Imposter Syndrome

Specialty of Psychiatry

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a pattern of thought which causes you to feel as though your success is undeserved and fear exposure as a “fraud”.

Imposter syndrome is not a mental disorder, and it is not classed as a medical condition by the World Health Organisation. It is commonly referred to as a mental “phenomenon” – a pattern of thoughts and feelings that many of us develop in response to the circumstances we are in.

What does it involve?

The core of imposter syndrome is the inability to internalise success. Someone with imposter syndrome will attribute their success to luck or the mistakes of other people, and success fails to affect their self-confidence. Success can even lead to increased fear of being found out, as the person’s new responsibilities are seen as unmanageable.

Imposter syndrome behaviour can take a number of forms, and researchers who coined the term imposter syndrome identified a number of “types”, including:

  • the “perfectionist” – someone who sets excessively high goals for themselves and feels like a failure when unable to meet their goals completely
  • the “soloist” – someone who refuses to ask for help for fear of looking like a failure
  • the “expert” – someone who strives to know everything that can be known about a topic before starting a task
  • the “superman/superwoman” – someone whose drive to excel leaves them burnt out and unable to fulfil other roles and relationships

Who does it affect?

Imposter syndrome is extremely prevalent – up to 70% of young people can be affected at some point. Imposter syndrome is commonly thought to affect women more than men, but is in fact equally prevalent in both sexes.

Research into the causes of imposter syndrome is ongoing, but it is thought that you are more likely to be affected by imposter syndrome if:

  • you have a gifted or exceptional sibling who received a lot of praise growing up
  • you received frequent praise yourself growing up and achievement formed part of your identity
  • your confidence is hit by being in a situation where you are very different to the people round you

How is it treated?

Although imposter syndrome is not classified as a mental illness, various forms of treatment including psychotherapy and group psychotherapy have been found to be helpful in overcoming the thought processes that make up imposter syndrome. The specific thought processes to tackle depend on what kind of imposter syndrome you have, and what motivates you. In addition to face-to-face therapy, there are a growing number of online resources aimed at helping people overcome imposter syndrome.

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