A double exposure of a woman with short hair in a turquoise shirt.

Imposter Syndrome & How To Overcome It

The persistent feeling that you are unworthy of your successes is called imposter syndrome. It may be tied to anxiety, shame, or a lack of support, among other things. Besides robbing you of a well-earned sense of accomplishment, imposter syndrome can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy, acting as a roadblock and preventing you from taking risks or progressing to higher roles. 

Creatives are particularly susceptible to imposter syndrome for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the pervasive idea that design and other creative work somehow isn’t real work. Besides that, creatives put a lot of themselves into their projects. So traits that make imposter syndrome more likely are exaggerated by creative work.

No pill or therapy’s 100% guaranteed to make imposter syndrome go away. But you can start to lessen its impact once you understand it better. Keep reading to find out what you need to know about imposter syndrome and its causes so you can overcome it.

What Is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a belief that one has reached their position in life not due to their own skills and abilities but to fortunate circumstances beyond their control.

Maybe you believe you just had a bit of good luck. Some people with imposter syndrome will acknowledge that their actions did indeed get them where they are and then insist their actions were out of their control. A promotion could be because someone made a big sale, but that sale was only due to their natural personability.

The first study on imposter syndrome was published in 1978. Its authors, Drs. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, noted that the issue was particularly prevalent among women with “outstanding academic and professional accomplishments,” although that objective evidence did little to prevent them from feeling like frauds.

Much more research has been done on this syndrome since then. Two of the most valuable observations are that its causes don’t stem solely from the individual and that women are far from the only group to experience this problem.

One other thing that’s important to note: imposter syndrome is not a lack of self-esteem. Some research reports that people tend to take a reasonably high view of themselves in general, but it falters when in the specific area of achievement. Imposter syndrome is also not a one-time acute reaction to a new event – think of it more as a mental framework impacted by many factors.

The shadow of someone in a suit and tie with light behind them.
All sorts of people experience imposter syndrome.

Causes Of Imposter Syndrome

Initial theories regarding the source of imposter syndrome focused on personality traits. Some researchers found a high correlation between introversion and imposter syndrome, theorizing that the habit of hiding important parts of one’s personality from the world encourages the kind of division between perception and action that could make you feel as if you’re being dishonest or deceiving the people around you.

In many ways, it’s more valuable to look at environmental sources. By doing so, we can avoid a causal fallacy – correlation doesn’t equal causation and an environmental factor might be causing both imposter syndrome and personality traits that are linked to it.

Lack of a support structure such as family or friends who recognize skill and talent often leads to a crisis of confidence. If you didn’t have any metric to gauge your progress as you were learning or any positive reinforcement that you were doing well, it’s easier to feel like you didn’t really earn what you achieved as a result of that skill-building. 

A sense of community is important not only for reinforcement but also to make everyone comfortable enough to express deeper aspects of their personality. One of the most common symptoms of imposter syndrome is rumination, or repetitive dwelling on the same ideas and choices. Rumination tends to focus on negative thoughts.

Talking with others is a great way to stop rumination in its tracks, not only because you can distract yourself with the conversation but also because you can ideally address your feelings and tackle them that way.

Some childhood factors can also play a role. Our learning styles are instilled in us and reinforced over our formative years. People who are frequently praised for their natural intelligence and under lots of pressure to succeed in school are prime targets for impostorism. 

Most kids aren’t taught to learn for the sake of learning. It’s either to appear smart to others or to progress to a new level, such as getting into a great university or landing a job with a fancy title. If you were taught that others are your feedback metric for success, you’re already focusing outwardly despite what you may feel inwardly, which could develop into imposter syndrome.

The Problem With “Imposter Syndrome”

Researchers from the UK, the Netherlands, and Switzerland point out in a paper from November of 2020 that even the name “imposter syndrome” makes the condition appear too much like an individual condition that needs to be healed by addressing the personality traits of one person. 

They argue that impostorism occurs within a social context and so solutions should address those social factors. 

To illustrate their point, we can go back to the original research. Highly successful women were the ones originally thought to experience impostorism as a condition. Later, it was revealed that many other groups were victims of it, but they were generally also members of minority groups. 

One explanation of this is that society has different expectations for these groups. While there is no monolithic “society,” so to speak, it is clear that some groups are encouraged – explicitly or implicitly – to shoot for the moon and succeed. Members of minority groups may also be encouraged to succeed, but the definition of success is much different. 

When it comes to women, more times than not the ones who are high achievers are viewed as standout exceptions, even when the statistics show they’re on the same level or even overrepresented in those positions. 

Imagine some of the outdated cultural attitudes toward, say, women in the workforce. There was a time when the role of homemaker and mother was the picture of success for women and careers were completely out of the question. Although most societies are moving away from this perception, it persists to some degree.

When people adopt values from society and their parents, it’s called an introjected belief. When we’re met with ideas that counter our introjected beliefs, we typically react with hostility. Sometimes, we act as a counterargument to our own introjected values by progressing past what society says we should. 

For women in societies that say they should be homemakers, a high-level corporate job collides with the values they’re encouraged to accept. Thus, they could begin to feel like frauds. Worse, tokenism could instill the belief that any member of a minority group only achieved what they did because of their minority status. 

The name “imposter syndrome” is the popular way to refer to this problem, so we’ll continue using it throughout this guide. But let’s not forget that the causes of this mental fixation are not solely found within individual people. The society around them plays a big role, too.

Who Experiences Imposter Syndrome?

