Imposter syndrome | The signs, symptoms, and treatments

Ever started a new job and wondered if you’re good enough? If you answered yes, you might be experiencing imposter syndrome. Characterised by thoughts and doubts about your ability or competence, these feelings are often accompanied by worries about failure or “being found out”

In this article, Mental Health Prevention Lead Lisa Gunn explores imposter syndrome and how you can work through these potentially problematic patterns of thinking.

Key takeaways

  • Imposter syndrome refers to negative thoughts and feelings about your own ability
  • You may feel ‘like an imposter’, waiting to be found out at any time
  • Around 70 to 84% of people will experience some level of imposter syndrome in their life
  • Anyone can be affected, from CEOs to teachers and self-employed individuals
  • Feelings like anxiety and depression can make symptoms worse
  • It’s important we challenge thoughts and recognise our successes
  • Practicing self-care is another valuable tool for combatting imposter syndrome

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome refers to thoughts and feelings of fraudulence or inadequacy. It can affect anyone and is most common in workplace environments.

This behavioural phenomenon doesn’t discriminate against people based on their intellect, ability, or experience either. There is no evidence to suggest that imposter syndrome is more common in high achieving individuals or people in ‘positions of power’.

Despite genuine successes, imposter syndrome convinces the individual that their achievements are simply down to luck or circumstances outside of their control. In people with imposter syndrome, achievements can reinforce the false belief that they will be ‘found out’ or ‘exposed’ in the future, and that praise and accomplishments will actually make this worse when it inevitably happens.

How common is it?

It’s estimated that around 70 to 84% of people will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their life.

Does everyone experience it from time to time?

Not everyone experiences imposter syndrome, and some people are able to go through life without ever doubting their capabilities.

While it can affect people of any gender, age, or profession, certain groups can experience it more frequently. For example, it’s thought that individuals in high-pressure environments, those who are first-generation professionals, or people from underrepresented backgrounds working or living in a certain field or area could be more susceptible.

Can it be a sign of something more serious?

Yes, imposter syndrome can be associated with other underlying issues or lead to more serious mental health concerns, but it's not necessarily a sign of a specific mental health problem.

If imposter syndrome leads to chronic stress or anxiety, it can increase the risk of developing anxiety disorders due to the constant fear of being "exposed" and a heightened sense of inadequacy.

Persistent feelings of inadequacy or believing that your achievements are unearned can additionally contribute to depressive symptoms. Imposter syndrome can also drive people to overwork themselves in an effort to "prove" their competence. This can cause burnout and physical and emotional exhaustion, reduced performance, and a sense of detachment from work.

We always recommend consulting a professional if your mental health symptoms are impacting your ability to function. Our experts are trained to listen to your concerns and assess the best way to help you move forward.

Facts about imposter syndrome

  • Around 70 to 84% of people will experience some level of imposter syndrome in their life
  • 60% of workers say they regularly need positive feedback about their work
  • A quarter (25%) believe their success is purely down to luck
  • 48% of UK workers report intrusive thoughts about their ability from time to time
  • 15% of people believe they only ‘got the job’ because the workplace was short on candidates
  • Almost 1 in 5 people (19%) believe that one day their colleagues will realise they’re ‘underqualified’
  • 15% of young adults don’t think they deserve the praise they receive, compared to 8% of older adults.

Signs and symptoms of imposter syndrome

  • Feeling unworthy of success
  • Thinking you’ll be ‘found out’ or exposed soon
  • Over-preparing for work, sometimes to the point of burnout
  • Worrying that certain aspects of your character are ‘fraudulent’
  • Feeling that the talents you do have aren’t genuine
  • Having the feeling that any success you do have is down to luck not your ability
  • Trying to minimise any positive feedback you get
  • Not trying because of a fear of failure, and ‘confirming’ these beliefs
  • Believing that compliments aren’t earned and are just people being polite.

Types of imposter syndrome

Individuals who experience imposter syndrome typically hold themselves to unrealistic and unattainable standards of success and competence.

Studies on the topic have unearthed five distinct ‘subtypes’ of imposter syndrome, each of which has a unique focus and emphasis.

The perfectionist

The perfectionist puts a strong focus on “how” a task is done. This includes how work is conducted and how it turns out when it’s finished. 

People who align with this variation of imposter syndrome will typically look for any small flaw in an otherwise brilliant project. 

The expert

The expert puts high value on ‘what’ and ‘how much’ they know. They are the knowledge version of the perfectionist.

They desire to know everything and even a minor lack of knowledge indicates failure and shame.

The soloist

The soloist is largely concerned with ‘who’ completes the task. To make it on the achievement list, it must be them and them alone.

