Self-help

Struggling with Imposter Syndrome? Try These Tips to Overcome It

Imposter syndrome isn’t a recognized mental health disorder, but it can certainly affect your mental health. Here, we take a close look at imposter syndrome and ways to help manage it.

Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC By Greg Lozano, LPC

Updated on May 20, 2024

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Imposter syndrome is known by many names — perceived fraudulence, imposter phenomenon, fraud syndrome, and imposter experience, to name a few. A person with imposter syndrome doesn’t attribute their success or performance to their abilities or competence.

Imposter syndrome isn’t considered a mental health disorder. However, it can hurt well-being and has been connected to well-known disorders like depression and anxiety. Here, we take a close look at imposter syndrome and ways to help manage it.

What Is Imposter Syndrome?

Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes of Georgia State University first identified imposter syndrome among high-achieving women back in 1978. It didn’t take long for researchers to realize that the feelings of fraud and unworthiness these successful women experienced weren’t unique to women. High achievers of all genders, nationalities, and ethnicities can and do experience symptoms of imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is when someone feels like a fake, attributing their achievements or success to external causes rather than their abilities or competence (internal causes). “A lot of times, we experience imposter syndrome when we do not feel ‘good enough’ or ‘smart enough.’ Imposter syndrome is usually surrounding our professions, or while we are in school…” says Mindy Czech, a therapist with Grow Therapy. “I find it starts subtly. We dismiss or downplay our accomplishments with ‘Oh, I got lucky’ or ‘It was a group effort.’ And it can show up in ways where people will work just under the radar in their jobs so as not to draw attention to themselves because if they’re noticed, people might notice they’re a fraud.”

Grow Therapy therapist Melissa Galica adds, “Imposter syndrome is a common experience that can stem from feelings of self-doubt and low self-esteem. It can cause people to feel like they don’t deserve their accomplishments or that they’re not as intelligent or capable as others perceive them to be.”

Imposter syndrome can hurt your job satisfaction, performance, and ultimately lead to burnout. It can hit anyone, but there are certain groups, such as ethnic minorities, who are more likely to experience it.

Identifying the Signs and Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome isn’t a recognized mental health disorder, but it can certainly affect your mental health. People experience imposter syndrome as a:

Czech adds, “Fear of failure and perfectionism that may be ingrained in us when we are growing up will translate into, ‘I am not good enough apart from perfection,’ so anything less than perfection is ‘bad.’ These become automatic thoughts about ourselves. Our worth becomes wrapped up solely in our schoolwork and our jobs, and when it is challenged (even in a healthy way), we feel like we are a fraud, a failure, and we are terrified if someone figured that out.”

Why Do We Experience Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome typically rears its head when you’re starting something new or doing something for the first time. “For some, it occurs when they are in a new setting, whether social or vocational. We often have an intrusive thought that we are going to be insufficient in some form or fashion,” says Tommy Saathoff, a therapist with Grow Therapy. “For others, it can stem from early childhood when they were heavily criticized. In these instances, the person can internalize that what they were told is accurate. They then carry this narrative forward and subconsciously apply it to current situations and relationships.”

Imposter syndrome typically begins with self-doubt, which is a completely normal response to new experiences or challenges. But that doubt continues and grows, turning into imposter syndrome where you question your own competence. It permeates your thoughts and affects your behaviors, triggering the fear of failure and perfectionism.

“Perfectionists often set unrealistic standards for themselves and are constantly striving for perfection. When they inevitably fall short of their own expectations, they may start to doubt their abilities and feel like they’re frauds,” says Galica. “People who have experienced a lot of negative feedback are also more likely to experience imposter syndrome. This is because negative feedback can damage a person’s self-esteem and make them question their abilities.”

Czech adds, “What we have learned from the home in which we grew up plants the seeds for how we view ourselves, and how our brain files away truths—I get good grades, my family is happy. I get less than perfect grades, I am yelled at, so I will do whatever it takes to get good grades.”

There’s a disconnect between the expectations and standards that you set for yourself and what’s expected in the real world. You also tend to judge yourself more harshly than you judge others.

Understanding the Impact of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome can do more than push you to keep unreasonably high standards. It can take a toll on your mental health and overall well-being.

For some, imposter syndrome becomes cyclical. You feel like a fraud or experience extreme self-doubt, then you sacrifice time with family, sleep, and eating healthily to make sure you don’t fall short of your standards and expectations. Consequently, stress and anxiety may skyrocket as you fail to take care of yourself in an effort to push through.

You may meet your standards, validating the anxiety, sacrifice, and extraordinary effort you put yourself through. Yet, you attribute that success to external sources, like luck. You fear letting go of your high standards because people will then see that you’re a fraud. So you maintain the cycle to prevent discovery.

This cyclical process of negative thoughts can contribute to mental health issues, like depression. Depressive thoughts often revolve around failure and a lack of hope for future positive outcomes. The thought patterns and feelings of imposter syndrome are also linked to anxiety, which isn’t surprising considering the close relationship between anxiety and depression.

The scientific evidence doesn’t currently suggest that imposter syndrome causes anxiety and depression. However, the two (or three) are often intertwined.

