What is impostor syndrome and how to identify it

Imposter syndrome
Max Miller
Max Miller
20 February 2024
9 min

You have received a salary increase, a promotion, an invitation to an interesting project, but instead of rejoicing at your success, you feel doubts and fear: what if it was a mistake, and you accidentally took someone else’s place? It seems to you that the management simply did not notice your incompetence, and soon the truth will “come out”. Just thinking about it literally makes you sweat.

If you’re familiar with these thoughts, chances are you’ve encountered “imposter syndrome.” What is this term? Why does it occur? What steps to take to successfully overcome it, and what personal benefits can be derived from this condition. Let’s discuss these and other questions below.

The imposter syndrome in psychology

According to research conducted by a Florida-based research institute, Behavioural Science Research Institute, more than 70 per cent of those in the creative professions have dealt with imposter syndrome at least once in their lives. According to Indeed’s 2022 report, three out of five employees surveyed experience the phenomenon on a regular basis.

Imposter syndrome is a psychological condition accompanied by insecurity, inability to evaluate one’s achievements soberly. A person is haunted by thoughts that he does not deserve success. Just happened to be at the right place at the right time, and in fact, is worthless as a professional and specialist. Because of this, he is constantly haunted by the fear of exposure: “soon everyone will realise that I am actually a complete zero in this matter, and then a real scandal will break out, I will lose my position, money, a prestigious job”.

Imposter syndrome was first described by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Susan Eames in 1978. They used the stories of successful women who had many achievements in academia, but who felt uncomfortable and insecure in the workplace, as if their results had been achieved by chance. As a result of further research, it was found that men were no less likely to develop this condition.

If we characterise imposter syndrome in simple words – it is not a mental disorder, it is not a disease that requires treatment. It is a set of complexes and experiences that people experience from time to time. It was noted that most often creative professionals, highly educated people in the age group of 25-39 years old (up to 27%) consider themselves “imposters” in the workplace.

What is imposter syndrome

The cycle of the syndrome is triggered at times when some goals need to be achieved. In this case, any tasks that require effort are evaluated as “achievements”. For example, defending a term paper, implementing a project, taking on new responsibilities. A person feels excitement and fear that he will not cope with the new case, will let down colleagues, management, loved ones. Staying in a state of anxiety prevents the person from starting to fulfil the assigned task. As a result, two behavioural scenarios may develop: procrastination or excessive activity in preparation for the task:

  • In the first case, important things are constantly postponed. When the deadline inevitably approaches, the person has to work hard to meet the deadline. Nervous and physical tension is accompanied by a debilitating sense of guilt arising from the inability to systematise and allocate tasks properly.
  • The opposite situation, where the performer becomes fixated on preparing for a task, leads to insomnia, irritability, eating disorders and other symptoms associated with chronic stress.

Finally, having successfully handed in the work, a person feels real relief, even euphoria, which is quickly replaced by a feeling of worthlessness and failure. If the desired result was achieved at the last moment, then it is just luck. And if intensive work brought the desired results, then it’s all in it. In fact, as a specialist, he is worthless. The worries are even more aggravated by the examples of more hurried colleagues that manage to manage everything in time, sleep well and still look great. That is, “fertile ground” for the development of imposter syndrome is the fear of social comparison. After all, it is not difficult to find a worthy object with which to compare your professional achievements both within the framework of a common project and the company.

Causes of imposter syndrome

One of the main reasons is that imposter syndrome is directly related to the orientation to the opinion of others: the desire for recognition, praise, positive evaluation for achievements. Prerequisites for the development of imposter syndrome arise in childhood, when a person is highly dependent on parents, teachers, and his environment. The most common preconditions for the syndrome include:

  • Constant comparison with more successful people – brothers, sisters – on the part of parents, leading to lower self-esteem, forming the habit of comparing their successes with the opinions and expectations of others. Which means that now the child will feel insufficiently clever, intelligent. Similar results are given by increased demanding ness to a person. He indoctrinates himself that he will be able to earn love and attention only when he is “on top”.
  • Excessive praise, glossing over mistakes. Parents paint an ideal picture of the future for their favourite child, showing what amazing prospects await him with his unique abilities. However, in real life, high expectations encounter various difficulties (refusal to get a job, low marks in exams).
  • Imposition of other people’s attitudes and goals. Presenting their son or daughter as successful in some sphere, parents try to transfer their unrealised goals to their children, expecting them to live according to their attitudes: to get a job abroad, to graduate from a prestigious university, to have a big family. Because of this, children automatically follow the chosen algorithm, do not find themselves, and when they grow up and acquire the syndrome, they feel themselves occupying someone else’s place by mistake.
  • Inappropriate evaluation of achievements. Success, accompanied by envy, anger, ridicule from rivals, often turns into a refusal to recognise one’s own achievements. A person justifies them by a random coincidence of events, does not feel worthy of victory.

How to identify imposter syndrome in yourself: main signs

The imposter syndrome manifests itself differently in each person. But, its main sign is the presence of a sense of fear, anxiety, sometimes shame that sooner or later it will turn out that he is not who he really is. The development of this condition is also indicated by the following symptoms:

  • Doubts about one’s own professional suitability;
  • An abiding belief: “One owes his success to chance, not to personal ability and talent.”
  • Inability to recognise their positive attributes and achievements;
  • Chronic fear of mistakes and failure;
  • An unrelenting sense of guilt;
  • Low self-esteem;
  • Excessive demanding, strictness to oneself;
  • Focusing on failure;
  • Striving to be the best, special, need for positive feedback for emotional well-being.

