What is imposter syndrome?

Updated on Nov 11, 2023

By Ewa Nikodem

Imposter syndrome is self-doubt and feeling like a fraud despite achievements. Strategies to overcome it - reframing thoughts, celebrating small wins, and more.


A cartoon character in a library with a book in its hand.

Around 70% have found themselves at the intersection of achievement and self-doubt, struggling with a phenomenon known as imposter syndrome. But what is imposter syndrome?

Picture this: you've poured hours into preparation, passed that interview, secured the job, or completed a big project. Instead of feeling accomplished or proud, you are secretly fearing that people will find out that you are a fraud.

If you've ever experienced this, here's the reassuring truth: you're not alone. In fact, most individuals, experienced or will experience at some point in their life the imposter syndrome. Even Albert Einstein went through something similar, which he called himself an "involuntary swindler". He thought his work did not deserve the attention it was getting.

In this blog, we will take a closer look at what is imposter syndrome, what might be causing it and how you could turn it around to your advantage.

Please note that the reasons why someone might feel like an imposter are very broad and are not limited to the ones listed here.

  1. Imposter syndrome
  2. Comparison
  3. Dunning-Kruger effect
  4. Spotlight effect
  5. When do we feel it?
  6. How to stop it?
  7. Turning it around
  8. Actionable tips
  9. Conclusion

Imposter syndrome

From a scientific standpoint, imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon characterized by persistent self-doubt and an internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud, despite evidence of one's competence and accomplishments.

Imposter Syndrome revolves around distorted self-perceptions, where individuals attribute their successes to external factors, such as luck or timing, rather than acknowledging their own capabilities.


Comparison

One of the most common reasons why we experience imposter syndrome is because we compare ourselves to others, falling into the comparison trap that makes us feel not good enough. This struggle extends into various aspects of our lives, be it at work or in leisure activities.

The fear of success, the reluctance to take risks, and the potential of failure contribute to self-doubt. It's as if we're caught in a constant Friday afternoon slump, seeing the contrast between our achievements and the internalized belief that we fall short.


Dunning-Kruger effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect describes a situation where individuals with lower abilities tend to overestimate their competence, while those with higher abilities may underestimate theirs. This bias results from a lack of metacognitive skills, preventing individuals from accurately assessing their own performance.

The connection between the Dunning-Kruger Effect and Imposter Syndrome lies in the self-perception. In this scenario, people may exhibit unwarranted confidence in their abilities, whereas those experiencing Imposter Syndrome may downplay their competence despite evidence of proficiency.


Spotlight effect

The spotlight effect is a psychological phenomenon where individuals tend to overestimate the extent to which other people notice and pay attention to their appearance, behaviour or skills.

Consider this scenario: You are in the gym and can’t stop thinking that everyone is looking at you, judging everything, from your clothes to your technique. In reality, everyone is paying attention to themselves and what they are doing.

Spotlight effect is like walking onto a stage with a bright spotlight focused solely on you, making every move feel magnified. However, people are much less observant of our actions. Understanding the spotlight effect can be liberating. It allows you to navigate social situations with less self-consciousness and recognize that, in most cases, people are more absorbed in their own lives than scrutinizing yours.


When do we feel it?

Often, individuals experience imposter syndrome in situations where they should, by conventional measures, feel a sense of accomplishment. For instance, it can occur after reaching a significant milestone, landing a job, or completing a challenging project.

This phenomenon tends to poke its head when people find themselves in high-stakes environments or when they're undertaking tasks that align with their passions and strengths. Paradoxically, it is in these moments of achievement and alignment with one's capabilities that the self-doubt becomes most pronounced.


How to stop it?

Addressing and mitigating imposter syndrome requires an approach that incorporates both psychological awareness and practical strategies. One effective path is developing a heightened sense of self-awareness. By recognizing and acknowledging the patterns and thoughts associated with imposter syndrome, you can begin to dismantle its hold on your psyche.

Cultivating a growth mindset is important as well. This involves reframing challenges as opportunities for growth, embracing mistakes as part of the learning process, and fostering a belief in one's ability to develop skills over time.

Furthermore, seeking social support and professional validation can be essential. Sharing feelings of inadequacy with trusted mentors, friends, or colleagues can provide a reality check and external perspectives that counteract a distorted self-perception.

Practical strategies involve setting realistic goals and breaking them down into manageable tasks. This incremental approach allows individuals to track their progress and build a record of their achievements.

Another way to mitigate it is by creating a positive and affirming internal dialogue. Counteracting negative self-talk with affirmations and acknowledging accomplishments, no matter how small, contributes to reshaping your thoughts.


Turning it around

Embracing self-awareness is essential for overcoming self-doubt. Instead of viewing self-doubt as a paralyzing force, reframe it as an indicator of areas for your potential improvement. This shift in perspective allows you to channel self-doubt into a driving force for growth.

Adopting a growth mindset is pivotal in this transformational process. Recognize that abilities are not fixed, but can be improved through effort and learning. Each moment of uncertainty becomes an opportunity to learn, adapt, and enhance skills.

Leveraging self-doubt as a driving force involves setting realistic goals that align with one's aspirations. Breaking these goals into manageable steps allows for incremental progress and a tangible sense of achievement. Celebrate small victories and acknowledge the progress you've made.

Moreover, seeking constructive feedback from mentors or peers transforms self-doubt into a tool for improvement. Constructive criticism becomes a valuable resource for refining skills and gaining insights into areas that may need attention.


Actionable tips

After discussing what is imposter syndrome and how to stop it, let's take a look at some actionable tips that you can implement in your life.

Acknowledge your achievements: Take time to recognize and celebrate your accomplishments, no matter how small. Create a record of your successes and revisit it when self-doubt arises.

Shift your internal dialogue: Replace negative self-talk with positive affirmations. Challenge the imposter thoughts by consciously reminding yourself of your skills, experiences, and the hard work you've invested.

Share your feelings: Open up to trusted friends, mentors, or colleagues about your imposter feelings. Externalizing these thoughts can provide valuable perspectives and reassurance.

Accept constructive feedback: Embrace feedback as a tool for growth rather than validation of your inadequacy. Use constructive criticism as a guide for improvement.

Set realistic goals: Break down your goals into manageable steps. Achieving these smaller milestones can build confidence and showcase your competence in tangible ways.

Seek mentorship: Connect with mentors who have similar paths. Their guidance and shared experiences can provide reassurance and practical insights.

Remember you're not alone: Recognize that imposter feelings are common and experienced by many high-achieving individuals. You're not alone in this journey. Seeking support is a sign of strength, not weakness.


Conclusion

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon characterized by persistent self-doubt and an internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud, despite evidence of one's competence and accomplishments. It can be triggered by comparison, the Dunning-Kruger effect, or the spotlight effect.

Embracing self-doubt as a driving force for growth is a powerful way to transform imposter syndrome into a tool for success. Remember, you're not alone in this journey. By applying the aforementioned strategies, you can begin to overcome imposter syndrome and embrace your capabilities.

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