Sam has always stood out among his colleagues as the brightest and most resourceful. Rather effortlessly, he has scored his company yet another hefty contract and been showered in praises from his boss. Yet, deep inside, he feels like he is putting on a mask that is soon to be lifted: the real Sam can never be this competent and successful.

If you have ever felt like Sam every time you achieve something, be it getting into a top university, landing a prestigious internship, or receiving a promotion, you are not alone. In 1978, the term “imposter syndrome” was coined to describe this condition. Since then, it is reported that up to 70% of people have had these imposter thoughts in their lifetime, so know that your feelings are valid, and yes, you can make them go away [1].

What is Imposter Syndrome?

According to psychologist Audrey Ervin, “imposter syndrome” is “characterized by chronic feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, and fraudulence despite objective success” [2]. People with imposter syndrome often agonize over the smallest mistakes they make, downplay their successes, and fear that they will eventually be exposed as phonies. This failure to internalize one’s achievements is called an external locus of control, a concept developed by psychologist Julian Rotter, where one believes that all life experiences are dictated by luck, fate, circumstances, or a mighty power that are beyond one’s control [3]. Given two students who have prepared equally hard for a test, the one with an external locus of control will reason that the test happens to be easier than expected when he aces it. Meanwhile, one with an internal locus of control knows that the high score is thanks to his hard work over the past few days.

Studies have showed that certain people are more susceptible to imposter syndrome than others. Perfectionists usually set extremely high expectations for themselves, so they tend to experience more disappointment and self-loathing when something goes astray. Those that score high on the personality traits of neuroticism (the tendency to suffer from negative experiences such as depression, anger, anxiety, etc.) and conscientiousness (the tendency to take one’s duties seriously and complete them thoroughly) are also vulnerable as they tend to blame themselves when things do not go as planned.

Meanwhile, environmental factors can also affect how people perceive their successes. Children who are subjected to alternating periods of praise and criticism in families that value achievement above compassion are wired to magnify their flaws as adults. First-year college students, first-generation low-income strivers, new graduates, or anyone who is assuming new roles or changing their learning/working environments, are also more predisposed to imposterism [4]. As they realize that tactics and skills that help get them where they are no longer work in a new situation, they may start to think that all previous credentials are “fake.”

Why is Imposter Syndrome rarely discussed?

Being a new phenomenon that was only formally defined 43 years ago, there are many misconceptions regarding imposter syndrome that prevent people from considering it a serious menace to human psyche.

First, some people believe that imposter syndrome only affects high-achieving women and highly successful people while in fact, it affects both genders equally and anyone can be vulnerable regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds [1]. This misbelief has prevented men from seeking help with their imposter thoughts due to the toxic masculinity that men always have to be physically and mentally indomitable [5].

Due to its highly ambiguous definition, many also dismiss imposter syndrome as exaggerated self-doubt. However, these two realms are starkly different as self-doubt and insecurity are about what we think we can and cannot do (our capabilities), while imposter syndrome is about who we think we are (our identity) [6]. In other words, you can be extremely confident and still suffer from imposter syndrome, and not have imposter syndrome but are drowning in self-doubt.

5 types of Imposter Syndrome and how to battle each

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a short-term form of psychotherapy that focuses one’s thinking on the present rather than on past experiences and gears one’s behaviors towards problem-solving goals, is professionally recommended for those with imposter syndrome. Figure out what type of imposter you are and keep a journal to process your achievements and failures can help you go a long way [7] [8]!

The Perfectionist – the “How”:

Perfectionists are vulnerable to imposter syndrome as they always set ridiculously high standards for themselves and have the desire to be perfect all the time.

  • People call you a “control freak” that always micromanage others in group projects.
  • You spend 30 minutes fixing the grammar and syntax of a two-sentence email before sending. 
  • You have difficulty delegating tasks as you do not trust anyone but yourself. 
  • Sometimes you would rather miss a deadline than turn in a product that is flawed.

What should you start doing?

  • Celebrate and reflect on each of your achievements (What were your contributions? What skills did you use to fulfill your responsibilities? What particular aspects of your work were praised by supervisors and teammates?)
  • Realize that perfection is not possible and that imperfections do not devalue your efforts 
  • Assign simple tasks to others first, then share more important duties with your team when you are ready
  • Get started right away on projects you are interested in as there is no “perfect” time to start
  1. The Natural Genius – the “When”:

As gifted learners, geniuses evaluate their competence based on the speed with which they master new skills and/or knowledge. Thus, when they need to spend more time than usual to learn something, they feel ashamed and start to doubt their intelligence.