Practical Strategies for Managing Imposter Syndrome

The causes of imposter syndrome can be deeply embedded in your core thoughts and feelings. However, with work and practice, you can change your thought patterns and slowly put imposter syndrome behind you.

The process of changing your thought patterns isn’t an easy one. Your thoughts feel like truth and fact to you. That’s where a therapist can make all the difference. Therapists are typically trained in different kinds of therapy. They draw on various methods and techniques based on what you need. Below are some suggestions on how to overcome imposter syndrome.

Reframing Negative Self Talk: Techniques for Developing a Positive Mindset

“We are brutal on ourselves! We would never speak to a friend the way we speak to ourselves, so this is where the work begins,” says Czech. Reframing negative self-talk requires countering pervasive negative thoughts. Saathoff suggests doing that with internal dialogue. “To start with, clients can often benefit by focusing on ‘what-is’ and not the ‘what-ifs,’” he says. He finds that this can help counter feelings of anxiety or low self-esteem.

Czech adds, “Write down the intrusive thoughts that are consistently trying to gain . . . attention, and then answer them with facts. If they continue to ‘what if’ as they do this, write those down too. After a couple of minutes, do something ritualistic to tell your brain you are done, like splashing cold water on your face, walking outside, or taking deep breaths. The goal is to teach your brain that you are not afraid to confront these thoughts. AND, you are going to decide when and how you will address it.”

Galicia emphasizes consistency. “Practice is the biggest way. You need to practice being kind to yourself. The way you talk to yourself absolutely matters. Treat yourself with the same kindness and compassion you treat a dear friend.”

Consider that the right therapist can help you spot negative thought patterns and coach you on how to counter them in ways that work for you. They can also offer support while you change and grow.

Overcoming Fear of Failure and Perfectionism

When it comes to fear of failure and perfectionism, Saathoff suggests, “developing realistic expectations for yourself as well as others.” Sometimes our own expectations can damage us because we set standards we’d never expect from others.

Perfectionism can sneak into your attempts to combat imposter syndrome, but it takes time to change thoughts and behavior. “Practice being patient with yourself,” says Galica. “Things don’t change overnight, or with a flip of a switch. If they did, my bank account would be at least seven figures by now.” Give yourself grace and time to change.

Part of overcoming imposter syndrome may include sharing your failures as part of group therapy. That may sound counterintuitive, but this exercise gives you a realistic reference point.

Developing Self-Compassion and Self-Worth

The negativity of imposter syndrome can lead to poor self-compassion and low self-worth. “One of the primary ways I have found to be of benefit is to gain an awareness and understanding of the narrative we are telling ourselves,” says Saathoff. “Once this is understood and processed, we can work on implementing an internal source of validation and affirmation instead of external.” If you can disconnect your value from those external sources, you can start to build self-worth based on who you are rather than outward accomplishments.

Czech adds, “It’s about slowly shifting our view of shaming ourselves to genuinely being kind and gracious to ourselves. Slowing down enough to pay attention to our thoughts, really seeing and hearing what we are saying to ourselves so we can genuinely change it is key.”

Small changes in how you talk to yourself can have a big impact on your self-compassion and self-worth. Czech offers an example of how you can change thought processes to have more self-compassion:

“When I tell myself I have to get this research paper done tonight, I just have to! I am anxious. I am constantly looking at the clock. I’m freaking out because of all that I have in front of me. I may even get overwhelmed that I do not do it at all.

If I change the verbiage to ‘I would like to get this research paper done by tonight,’ it removes the pressure, which decreases my anxiety, which in turn, helps me get it done in a timely manner. AND, I will actually enjoy it because I’m not viewing it from an anxious state.”

Recognizing Your Achievements and Owning Your Successes

“Practice acknowledging your accomplishments, big and small, nobody will give you a participation trophy for showing up,” says Galica. At first, this can feel like bragging or boasting, but it’s more what’s going on inside than outside.

“Practice forgiving yourself for your mistakes. You are human. As long as you know that you have learned from that mistake. Take it and move on,” Galica continues. A growth mindset lets you make mistakes and learn from them to counter the perfectionism associated with imposter syndrome.

Moving Forward with Confidence and Self-Assurance

Developing confidence and self-assurance takes time. Be patient with yourself and keep countering those negative thoughts. And, keep in mind that the feelings associated with imposter syndrome may occasionally return, but it’s normal to feel anxious about new situations or challenges. Feeling that way doesn’t mean you’re a fraud — it means you’re human.

Keep countering self-doubt with the positive things you know about yourself. With time, you’ll learn to recognize harmful thoughts before they affect your mental state. They’ll continue to play a less and less prominent place in how you feel about yourself, letting you work to your potential.

Final Thoughts

Self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness are hallmark symptoms of imposter syndrome. While we all might feel a little out of place or out of our depth once in a while, imposter syndrome permeates your thoughts and actions in harmful ways. However, it can be overcome with work on your part and the help of a licensed therapist to guide and support you to better health and wellness.

At Grow Therapy, we believe everyone deserves access to affordable mental health care. Our providers offer a wide range of specialties and can help you to overcome imposter syndrome.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC Greg Lozano, LPC

Greg Lozano is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in working with individuals with severe mental illnesses such as depressive, bipolar, schizophrenia, and substance abuse conditions.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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