This is not necessarily a selfish thought process. If a task is completed and praised by others, the soloist will likely attribute the success to the presence of others and their input rather than their own.

They may also think they need to figure out everything on their own and that needing help is a sign of failure and reliance on others.

The natural genius

The natural genius is concerned with the ‘how’ and ‘when’. 

For them, learning a subject or skill feels like a struggle. If they can't create something amazing on their first attempt, it can feel like failure which leads to a sense of shame.

The superhuman

The superhuman gauges success and competence by counting how many roles they can successfully juggle.

Whether it's managing a team, being a parent, a partner, a friend, or a volunteer, any slip-up in one of these areas triggers shame because they believe they should be able to maintain and excel in all of them. 

When is it most common?

Imposter syndrome at work

Imposter syndrome can affect anyone at any time. The common phenomenon disregards experience and accomplishments and causes people to feel they are simply ‘lucky’ or ‘a fraud’. It can arise in anyone, from students and professionals to highly accomplished businesspeople and shopkeepers. 

It’s so common in the workplace because that’s where many of us typically feel more pressure to achieve and prove ourselves. Feelings of inadequacy, inability, and fraudulence can even cause us to feel we’re not good at our job and that we’ve somehow ‘tricked’ senior colleagues into believing we’re competent and capable.

These feelings can stop us taking risks and grasping beneficial opportunities like promotions and opportunities for self-development.

Where else is imposter syndrome most common?

  • Creative endeavours and projects
  • Hobbies
  • Parenting
  • Social situations
  • Academic environments and at school
  • Around family
  • Volunteering
  • Personal relationships

Is there a test or diagnosis?

There's no formal medical test or clinical diagnosis for imposter syndrome. 

Unlike some mental health problems, imposter syndrome isn't classified in diagnostic manuals like the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) or ICD (International Classification of Diseases).

Instead, it's a term used to describe specific patterns of thought and feelings where a person doubts their accomplishments and fears being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of their competence.

Treating imposter syndrome

1. Understanding more about your feelings

Learning about imposter syndrome and finding out more about the thoughts and feelings associated with it can help you better manage how you’re feeling.

Learning more about the incompetency cycle and the 5 competency types of imposter syndrome can act as a further reminder that you’re not alone. Learning more and talking about how you’re feeling can help us all understand that thoughts and feelings of inadequacy are common in almost everyone.

On a more practical level, becoming more aware of the situations and circumstances that trigger your feelings of inadequacy and inability can mean you’re better equipped to focus your thinking on your positive achievements and accomplishments rather than thinking about what you didn’t do or what you could have done better.

2. Talk-based therapies

At Nuffield Health, we offer a self-referral service for people dealing with mild to moderate mental health difficulties, including problems like fear, worry, anxiety, and imposter syndrome. 

Your assessment includes a call with a therapist, who will listen and try to help you understand why you’re feeling the way you are. You can also ask them questions and explore any queries you might have. If further therapy is required, our clinician will discuss the best way to help you move forward.

You can find out more about mental health self-referral and how to book by clicking the link here.

3. Take things slow

Whether you’re starting a new job or worrying about your ability elsewhere, it’s important to take things slowly. Rushing in and overcompensating because you feel like you’re out of your depth can create more stress down the line and even cause burnout.

Imposter syndrome can create a sense of being overwhelmed by the demands and expectations of life. Whether it’s your work or private life, taking things slowly allows you to focus on one task at a time to reduce stress and create a more manageable schedule.

Slowing down also means more time to reflect on your achievements and skills. Reflecting on what you have done instead of worrying about what you haven’t can help you identify and acknowledge your accomplishments, countering the tendency to dismiss them as luck or coincidence in the process.

4. Prioritise self-care

Self-care is all about making time for the things that help you manage your mental and physical health. What this looks like for you depends on what you do to relax and how you like to have fun.

We’ve included some common self-care and relaxation techniques below:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga or Pilates
  • Spending time with friends or family
  • Physical exercise
  • Napping
  • Spending some time on the sofa
  • Walking
  • Spending time in nature
  • Watching your favourite show
  • Eating foods that enrich the mind and body
  • Listening to music
  • Journaling
  • Learning something new
  • Reading
  • Taking a warm bath
  • Talking with someone we trust

When to see a professional

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or your mental health is affecting your day-to-day life, speaking with a professional can help.

Having a conversation with a therapist, either over the phone or in person, is a great way to make sense of how you’re feeling. You’ll be given the time to speak about yourself, how you’re feeling, and any concerns you might have.

A therapist will then talk you through the best way to move forward and explain what’s involved in any therapy that might be beneficial for you.

Last updated Wednesday 8 May 2024

First published on Wednesday 8 May 2024