What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is known as a phenomenon where individuals feel a great sense of self-doubt and perceived fraudulence in spite of their training, experience, and accomplishments [1]. However, it is not considered a clinical mental condition [1] but simply a term used to validate and express a common mental health struggle. It is most commonly experienced among high-achieving individuals [2].

Recognising signs of Imposter Syndrome

Unrealistic perceptions of own competence and success

We may have experienced a string of accomplishments in the past, leading to us defining our self-worth based on our successes. This can eventually develop into a belief that if and when we are to meet with any sort of failure or shortcoming, we may not be as “competent” as others might have assumed.

Pressure to work harder to make up for our supposed shortcomings

Due to our own unrealistic perceptions of competence, we tend to find ourselves compensating, or sometimes overcompensating in aspects we believe ourselves to be lacking in. For example, we may spend more time than others on a task to ensure that it matches the standards that have brought about our previous successes.

Often hesitant to reach out for help or ask questions for fear of exposing what we do not know

It may have stemmed from us being recognised as an individual who always had continuous success without requiring any help or assistance from other resources. Therefore, it can be difficult for us to ask for help as it may be viewed as a form of weakness and may even expose us as a “fraud”.

Often highly critical about our own flaws

We may equate our success to experiencing zero oversights and achieving perfect results. Hence, we tend to condemn ourselves when we are to fall short in any aspects despite our often-unrealistic standards.

Frequent strong feelings of guilt and self-doubt

We believe ourselves to have “tricked” others into thinking we are “talented” or “successful” hence our guilt. Additionally, if we are unable to maintain our streak of success, we may begin to doubt ourselves and our abilities. 

Often sabotage our success to protect our self-esteem

Alternatively, for some of us, we may find ourselves putting in minimal effort into our tasks to prove our persistent belief that we are not as “competent” as we are known for. Therefore, if we are to fall short in our accomplishments, our self-esteem is protected since we have set expectations to fare poorly.

Effects of Imposter Syndrome

Implications on our self-esteem

We may constantly feel as though we are “not good enough” so we may hide our flaws as a way to guard our reputations. Additionally, we may even attribute our successes to external factors, leading to a lack of recognition for our efforts and achievements [3]. This can eventually hinder ourselves and others to accept who we really are.

Implications on our mental and physical health

Due to our “imposter” feelings, we often experience feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. As a result, we may become more prone to overthinking and worrying and other mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression [3].

Not to mention, it can cause us to work doubly hard to compensate for our perceived fraudulence, subsequently resulting in the deterioration of our physical health due to poor self-care [3].

Factors contributing to Imposter Syndrome

Having to assume new responsibilities

With new opportunities and responsibilities come new expectations. However, we may have difficulty accepting that it is common for us to face a learning curve, especially when we are still picking up new skills or adjusting to new roles. We may compare ourselves with people who have been doing it for a long time. Eventually, our “imposter” feelings can worsen, especially if we are unable to receive adequate encouragement and support from others.

Family upbringing or background

Growing up, we may have constantly struggled to meet our parents’ expectations, or we have to match up to our siblings’ success. Thus, it can create a self-concept of “not being good enough”.

Facing academic success in childhood

We may have always maintained a streak of success, or we were frequently praised for achievements when we were younger. As a result, when we struggle to keep up with the similar level of success as we get older, we may experience these “imposter” feelings.

Symptoms of pre-existing mental health conditions

Those diagnosed with pre-existing mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression are already experiencing low self-esteem and self-doubt. With imposter syndrome, the symptoms of such mental health conditions can potentially worsen.

Derived from personality traits

Certain personality traits can contribute to our “imposter” feelings, for instance, being high in neuroticism and having perfectionistic tendencies.

An individual who is high in neuroticism, may be more prone to overthinking. They may also be constantly worried about others’ perception of ourselves.

As for an individual with perfectionistic tendencies, they may aim for impossibly high standards in most, if not all aspects of their life. If they were met with failures and drawbacks, it affirms their beliefs about being an “imposter”.

