What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that affects countless adults across various domains of life. As a psychologist, I see many people suffering from this phenomenon and the profound impact it can have on self-esteem and personal growth. It’s important to understand the origins of imposter syndrome, what it is, why it happens, and most importantly, how you can break free from its grip.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome, often referred to as the “imposter phenomenon,” is a psychological pattern which originated in 1978. Psychologists Clance & Imes noticed a pattern in high-achieving women who believed they were not as competent as others perceived them to be and feared being exposed as frauds. Over time the term evolved to “imposter syndrome” and today it is used to describe behaviour marked by persistent self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, and a constant fear of being exposed as a fraud, despite evidence of competence and accomplishments. This self-sabotaging mindset can have a profound impact on one’s mental health and well-being and is a term that now applies to not only women but to people from all genders and backgrounds.
imposter syndrome

The Imposter Cycle – Why It Happens

Understanding the roots of imposter syndrome is essential to combat it effectively. Early experiences, such as parental behaviours, parental expectations, peer comparisons, and societal pressures, can shape one’s self-perception and sow the seeds of self-doubt. These experiences shape one’s sense of self and create a vicious cycle of self-sabotage. These early influences can linger into adulthood, manifesting in various forms and affecting one’s confidence and self-worth.

Key Signs and Symptoms

  • Perfectionism: Setting unattainable standards and fearing failure.
  • Overworking: Compensating for perceived inadequacies by overexerting oneself.
  • Overpreparation: Working harder than needed and feeling like a failure for having to work harder than others.
  • Procrastination: Completing important tasks at the last minute, carrying with it the feeling of being exposed as a fraud.
  • Persistent Self-Doubt: Believing accomplishments are flukes, not a result of one’s abilities.
  • Minimising Success: Downplaying achievements or attributing them solely to external factors.
  • Fear of Failure: Constantly worrying about making mistakes and being exposed as a fraud.
  • Avoidance of Challenges: Refraining from taking on new opportunities to evade potential failure.
  • Fear of success: Worrying about a rise in expectations from others which would mean an increase in workload and further stress and self-doubt.

Key Strategies for Breaking the Imposter Cycle

  1. Acknowledge Your Patterns: The first step towards overcoming imposter syndrome is acknowledging its presence. Recognise that it’s a common struggle experienced by many successful adults and accept that you are in a behavioural cycle.
  2. Self-Reflection: Practice self-reflection to identify the negative thought patterns that fuel imposter syndrome. Identify any themes to these thoughts – e.g., are they always about being a failure, or being humiliated by others?
  3. Be fair to yourself: Embrace any sense of failure as a valuable learning opportunity and understand that most people who increase their ability usually learn through failures and moments of self-doubt. Assess what you regard a failure to be and whether you would apply this same criterion to a friend or loved one.
  1. Celebrate Achievements: Keep a journal of your accomplishments, both big and small. Reviewing your successes can provide a sense of validation and boost your confidence. The older we get the less praise is built into our systems, so keep hold of any positivity that comes your way! Create a ‘happy folder’ in your phone or notes and screenshot anything positive to put in those folders.
  1. Set Realistic Goals: Avoid setting perfectionistic standards that are impossible to meet. Set achievable goals and appreciate the progress you make towards them. A good way to benchmark this is to ask yourself whether you would expect the same from others you care about.
  1. Seek Support: Talk to a trusted friend, family member, or therapist about your imposter syndrome. Sharing your experiences can help alleviate the emotional burden and help you to understand what is happening.

7. Professional Help: Consider seeking the guidance of a therapist who specialises in imposter syndrome. They can provide tailored strategies and coping mechanisms. Dr Kaur specialises in working with professionals who experience Imposter Syndrome. 

Imposter syndrome can be a formidable obstacle, but it is one that can be overcome with perseverance and the right strategies. By acknowledging its presence, understanding its origins, and implementing tools to break the cycle, you can regain your self-confidence and reach your full potential. Remember, you are not alone in this journey, and with the guidance of a psychologist or therapist, you can conquer imposter syndrome and thrive in all aspects of your life. If you are considering specialist support with overcoming your imposter syndrome, get in touch today. 

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Dr Gurpreet Kaur, Chartered Clinical Psychologist & EMDR Practitioner

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