What Is Imposter Syndrome?

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It's not uncommon to feel a dip in self-esteem during a major career or life transition—like going from being a full-time student to starting out on your professional path. But constantly feeling like your genuine accomplishments are phony is another story. You may be experiencing a behavioral pattern known as imposter syndrome.

While it's not an official mental health condition, this psychological phenomenon is generally described as feeling like a fraud (or an imposter, so to speak) after a legitimate achievement.

There are a few ways to spot imposter syndrome, as well as methods to try if feelings of fraud are interfering with your daily life.

Imposter Syndrome Characteristics

While imposter syndrome is not a true medical condition, the feeling of fraud is common enough that researchers have been studying it for decades. There are a few characteristics that set imposter syndrome apart from a momentary lapse in confidence.

Imposter syndrome is the experience of persistent feelings of self-doubt and an inability to believe in your own successes, particularly within professional settings. In other words, feeling like an imposter, as the name suggests.

Some individuals might also feel fear or anxiety around being exposed as a fraud when it comes to career or life achievements—even when there's solid proof that their success is backed by merit.

There isn't a set of official characteristics linked to imposter syndrome. But based on a growing body of research and observations, some experts have outlined the following characteristics as frequently appearing in people who report experiencing imposter syndrome:

  • Imposter cycle, where a task or assignment is approached with either over-preparation or procrastination.
  • Perfectionism, which is described as a "need to be the best."
  • Super-heroism, a behavior that can look like over-preparing for tasks or assignments in an effort to appear more-than capable.
  • Atychiphobia (or fear of failure), which is an experience of anxiety or fear of being shamed if a particular task isn't achieved.
  • Denial of competence and capability, a habit of discounting or brushing off experience, intelligence, skills, or talents.
  • Achievemephobia (or fear of success), which is difficulty accepting successes that may lead to higher expectations or workloads.

What Causes Imposter Syndrome?

There's no one direct cause of imposter syndrome. Rather, there are a few components that could come together to develop these feelings, including:

  • Family dynamics, parenting styles, and childhood upbringing that might've included a controlling environment or placing an extremely high value on achievement
  • Social dynamics, particularly those relating to marginalization (social exclusion), may cause people in minority groups to doubt their success or feel a sense of not belonging
  • Embarking on a new role, such as a new work or school opportunity, and feeling pressure
  • Certain personality traits, such as perfectionism or neuroticism

Risk Factors

Anyone can experience imposter syndrome. However, some groups may be more likely to experience the feeling than others, including:

  • Women
  • People from racially minoritized groups, such those who identify as Black, Latinx, or Asian
  • Students
  • Younger people
  • People who experience depression and anxiety

How Is Imposter Syndrome Diagnosed?

Although many experts agree imposter syndrome is a real phenomenon, it's not an official medical condition listed in national and international mental health diagnostic manuals. This means a healthcare provider can't diagnose you with imposter syndrome in the same way they would diagnose anxiety or depression, for example.

However, there are a handful of tools available to help identify potential situations where imposter syndrome might be present.

One of the most frequently used measures is the Clance Imposter Phenomenon (IP) Scale. This scaling tool rates and measures certain opinions, attitudes, and behaviors related to imposter syndrome.

The Clance IP scale is made up of 20 questions that aim to help assess concepts related to imposter syndrome such as:

  • Self-doubt about a person's own intelligence and abilities
  • How likely a person is to attribute success to luck or chance
  • The ability to admit or realize a good performance

The questions might appear as statements like, "I avoid evaluations if possible and have a dread of others evaluating me" or, "I can give the impression that I'm more competent than I really am." You would answer: not true at all, rarely, sometimes, often, or very true. Each of these answers has a corresponding rating, or number.

From these ratings, a total score is calculated. The score is meant to indicate whether the person might frequently experience imposter feelings, and if so, how seriously the imposter phenomenon might interfere with their life.

How to Treat Imposter Syndrome

Because it's not an official mental health condition, there's no widely accepted medical treatment for imposter syndrome. However, there are ways to address the feelings and effects on your life from imposter syndrome.

First, consider whether your experience with imposter syndrome is situational, such as happening when you hit a big work milestone, or constant and pervasive. If your imposter feelings are interfering with your thoughts or taking over your entire day, you may want to reach out to a healthcare provider.

They'll be able to refer to you a mental health care professional who can analyze your situation and talk through options for additional screening. They might suggest managing imposter feelings through:

  • Psychotherapy, or talk therapy meant to help a person address certain thoughts and behaviors.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of psychotherapy that aims to identify negative patterns of thinking and behavior, improve coping skills, and create new patterns.
  • Group counseling, or therapy within a group of people who are experiencing a similar issue.

People who experience imposter syndrome may be at risk for other mental health issues, like anxiety, depression, and burnout. It's important to seek assistance from a provider in case additional screening is needed.

A Quick Review

Imposter syndrome is a reported behavioral pattern in which a person has persistent feelings of self-doubt and often attributes their own successes to luck rather than genuine ability.

While it's not an officially diagnosable condition, researchers have observed the phenomenon for decades. A person with imposter syndrome might experience feelings of perfectionism as well as a fear of failure or a fear of success.

If you think you might be experiencing pervasive imposter syndrome, talk to a healthcare provider for screening and potential treatment options, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

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