwardly believe they are less capable than their peers. 

Imposter Syndrome can prevent people from contributing ideas or even applying for jobs, as they believe the internal message that they are frauds and their skills and knowledge do not count.


Do I have Imposter Syndrome, and, if so, how do I challenge it?

There is no diagnosis or questionnaire that we can fill out to determine whether we have Imposter Syndrome, but there are some key characteristics that might help you to recognise if in fact you are struggling with some type of Imposter Syndrome.

  • If you struggle to realistically assess your competence and skills and dismiss your efforts or intelligence when it comes to acquiring a skill and perceive your efforts as not enough;
  • If you continuously attribute your success to external factors and take no credit for your efforts, rather explaining it away to other people or circumstances;
  • If you always berate your performance and criticise your efforts for not being not done to a ‘perfect’ or ‘masterful’ standard;
  • If you experience a continuous feeling of self-doubt about yourself, or if you find yourself always questioning your skills, your capabilities and your general efforts;
  • Finally, if you have a continuous fear that no matter what you do, it will not be enough and you will not live up to the (perceived) expectations.

To challenge Imposter Syndrome, start with small acts, including sharing how you feel with someone you feel close to and whom you trust. You might then be able to ask this person to help you assess your abilities with an impartial perspective – they could be able to point out what your strengths and your real weaknesses are in a safe and non-judgemental space.

You could start to question the negative thoughts you have about yourself, for example, does it make sense to consider yourself a fraud given everything you do know and have accomplished?

Try to recognise when you are comparing yourself to others and their accomplishments.  As the saying goes ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’, and if you are continuously comparing yourself to others and their accomplishments, you overlook and dismiss your own worth.

Finally, you can adopt an approach of refusing to be held back by your beliefs of yourself. Remind yourself of what you have achieved, celebrate it and remind yourself you can keep going!