  • People say you have always been the “smart one” in your family and top of your class.
  • You almost always ace tests without having to put in much effort. 
  • You tend to avoid learning new things as you fear that this new realm would show that you are not as smart as people think you are.

What should you start doing?

  • Reflect on skills/knowledge you have attained (What steps did you take to acquire these skills? How long did it take you? How long did it take your colleagues/classmates?)
  • Learn from success stories to realize that nobody is an expert from day one
  • Think of yourself as a work in progress that needs continuous learning and practicing
  • Identify manageable, concrete short-term goals towards mastering a difficult skill
  1. The Expert – the “What”:

Experts tend to measure their worth based on the breadth of their knowledge. Hence, when they stumble upon a question or topic they do not know much about, they start to question their expertise even though knowledge is naturally limitless. 

  • Even though you are technically an expert in your field, you still feel like you never know enough
  • You often shy away from exploring new areas or applying for a job that is out of your depth.
  • In your own time, you seek to obtain more certifications, degrees, and awards to validate your knowledge.
  • You feel ashamed when someone with less experience asks you a question you do not know the answer to.

What should you start doing?

  • Learn a new skill only when you need it (e.g. when applying for a new job) instead of over-preparing
  • Continue to deepen your understanding in your academic comfort zones
  • Volunteer or tutor someone to validate your current expertise
  • Know that the beauty of knowledge lies in its vastness, and that it is okay to be challenged every once in a while
  • Refrain from comparing yourself against people who have had more years of experience than you

 4. The Superhuman – the “How much”:

 

  • The superhuman/super student often find themselves overworking or taking up more responsibilities than they can handle to prove their worth to coworkers and classmates and to compensate for innermost feelings of inadequacy.
  • You often stay late at the office or sacrifice your sleep to finish a project.
  • You like to take on as many professional and personal roles as possible even when you feel exhausted.
  • You are the one that “did it all” in group projects.
  • People often express concerns for your physical and mental well-being.

 

What should you start doing?

 

  • Reflect on your current roles and evaluate the efficiency with which you fulfill each (Are people complaining that sometimes you are not doing what you are expected to? Who are the people directly affected when you fall short of your duties?)
  • Embrace your mistakes and learn from them
  • Understand that more time spent on a task does not mean higher quality
  • Take criticism professionally, not personally
  • Learn to say “no,” set healthy boundaries, and slow down

 

5. The Soloist – the “Who”:

 

  • Soloists often refuse to ask for help not necessarily because they want to work things out by themselves, but because they believe that failing to complete a task on their own shows that they are not as smart as they let on, and that they will be exposed easily.
  • Your mantra is almost always: “Don’t worry, I got this.”
  • You refuse to seek help/advice even when you are genuinely confused and clueless.
  • You only take credit for a project when you are the only one contributing to it.

 

What should you start doing?

 

  • Make a list of people you have learned from to realize that skills and knowledge are meant to be shared
  • Seek out opportunities to work on collaborative projects
  • Help others and let others help you when necessary

 

Imposter syndrome can negatively impact your well-being and that of your loved ones in the long run, but only if you choose to bottle up your feelings and shy away from confronting them. Remember that your achievements are cemented through years of blood, sweat, and tears. You are valid!

 

Audrey Chau is currently an undergraduate student at Princeton University (Princeton, NJ). She is originally from Vietnam with a passion for teenagers’ emotional wellbeing and mental health de-stigmatization. Audrey is considering a concentration in Neuroscience or Psychology at Princeton.

 

[1] https://so06.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/IJBS/article/view/521/pdf
[2] https://www.psycom.net/imposter-syndrome
[3] https://www.edglossary.org/locus-of-control/
[4] https://www.verywellmind.com/imposter-syndrome-and-social-anxiety-disorder-4156469
[5] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-sex-and-relationships/202103/what-is-toxic-masculinity
[6] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/whats-difference-between-lack-confidence-imposter-syndrome-clare-josa/
[7] https://www.nuffieldhealth.com/article/how-to-combat-imposter-syndrome
[8] https://www.themuse.com/advice/5-different-types-of-imposter-syndrome-and-5-ways-to-battle-each-one