Imposter Syndrome

by Eimear Quigley, Clinical Psychologist

I remember my first ever psychology client at my first psychology placement, nearly 20 years ago. I knew the theory, I had learned the techniques and I had practiced with other students in class. I remember feeling really nervous about seeing a “real” person. I was sure they would see through my attempts to look competent and I was afraid of being called out for being too young. My polished opening line of “what brings you here today?”, after I shuffled through the confidentiality and privacy explanation, was met with laughter and the briefest statement from my client, “well I’m depressed”, with a wide grin and expectant look. My first thought was “this wasn’t supposed to happen. What do I do now?” I’m not sure how I managed to get through that first session, but I did. It was only years later that I started to hear people talk about imposter syndrome and when I think about it now, that perfectly describes how I felt as a postgraduate student. Here I talk more about the imposter syndrome and provide some psychological approaches to decreasing the impact the imposter syndrome can have on our well-being.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is specific to the work environment and happens when we feel inadequate in our work-related capacities, despite having sufficient expertise and experience. Imposter symptoms include feeling incompetent, incapable, uncomfortable receiving praise, disappointed with current accomplishments, doubtful, under constant pressure, stressed, anxious and depressed from repeated feelings of inadequacy.

Many people with imposter syndrome attribute their success to luck or some other external factor (e.g., “right place, right time”) rather than acknowledging their own ability and competence. This further reinforces the imposter symptoms, as the original feeling of incompetence is not corrected.

Dr. Valerie Young (2011), a leading expert on imposter syndrome, has identified five imposter syndrome subtypes, which all centre on unhealthy extreme views of competence:

Imposter Syndrome Subtype Healthy reframe (Young, 2011)
The perfectionist: Always striving to do their absolute best despite the cost to their wellbeing; often setting impossibly high standards for themselves. Perfectionist sees everything they do as never good enough and is rarely satisfied with their successes as a result. You can hold onto your pursuit of high standards, but you are allowed to let go of the shame you feel when you fall short
The natural genius: Must get things right on the first attempt; experiences perfectionism as well as specifically setting unrealistic goals the first time they try something. Feelings of unworthiness, guilt, and shame can follow when they fail to complete a task or achieve a goal on their first go. You can hold onto your desire for mastery as long as you recognise the time and effort it takes to get there
The expert: Never feels good enough despite being very knowledgeable; may feel less experienced than others if they do not know specific answers or have knowledge on certain topics. The expert is very focused on what other people think of them.  You can value the importance of knowledge, and you can let go of the unrealistic expectation that you should know everything
The rugged individualist: (also known as the soloist): Extreme difficulties asking others for help because they believe they shouldn’t need help. Asking for help shows others that they really don’t know what they’re doing.  You can take pride in the knowledge that you can do many things by yourself, and you can let go of thinking that you must always do everything by yourself.
The superwoman/man: Addicted to work, these people often compare themselves to other colleagues and feel inadequate as a result. They continue to push themselves as hard as possible, despite the cost to their well-being. Competency to the super person is defined by how many tasks they can handle just as much as how well they can do each task. You can acknowledge your drive to be the very best you can be on multiple fronts, and you can let go of the idea that you have to do it all.

What causes imposter syndrome?

Research has not pinpointed any specific causes for imposter syndrome, but possible contributing factors include a person’s upbringing, personality style, and genetic factors. Highly competitive and high-achieving professional environments may be more likely to trigger imposter syndrome.

I wonder if imposter syndrome is a way for our self-critic to play out in the work environment. Theories of self-esteem propose that what makes humans different from other animals is how our cognitive competencies have evolved in areas such as self-awareness, rumination, anticipation, and negative self-judgment (Gilbert & Woodyatt, 2017). An unwanted side-effect of increased awareness and cognitive appraisal of negatives is a tendency to be self-critical and filter out information about positive aspects of ourselves. This sounds a lot like what is happening when the imposter syndrome takes over our thinking.

Do I have imposter syndrome?

Dr Pauline Clance, who first coined the term imposter phenomenon in 1978, has developed the Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale (CIMS) which you can complete for your own personal use and reflection. This will give you an idea of how many imposter characteristics you currently demonstrate.

Four ways we can decrease the impact of imposter syndrome on our wellbeing

1. Notice unhelpful thinking patterns:

The first key to changing the impact that something has on our well-being is to draw attention to it. Humans are skilled at avoiding things that make us feel uncomfortable, and thoughts of inadequacy at work evoke distressing feelings. The irony is that the more we try to avoid thinking distressing thoughts, the worse they become. Start by compassionately acknowledging what unhelpful things you notice your mind telling you about work. Next, create emotional distance from the thought by trying one of the following cognitive defusion techniques from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (Harris, 2022):

a. Name the story: “Ah, here comes the imposter story again”
b. Thank your mind and refocus: “thanks for that thought mind. I’m busy focusing on my work right now so that’s not really very useful to me at the moment”
c. Observe the process: “I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that I’m a fraud”
d. Sing the words of the thought to a popular tune such as happy birthday: “I’m a fraud. I’m a fraud. I’m a fraaaud. I’m a fraud”
e. Imagine the words on a computer screen and change the font and colour and add special effects (this one is great if you are a visual person)

The more we practice cognitive defusion techniques the more we realise that our thoughts do not define us. Our thoughts are merely a product of an evolved problem-solving mind that sometimes works too well in focusing on negatives in order to protect us.

