two female coworkers talkingShare on Pinterest
Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

“What am I doing here?”

“I don’t belong.”

“I’m a total fraud, and sooner or later, everyone’s going to find out.”

If you’ve ever felt like an imposter at work, you’re not alone. A 2019 review of 62 studies on imposter syndrome suggested anywhere from 9 to 82 percent of people report having thoughts along these lines at some point.

Early research exploring this phenomenon primarily focused on accomplished, successful women. It later became clear, though, that imposter syndrome can affect anyone in any profession, from graduate students to top executives.

Imposter syndrome, also called perceived fraudulence, involves feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence that persist despite your education, experience, and accomplishments.

To counter these feelings, you might end up working harder and holding yourself to ever higher standards. This pressure can eventually take a toll on your emotional well-being and your performance.

Imposter feelings represent a conflict between your own self-perception and the way others perceive you.

Even as others praise your talents, you write off your successes to timing and good luck. You don’t believe you earned them on your own merits, and you fear others will eventually realize the same thing.

Consequently, you pressure yourself to work harder in order to:

  • keep others from recognizing your shortcomings or failures
  • become worthy of roles you believe you don’t deserve
  • make up for what you consider your lack of intelligence
  • ease feelings of guilt over “tricking” people

The work you put in can keep the cycle going. Your further accomplishments don’t reassure you — you consider them nothing more than the product of your efforts to maintain the “illusion” of your success.

Any recognition you earn? You call it sympathy or pity. And despite linking your accomplishments to chance, you take on all the blame for any mistakes you make. Even minor errors reinforce your belief in your lack of intelligence and ability.

Over time, this can fuel a cycle of anxiety, depression, and guilt.

Living in constant fear of discovery, you strive for perfection in everything you do. You might feel guilty or worthless when you can’t achieve it, not to mention burned out and overwhelmed by your continued efforts.

Leading imposter syndrome researcher Dr. Valerie Young describes five main types of imposters in her 2011 book “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.”

These competence types, as she calls them, reflect your internal beliefs around what competency means to you.

Here’s a closer look at each type and how they manifest.

The perfectionist

You focus primarily on how you do things, often to the point where you demand perfection of yourself in every aspect of life.

Yet, since perfection isn’t always a realistic goal, you can’t meet these standards. Instead of acknowledging the hard work you’ve put in after completing a task, you might criticize yourself for small mistakes and feel ashamed of your “failure.”

You might even avoid trying new things if you believe you can’t do them perfectly the first time.

The natural genius

You’ve spent your life picking up new skills with little effort and believe you should understand new material and processes right away.

Your belief that competent people can handle anything with little difficulty leads you to feel like a fraud when you have a hard time.

If something doesn’t come easily to you, or you fail to succeed on your first try, you might feel ashamed and embarrassed.

The rugged individualist (or soloist)

You believe you should be able to handle everything solo. If you can’t achieve success independently, you consider yourself unworthy.

Asking someone for help, or accepting support when it’s offered, doesn’t just mean failing your own high standards. It also means admitting your inadequacies and showing yourself as a failure.

The expert

Before you can consider your work a success, you want to learn everything there is to know on the topic. You might spend so much time pursuing your quest for more information that you end up having to devote more time to your main task.

Since you believe you should have all the answers, you might consider yourself a fraud or failure when you can’t answer a question or encounter some knowledge you previously missed.

The superhero

You link competence to your ability to succeed in every role you hold: student, friend, employee, or parent. Failing to successfully navigate the demands of these roles simply proves, in your opinion, your inadequacy.

To succeed, then, you push yourself to the limit, expending as much energy as possible in every role.

Still, even this maximum effort may not resolve your imposter feelings. You might think, “I should be able to do more,” or “This should be easier.”

There’s no single clear cause of imposter feelings. Rather, a number of factors likely combine to trigger them.

Potential underlying causes include the following.

Parenting and childhood environment

You might develop imposter feelings if your parents:

  • pressured you to do well in school
  • compared you to your sibling(s)
  • were controlling or overprotective
  • emphasized your natural intelligence
  • sharply criticized mistakes

Academic success in childhood could also contribute to imposter feelings later in life.

Maybe elementary and high school never posed much of a challenge. You learned easily and received plenty of praise from teachers and parents.

In college, however, you find yourself struggling for the first time. You might begin to believe your classmates are all more intelligent and gifted, and you might worry you don’t belong in college, after all.

Personality traits

Experts have linked specific personality traits to imposter feelings.

These include:

  • perfectionistic tendencies
  • low self-efficacy, or confidence in your ability to manage your behavior and successfully handle your responsibilities
  • higher scores on measures of neuroticism, a big five personality trait
  • lower scores on measures of conscientiousness, another big five trait

Existing mental health symptoms

Fears of failure can prompt plenty of emotional distress, and many people coping with imposter feelings also experience anxiety and depression.

But living with depression or anxiety might mean you already experience self-doubt, diminished self-confidence, and worries around how others perceive you.