To see if you have symptoms of the syndrome, you can use a psychological test developed by the author of a book about the phenomenon, Pauline Rose Clance. Here are some questions from this test to which you should give a positive or negative answer:

  1. Are your qualifications inadequate for your position?
  2. Are you afraid of other people’s judgement?
  3. Receiving praise for achievements, do you think it’s just an act of courtesy to you?
  4. Do you attribute your successes to a happy accident?
  5. Are you afraid of not living up to other people’s expectations?
  6. Are you not able to complete the assigned tasks perfectly as you would like?
  7. You keep almost finishing, in fact, can you actually do more and better?
  8. Are you afraid of failing at new assignments, even if you have completed past assignments successfully?
  9. Do you compare yourself to other people (not in your favour)?
  10. Are you superstitious, afraid to talk about a promotion or a new project “so as not to jinx it”?

Having a majority of positive responses indicates that you most likely live in this state.

Types of imposters

According to Valerie Young’s classification, people suffering from imposter syndrome can be roughly divided into five groups:

  • Perfectionist achievers strive to always be ahead of the curve. They are always chasing the ideal, their attention is fully focused on the final results of tasks. One tiny flaw out of 100 is considered a disaster and a failure.
  • Expert or perfectionist intellectuals. They fixate on processes, paying maximum attention to whether they can do the job well. Such people constantly attend various training courses, trainings, but they keep putting things off for later, because they are afraid of lack of knowledge in the required area.
  • Natural geniuses. Everything is easy for them from birth, so any effort to master new skills is perceived as a failure. Because of this, when faced with difficulties in adulthood, they lose confidence in themselves.
  • Soloists or individualists. They are used to doing everything on their own. They do not know how to delegate and are afraid to entrust others with their tasks. Only they can do the job well.
  • Superhumans, supermen. Ready to combine many roles, to work without breaks and weekends. At the same time, they have to manage everywhere and do their work perfectly. Failure in any area leads to discomfort and suffering.

Often these behaviours are combined with each other. However, there is a common quality in each of these types – a sense of loneliness and isolation. A person with imposter syndrome feels that he is the only “wrong” person among normal people. The fear of being rejected leads to silence and isolation.

The consequences of imposter syndrome

Ignoring this condition leads to a loss of psychological comfort both in life and at work, which, with prolonged progression, may provoke the development of neuroses with an anxious-depressive component. Because of the feeling of guilt, shame for his actions, a person isolates himself from the outside world, which as a result worsens his social adaptation. There are absenteeism at work or study, leading to dismissal, to expulsion from the university. His career growth and development is stopped. Failure to take adequate measures to combat this phenomenon is fraught with the following problems:

  • Low salary, working in low positions in the company due to misjudging one’s skills and abilities;
  • By turning down interesting projects and tasks;
  • Procrastination;
  • An inability to ask others for help;
  • Workaholism developing against a background of perfectionism.

How to beat imposter syndrome

The best way to overcome this phenomenon is to visit a professional psychologist. Together with him you will understand what lies at the root of the syndrome, the hidden causes of your experiences, and develop a strategy for self-actualisation, in which your insecurity and anxiety will work in your favour.

There are also specific recommendations for working through the syndrome on your own.

  1. Celebrate your successes and achievements. To make it clear, you can make a list of tasks that you have coped with over the past year. When you analyse it, you will realise that not all your achievements are due to coincidence or luck.
  2. Ask colleagues, friends, and management for feedback. There are probably experts in your environment whom you consider to be authorities in your field. Listen to their assessment, even if the praise seems exaggerated.
  3. Use the driver’s technique. Remember: your doubts and fears are only in your head. You can control your life, which means you can cope with all your worries.
  4. Learn to work with your emotions. It is normal for everyone to feel anxiety, fear or shame from time to time. It’s normal. So, instead of running away from your worries, try to make sense of them. Accept them, analyse them in detail. For example, write down your fears on a piece of paper, and next to them indicate the positive aspects that will override them.

How to boost your self-esteem with LeaderTask

To get rid of imposter syndrome, it is important to note and record your results and victories. You can write down plans, tasks, and mark their fulfilment in an ordinary notebook or use a convenient planner LeaderTask for this purpose. Personal electronic assistant will help you make the first step to successfully move forward to your goals. It will teach you how to competently handle the most valuable resource – time, which will allow you to manage more in a shorter period of time. With its help, you can easily formulate current and strategic tasks and prioritise them. You will be able to track your progress on a graph or an informative Kanban board.

Set up Smart Notifications to receive a notification of a new task or event. You can keep in touch with your colleagues by chatting in a convenient chat room, share information wherever you are. Your personal secretary, task manager, diary will always be at your fingertips. The application functions on all digital platforms, does not require an internet connection, has a high-quality mobile version. It supports all the tools and techniques of modern time management for successful organisation of any work and personal tasks.


Imposter syndrome is an illusory, invented condition based solely on your opinion and not on concrete facts. This is an internal process that you can cope with, turning it from the worst enemy into a companion and helper. Every person has a tendency to periodically doubt himself, his competences and capabilities. The main thing is to understand that everything in life is finite, that periods of doubt and failures will be followed by periods of success and achievements. If you act correctly, any crises can be turned into stepping stones for future achievements. The main thing is not to dwell on inner worries, to cultivate calmness, self-confidence, to celebrate successes, and not to strive to please others in everything.

Professional Task Planner and Organizer
Download the LeaderTask app and enjoy the simplicity and convenience of planning your tasks.