Imposter syndrome is a cognitive distortion, which is a biased mental perspective that certain people take on, which can cause them to doubt their skills and accomplishments. They may also doubt other people’s high regard or their own history and track record. Impostor syndrome can affect anyone—from students to professionals and even highly accomplished and successful people. It is understood to have a variety of causes and is not classed as an official psychological condition. However, this syndrome is often associated with other mental health conditions. Various research has shown that imposter syndrome comes from a combination of factors which include family environment, social pressure, personality type and a lack of sense of belonging.
Some common characteristics of imposter syndrome include:
- Feelings of self-doubt
- Sabotaging own success
- Undervaluing own contributions
- Suffering from low self-esteem
- Harbouring a fear of failure
- Not accepting recognition for achievements
- Negatively comparing oneself to other people
Five types of Imposter Syndrome
Internationally recognised expert on impostor syndrome, Dr Valerie Young, who earned her doctoral degree in education from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1982, has identified and categorised Imposter Syndrome into five types.
1. Perfectionist type
While setting high standards can motivate us to achieve our goals, Imposter Syndrome fuels perfectionism, where an individual will strive for faultlessness to prevent exposure as a self-perceived fraud. Its underlying sentiment is fear of losing control. Many people who experience Impostor Syndrome are perfectionists, setting themselves unreasonably high goals, and then feeling shame when they fail to achieve them. Such perfectionism reinforces low self-esteem, reduces productivity and enhances performance anxiety, resulting in excessive self-criticism, anxiety and even burnout. Being a perfectionist and suffering from low self-esteem go together – one builds on the other. Because a perfectionist never feels good enough about their personal performance, they feel like a loser or a failure.
Signs you may be the perfectionist type include:
- A desire to micromanage every detail
- Not knowing how to, or wanting to, delegate tasks
- Obsessing over minute details
- Struggling with decision-making
- Having exceedingly high standards and unrealistic expectations
- Having an overwhelming fear of failure or making mistakes
2. Superhuman type
The Superhuman imposter type measures their competence based on how many roles — manager, employee, partner, parent, friend, team member or volunteer — they can juggle and do well at. Its underlying sentiment is fear of free time or taking time off from work.
Falling short in any role will lead to feelings of shame because they feel they should be able to handle everything they turn their hand to with ease. Thus, workaholics are a natural fit for the Superhuman imposter syndrome type. They feel they need to work harder than those around them to achieve all that they do. They are high achievers who put huge pressure on themselves to excel in all areas of their life in a bid to justify their accomplishments and success.
Signs you may be the superhuman type include:
- Juggling multiple tasks at once—work, parenthood, chores, a side business etc.
- Regularly finding yourself working overtime, and way past working hours.
- You neglect your family, friends and “me time” to work more.
- You feel stressed when you are not working.
- You feel guilty when taking breaks or enjoying leisure activities.
- You put a lot of pressure on yourself to perform at your best.
3. Natural Genius type
The Natural Genius imposter type is characterised by a person’s belief that their success is solely based on their natural talent or intelligence. This creates an unrealistic expectation of perfection and makes “natural genius” types feel like a fraud when they fail. Its underlying emotion is shame of failing.
One hallmark of this type of imposter syndrome is that success has always come easily to them without really trying. For example, this person may have been a particularly high performer in school, without really trying, or enjoyed some early career success. The natural genius type believes that things should always be effortless and come easily to them. If certain things do not, they feel like a fraud. As a result, they set impossibly high standards for themselves and, when they get into a highly competitive environment, it can be incredibly overwhelming as they are forced to challenge themselves. For this reason, they are often reluctant to try new things.
Signs you may be the natural genius type include:
- You have extremely exacting standards for yourself.
- Success has come easily to you in the past.
- You believe success comes from your innate abilities and not through hard work or practice.
- Your self-confidence suffers a blow when faced with a setback.
- You are critical of obstacles that you perceived may impede your success.
- You find positive criticism or requests to revise work threatening.