2. Practice mindful self-compassion:

Kristin Neff describes three parts of self-compassion (Neff & Germer, 2018), which can be used when imposter thoughts and feelings turn up. Firstly, acknowledge the thoughts and/or feelings. For example, “at this moment I feel like a fraud and I’m scared I’ll be found out”. Secondly, acknowledge that these thoughts and feelings are a common human experience. For example, “everyone feels afraid at times”. Finally, choose to act in a kind way towards yourself, rather than continuing with the critical imposter mode. For example, “I will be kind to myself in this moment and give myself the compassion I need”. Depending on the situation, this could be treating yourself like a kind friend might, and saying something like, “you’ve got this, you’ll be okay”.

3. Flip your mindset from fixed to growth:

People who exhibit high levels of imposter syndrome tend to have a fixed mindset (Young, 2011). A fixed mindset is where we believe what we think to be the ultimate truth and cannot entertain an alternative view. We see aspects of ourselves in black or white, for example, “I can do maths” or “I can’t do maths”. There are no shades of grey, only fixed absolutes. When we are stuck in a fixed mindset, we can’t improve or progress no matter how hard we try. A growth mindset is where we acknowledge our thoughts as one possible truth, are open-minded to other possibilities, and look for opportunities to see the world differently. The path to mastering anything is viewed as a path involving lifelong learning and skill-building. When we engage in a growth mindset view we acknowledge our faults and mistakes and remind ourselves to keep going and learn and improve

Here are some ways to flip the script from a fixed to a growth mindset

Fixed Growth
“I’m an idiot” “I’m having the thought that I’m an idiot and I’m also lots of other things”
“What was I thinking?” “What was I learning?”
“I have no idea what I’m doing” “I have a lot to learn”
“I can’t believe I messed up and made a mistake like that”  “Everyone makes mistakes. What can I learn from this one?”
“Everyone else is better at this job than me” “We all have things that we’re good at and things that we’re learning to do better”
“I can’t do this. I’m terrible at editing reports” “This is hard and that’s okay. I am a good writer. I want to learn to get better at editing my writing”
“I’m a total fraud” “I’m going to think of three things I did well today and tell them to that part of myself that feels like a fraud”
“This has to be perfect” “Sometimes good is good enough”
“I’m inexperienced and know nothing” “I may lack experience and I am also very capable of learning and developing into this new role”
“I need to know everything” “I need to be smart enough to be able to find someone who knows what I don’t”
“I need to do everything myself” “I need to be able to identify the resources I need to get the job done”

4. Look after yourself:

When the imposter syndrome takes hold, personal well-being is the last thing on the to-do list. I always think of the airplane oxygen mask example when it comes to looking after ourselves. The instructions are always to put on your oxygen mask first before putting it on a child or helping someone else. If we run out of oxygen we cease being able to help anyone. In the same way, if we don’t look after our own health and wellbeing, we will find it increasingly difficult to continue helping others.

The three domains of healthy living are diet, exercise, and sleep. Think about how well you are eating, how often you are exercising, and what your sleep is like. Are there any of these areas that you want to improve? What is the smallest step you can take today to move towards improvements in that area? Could you take a 15-minute walk at lunchtime? Could you choose a piece of fruit over some biscuits for morning tea? Could you turn off Netflix earlier and have an early night? Small steps over long periods of time make sustainable changes.

I wish I had known about the imposter phenomenon and imposter syndrome when I first started practicing as a psychologist. It would have helped me to make sense of some of my thought processes and possibly led to me putting some proactive strategies into place to help myself. My imposter syndrome still pops up every now and again, and I treat it with curiosity and kindness when it does show up.

References and further reading

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, & Practice15(3), 241–247. 10.1037/h0086006
Gilbert, Paul & Woodyatt, Lydia. (2017). An Evolutionary Approach to Shame-Based Self-Criticism, Self-Forgiveness, and Compassion. 10.1007/978-3-319-60573-9_3.
Harris, R. (2022). The happiness trap: stop struggling, start living (2nd ed.). Robinson Publishing
Neff, K., & Germer, C. K. (2018). The mindful self-compassion workbook: a proven way to accept yourself, build inner strength, and thrive. Guilford Press.
Ronnestad, M. H. & Skovholt, T. M. (2003). The journey of the counselor and therapist: Research findings and perspectives on professional development. Journal of Career Development, 30(1), 5-44.
Tigranyan, S., Byington, D. R., Liupakorn, D., Hicks, A., Lombardi, S., Mathis, M., & Rodolfa, E. (2021). Factors related to the impostor phenomenon in psychology doctoral students. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 15(4), 298–305. https://doi.org/10.1037/tep0000321
Young, V. (2011). The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. Three Rivers Pr.

Eimear Quigley

General Manager – Psychological Services
BSc(psych)Hons, MclinicPsych

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