Many people who experience imposter syndrome do so when they take on a new role or new responsibilities. That’s the perfect time to feel additional pressure or feel like you’re in over your head. 

As we’ve already discussed, people at odds with societal expectations and stereotypes can also feel fraudulent when they’re successful. When someone says they went to the doctor, what kind of person do you initially imagine wearing the white coat? That likely points to an internal bias – if it’s one that’s shared widely across society, people outside that group are likely to experience some degree of impostorism should they become a doctor.

Other perceptions that affect our individual feelings of success and ability are those surrounding qualities like leadership. Masculinity is commonly an implicit component of leadership qualities, causing non-masculine people to feel like imposters in leadership positions. 

Most of the time, people who experience imposter syndrome have experience dealing with either negative stereotyping, outright discrimination, or implicit achievement standards. Another factor is where we see our peers. In healthcare, for instance, women and minorities are more likely to be nurses than surgeons. Stepping into a surgical role might encourage feelings of impostorism.

Breaking the mold doesn’t always come with a sense of accomplishment. Sometimes when the public eye is on someone who has achieved something amazing, they project modesty while on the inside they’re battling the terrible feeling that they somehow don’t belong where they are.

Economic factors, identity, and upbringing all impact the likelihood of this scenario. We all know instances of the opposite kind of “syndrome,” where unqualified people believe themselves to be gods in their fields or in just in general. But what can we do when we experience imposter syndrome? Does imposter syndrome go away?

How To Deal With Imposter Syndrome

The first thing we need to do when impostorism strikes is acknowledge that that is what we’re feeling. You can’t beat rumination, depression, and discomfort if you don’t address their source. 

Remember, it’s likely to be the feeling that you are presenting a fake version of yourself, that people are going to discover eventually that you actually aren’t very skilled and you don’t deserve what you have earned.

Here are a few things you can do once you acknowledge that you’re facing impostorism:

  • Try To Be More Objective

Take an honest look at the path you traveled to get where you are. Was it nepotism that got you there or did you have to study and work hard? Don’t be afraid if the answer is “both.”

Also, acknowledge what kinds of things people say to you. Is anyone implying that you don’t deserve your position or aren’t good at what you do? If they are, are they in direct competition with you?

A great way to be more objective is to note which situations provoke rumination and other symptoms of imposter syndrome. That way, you can get closer to understanding the factors of your feelings and hopefully their source. 

For example, if you’re always feeling like a poser in meetings but not on the phone with clients, it could be leadership and internalized standards surrounding it that is giving you such a problem. When impostorism is more generalized, it might be time to dissect your identity and decide what parts are most important to you. 

  • Find Community Solutions

One of the hardest parts about work life, particularly if you’re a remote worker, is connecting with coworkers and other people in a similar line of work. Support networks are very important even when their only regular function is gripe sessions after hours. 

You’d probably be surprised how many others will identify with impostorism. It’s certainly in the majority – some studies say 70% of people share this harrowing ongoing experience. 

Talking things out works because you can get feedback directly from outsiders – those same people you’re so afraid will unmask you. When the group members are comfortable with one another, they can share their true perceptions.

  • Categorize Your Imposterism

People don’t all experience the same symptoms of imposter syndrome and they don’t all have the same triggers. There are some general categories of impostorism and it will very likely be helpful to know which one you fit into best. 

Are you a natural genius who thinks everything should be easy for you and feels like a fraud when they aren’t? A soloist who has to do everything without help or else they’re phony? A perfectionist who considers themselves a failure if any single facet of their life doesn’t go according to plan?

Maybe you think you should be the leading expert in your field to hold the position you hold. As you can see, many different situations trigger symptoms of imposter syndrome for certain kinds of people.

When you’re talking about this experience with others, admitting to your specific brand of impostorism can even be humorous. It’s not that anyone should be comparing, but it’s often easier to see how illogically others are acting even when we don’t see ourselves doing something similar.

  • Acknowledge Good Fortune

Life is full of surprises. Although attributing your success entirely to luck is one of the most common symptoms of imposter syndrome, it’s healthy to admit when luck has played a role. 

More importantly, though, is understanding why you could make use of the good fortune that came your way. It’s highly unlikely you were just walking down the street and got offered a great position. Even if you found it through nepotism or connections, you must have had the skills to hold the position. 

Luck can only go so far. At the end of the day, you had to have supported yourself to advance. The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

  • Define Your Context

Finally, you can study your situation and identify what you find supportive and what makes you feel like a fraud. Does your company value diversity and is that value clear by both their actions and the makeup of the workforce? That may reduce feelings of impostorism. 

Are intelligence and skill important, or is management hands-off and clueless? The perception of a workplace where you could phone it in makes it more likely you’ll feel like you are.

Don’t forget to examine the way you think about skills, education, and work. Is intelligence a fixed skill or something you develop? Could someone else get where you are with enough hard work? 

Answering all these questions will get you more in touch with yourself. A stronger sense of who you are will make feelings of impostorism less likely. When they do arise, you’ll be in a far better position to keep them from interfering in your professional life.

A row of colorful masks hang on a wall.
Imposter syndrome often makes people feel masked and deceptive.


Imposter syndrome is the feeling that one is a fake and undeserving of one’s own achievements. Fighting impostorism is a big challenge, especially if you’re attempting to address it as an individual problem when it’s likely linked to your social context.

If there’s one thing you can do to reduce the impact impostorism has on your professional life, it’s building a tight community where everyone can discuss their apprehensions and concerns. Like many other problems, imposter syndrome is easier to deal with when we get out of our own heads. 

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