This mindset of feeling “less than” can both lead to and reinforce the belief that you don’t really belong in your academic or professional environment.

Imposter syndrome can worsen mental health symptoms, creating a cycle that’s difficult to escape.

New responsibilities

It’s not at all uncommon to feel unworthy of a career or academic opportunity you just earned.

You want the job, certainly. It could even be your dream job. All the same, you might worry you won’t measure up to expectations or believe your abilities won’t match those of your coworkers or classmates.

These feelings may fade as you settle in and get familiar with the role. Sometimes, though, they can get worse — particularly if you fail to receive support, validation, and encouragement from your supervisors or peers.

Along with the above factors, gender bias and institutionalized racism can also play a significant part in imposter feelings.

Research consistently suggests that while, yes, anyone can experience these feelings, they tend to show up more often in women and people of color. In other words: people who generally have less representation in professional environments.

Awareness of the bias against your gender or race might lead you to work harder in order to disprove harmful stereotypes. You might believe you need to dedicate more effort than anyone else in order to be taken seriously, much less earn recognition for your efforts.

Simply being aware of these negative stereotypes can affect your performance, leading you to fixate on your mistakes and further doubt your abilities.

The microaggressions and discrimination — both blatant and subtle — you experience along the way can reinforce the feeling you don’t belong. This is, of course, exactly what they’re intended to do.

Even the name “imposter syndrome” can reinforce the perception of yourself as unworthy. The word “imposter” carries a strong connotation of deceit and manipulation, while “syndrome” generally implies illness.

True imposter feelings involve self-doubt, uncertainty about your talents and abilities, and a sense of unworthiness that doesn’t align with what others think about you.

In short, you think you’ve fooled others into believing you are someone you aren’t.

But what if you find yourself in an environment where your peers fail to make room for you or imply you don’t deserve your success? Perhaps there aren’t any other people of color in your class, or your supervisor outright says, “Women usually don’t make it in this job.”

It’s entirely understandable you might begin to feel out of place and undeserving.

There’s a big difference between secretly doubting your abilities and being made to feel as if your identity makes you unworthy of your position or accomplishments.

More inclusive research on imposter feelings as experienced by people of color, particularly women of color, may help separate these experiences.

Promoting workplace and academic cultures that foster inclusivity and actively work toward anti-racism could be key in reducing imposter feelings.

When it’s not imposter feelings you’re experiencing, but the more insidious effects of systemic racism, a culturally sensitive therapist can offer support and help you explore next steps.

If you feel like a fraud, working harder to do better may not do much to change your self-image.

These strategies can help you resolve imposter feelings productively.

Acknowledge your feelings

Identifying imposter feelings and bringing them out into the light of day can accomplish several goals.

  • Talking to a trusted friend or mentor about your distress can help you get some outside context on the situation.
  • Sharing imposter feelings can help them feel less overwhelming.
  • Opening up to peers about how you feel encourages them to do the same, helping you realize you aren’t the only one who feels like an imposter.

Build connections

Avoid giving in to the urge to do everything yourself. Instead, turn to classmates, academic peers, and coworkers to create a network of mutual support.

Remember, you can’t achieve everything alone. Your network can:

  • offer guidance and support
  • validate your strengths
  • encourage your efforts to grow

Sharing imposter feelings can also help others in the same position feel less alone. It also creates the opportunity to share strategies for overcoming these feelings and related challenges you might encounter.

Challenge your doubts

When imposter feelings surface, ask yourself whether any actual facts support these beliefs. Then, look for pieces of evidence to counter them.

Say you’re considering applying for a promotion, but you don’t believe you have what it takes. Maybe a small mistake you made on a project a few months ago still haunts you. Or perhaps you think the coworkers who praise your work mostly just feel sorry for you.

Fooling all of your coworkers would be pretty difficult, though, and poor work probably wouldn’t go unnoticed long term.

If you consistently receive encouragement and recognition, that’s a good sign you’re doing plenty right — and deserve a chance for promotion.

Avoid comparing yourself to others

Everyone has unique abilities. You are where you are because someone recognized your talents and your potential.

You may not excel in every task you attempt, but you don’t have to, either. Almost no one can “do it all.” Even when it seems like someone has everything under control, you may not know the full story.

It’s OK to need a little time to learn something new, even if someone else seems to grasp that skill immediately.

Instead of allowing others’ success to highlight your flaws, consider exploring ways to develop the abilities that interest you.

Success doesn’t require perfection. True perfection is practically impossible, so failing to achieve it doesn’t make you a fraud.

Offering yourself kindness and compassion instead of judgment and self-doubt can help you maintain a realistic perspective and motivate you to pursue healthy self-growth.

If you continue to struggle with imposter feelings, a therapist can offer support with:

  • overcoming feelings of unworthiness or perceived fraudulence
  • addressing anxiety, depression, or other emotional distress
  • challenging and reframing unwanted beliefs

Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.