What Is Imposter Syndrome?

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on February 15, 2022
4 min read

If you tend to doubt your own skills and accomplishments, despite what others think, you may have imposter syndrome.

It's not an actual mental health condition. But this term (also known as imposter phenomenon, fraud syndrome, or imposter experience) describes someone who feels they aren't as capable as others think and fears they’ll be exposed as a fraud.

In 1978, psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance first described imposter syndrome in high-achieving professional women. More recently, experts have found that it's  common among both men and women in many lines of work.

One study found that about 70% of all people have felt like an imposter at some point. Imposter syndrome often affects those who are highly capable perfectionists. Among those reported to have felt this kind of self-doubt are scientist Albert Einstein, athlete Serena Williams, singer Jennifer Lopez, and actors Natalie Portman, Lupita Nyong’o, and Tom Hanks.

Studies show that those who are different from most of their peers, such as women in high-tech careers or first-generation college students, are more likely to have imposter syndrome. Research has also found that imposter syndrome is common among Black American, Asian American, and Latinx college students in the United States.

Although imposter syndrome isn’t an official diagnosis, many psychologists realize that it’s a serious form of self-doubt. People with imposter syndrome tend to have anxiety and depression, too.

You may have imposter syndrome if you:

  • Believe that you’ve fooled others into thinking you’re more skilled than you are
  • Credit your successes to luck, charm, networking, others' misjudgment, or other things besides your abilities
  • Notice “The Imposter Cycle.” This happens when you start a task either with intense over-preparation or with procrastination followed by frantic planning. When you finish the task successfully, you feel accomplished and relieved. This cycle starts over when a new task comes along and again triggers feelings of anxiety and doubt.

Many people who have imposter syndrome grew up in families that stressed achievement and success. If your parents went back and forth between overpraise and criticism, you may be more likely to have feelings of being a fraud later in life.

Society's pressures to achieve can also contribute. It's easy to measure your self-worth mainly by what you've accomplished.

Many people with imposter syndrome don’t talk about it, for fear they’ll be exposed as a fraud if they speak up. But feeling like you're an imposter can affect you in several ways:

Professionally. If you  believe your career success is due to luck instead of your skills, you may be less likely to ask for a promotion or raise. You could also feel you need to overwork to meet the unrealistically high standard you’ve created for yourself.

Studies show that imposter syndrome can cause more burnout, lower job performance, and less job satisfaction.

Academically. Students may not ask speak up or questions in class if they fear others will think they’re foolish.

In relationships. Most parents feel unprepared to raise a child at times. But if you let these feelings take over, you may find it hard to make parenting decisions for fear you’ll ruin your child’s life.

When you feel unworthy of love from your romantic partner, this self-sabotaging mindset can end a relationship.

To break out of imposter syndrome, you need to learn to accept your achievements and recognize that you're worthy of them. Some tips for doing that include:

Create reminders. Write down a list of accomplishments you're proud of. Save emails and notes that praise things you've done. Keep these thing handy to review when you feel like a fraud.

Separate your feelings from reality. If you know you're prone to imposter feelings, mentally prepare for them. Be ready to observe and respond to them. Realize that they’re just emotions. Remind yourself that you are capable of success.

Quit the comparisons. Don’t measure yourself by other people’s achievements. For example, on social media you only see a highlight reel of someone’s life. This isn’t a good comparison to your own reality. Instead, focus on being a better version of yourself each day.

Understand the syndrome. Keep in mind that actual frauds don’t have imposter syndrome. The very fact that you have imposter syndrome shows that you’re not an imposter.

Talk to someone. Your friends and family can help normalize your feelings and remind you that your fears aren’t real. Or see a therapist, who can help you develop tactics to overcome  imposter syndrome.

Accept that nobody is perfect. Stop setting unrealistic goals for yourself. Understand that hard work will lead to good results, even if they’re not perfect.