4. Soloist type
The Soloist imposter type is characterised by a person’s feelings of independence and the need to achieve success entirely on their own – feeling uneasy when they need to rely on others for support.
Its underlying sentiment is shame in asking for help. Soloists struggle in teams and collaborative environments, needing to work on their own or else they feel like they are not doing a decent job. Thus, Soloist imposter syndrome affects people who believe that asking for help or support is a sign of weakness. As a result, they can feel isolated and overwhelmed, leading to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. People who identify as rugged individualists, who rely solely on their own strengths and merits to survive, are particularly susceptible to experiencing this imposter syndrome type. They typically prioritise their autonomy and independence over the need to conform to social norms.
Signs you may be the Soloist type include:
- You hold your abilities in high regard and believe you can better accomplish things on your own.
- You feel incompetent if you need help
- You struggling to network
- Difficulty accepting constructive criticism
5. Expert type
The Expert imposter syndrome type is more common among people who have acquired specialist knowledge and skills in their field. This includes people with advanced tertiary education, like doctors, lawyers, and scientists. Its underlying sentiment is fear of inadequacy.
Since the Expert type has invested so much time and effort into education and training, they feel they should know everything when working in their chosen field. Expert types will continue to strive to gain more knowledge and experience, but even if they are successful and gain fame in their field of expertise, they still doubt their abilities and worry that they are not sufficiently equipped to handle all the challenges of their job.
Signs you may be the Expert type include:
- You need to prepare yourself fully, reading up and taking courses before attempting a big project or presentation.
- You avoid applying for jobs because you do not meet every one of the qualifications.
- You feel you still need to master every step in the process.
- You need to constantly pursue training and certifications.
- You feel like a fraud despite having expertise.
- You struggle with procrastination because you feel overwhelmed.
How to overcome Imposter Syndrome
Imposter Syndrome is a negative pattern of thinking that takes more to overcome than attempting to think positively. It takes recognising that you are suffering from Imposter Syndrome and having the tools to get past it. This starts with recognizing your own potential so that you can ultimately take ownership of your achievements.
Here are 5 tips to overcoming the feeling that you are an imposter:
- Separate feelings from facts: A review of research from 2019 involving more than 14,000 participants across 62 studies found that the prevalence of imposter syndrome varied from 9% to 82%*. Chances are, you will feel like an imposter at some point in your life. Be prepared for those feelings. Recognize that just because you think you are an imposter, does not mean it is true. Observe your feelings, be mindful of them and be ready to take positive action.
- Take note of your accomplishments: In moments where you feel substandard, it can be helpful to look back at a tangible reminder of your achievements. For example, when a client or your manager sends you an email recognising your excellent contribution or service, save the email for future reference. Review your great references on your LinkedIn profile. Frame your awards and put them up on your office wall. Remind yourself of your accomplishments.
- Stop comparing: Remember that in the main, smart, high-achieving people most often deal with imposter syndrome. Focus on taking stock of your own achievements instead of measuring these against what others have done. After all, depending on your career goals and priorities, there are diverse ways to measure success – at work and in private life.
- Talk to people whose opinion you trust. Sometimes, a meaningful discussion with someone who knows you and supports you can help you realise what you are experiencing and that your imposter feelings are normal, but also not rational. Sharing your impostor feelings with others may not only reduce loneliness but also provide the opportunity for others to share what they see in you.
- Talk to a therapist: If your feelings of being an imposter persist, a therapist can help you Identify the feelings associated with imposter syndrome and help you to create new thought patterns to get past them.
As you learn to work through feelings of being an impostor it will probably interfere less with your day-to-day life and wellbeing. However, taming impostor feelings does not mean they will never show up again. Try to observe in what sort of situations your impostor feelings tend to surface and how you respond to them. Learn to recognise these feelings of fear for what they are. To do this, it is important to acknowledge and accept your feelings, reframe negative thoughts and beliefs, celebrate and document achievements, and seek out constructive feedback and support.