Types of Imposters

1. The Perfectionist

As a “perfectionist”, they hold a belief that being “competent” means to be “perfect” and they may even feel ashamed of their “failures”. They tend to be hard on themselves in order to meet their high standards for perfection. If they are unable to get something right the first time, they may avoid doing it since they believe that it will prove that they are not “good enough”.

2. The Natural Genius

A “natural genius” believes that in order to be considered “competent”, they must have the ability to naturally and intuitively know most things and be good at many things. Therefore, they may perceive themselves to be a “fraud” when they take too long to learn a skill that they suppose is “easy” to achieve. They may even become ashamed when they are unable to master it the first try or within a short period of time.

3. The Soloist

As a “soloist”, they equate their ability to manage everything, without anyone’s help or support to their level of competence. Hence, they may be less than willing to accept assistance from others due to their belief that help-seeking is a form of weakness which might prove themselves to be a “failure”.

4. The Expert

An “expert” believes that being “competent” means knowing everything there is to know. Hence, they may consider themselves to be a “fraud” when they struggle to reach or maintain the “expert” level. They can even get uncomfortable in admitting they do not know something.

5. The Superhero

They believe that competence comes from being good at many areas and commitments. As a result, these individuals might find themselves swarmed with commitments in order to feel a level of competence and value. Eventually, they may have difficulty putting in their best efforts in all areas, leading to disillusionment, poor self-esteem, and/or burnout.

Coping with Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome originates from our distorted beliefs about our skills and abilities. In order to cope with our “imposter” feelings, we can strive to understand how to manage our perceptions to be more helpful for us.

Find time for self-evaluation

We can work towards recognising possible blindspots we might have that resulted from our unrealistic perceptions of our accomplishments. For instance, we may have forgotten that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses.

Hence, we can try to acknowledge that:

  • Everyone has their fair share of failures and went through their own growth process, which may be unknown to us.
  • Our weaknesses might remain as weaknesses for as long as we do not face up to them and work on them.

In order to get started, we can ask ourselves:

  • When were the last few times I found myself feeling like an imposter?
  • What was the situation that triggered it? 

Identify the thoughts that come to mind, and some feelings that accompany it, when we find ourselves experiencing “imposter” feelings. Take note of some resulting behaviours that happened due to these feelings.

Seek to strengthen our self-efficacy

We can work towards normalising our “imposter” feelings to strengthen our self-efficacy. Firstly, we have to understand that imposter syndrome is a common struggle by many who are growing and learning from taking on new responsibilities.

Recognise that not all our feelings are facts – we might feel like an imposter, but that might not be true. At the same time, recognise that everyone starts somewhere, and it is possible for you to grow into your role! 

We can also do a “reality check” by gaining objective feedback on your performance. Since we may have distorted perceptions about our skills and abilities, we can inquire our friends, family members and even co-workers, to understand their perspectives of our skills and competence. We can strive to be receptive to their feedback and take the time to reflect on what they have said.

We can also aim to challenge unhelpful thoughts that arise from our self-doubt by asking ourselves:

  • Are these thoughts helping me grow and improve?
  • Is there any evidence to support our thinking?
  • Is there any evidence against our thinking?
  • What are other more helpful ways to view our situation?

It can benefit us to view failures as part and parcel of our life, as areas of improvement instead of associating it closely with our self-worth. We can work towards acknowledging and accepting that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses and to learn to work within our limitations. Remember to celebrate your achievements and successes, no matter how small!

Learn to reach out for support

We may struggle with opening up about our vulnerabilities due to our belief that it is a form of weakness. However, we may eventually harbour resentment towards ourselves and our situation, which can in turn lower our self-esteem. It can lead to the deterioration of our mental and physical health due to the built-up stress. Hence, it can help to understand the importance of building a support network – it reduces our stress levels, provides guidance and opportunities for growth and facilitates in our emotional regulation.

We can seek to evaluate our beliefs on accepting help from others. Ask ourselves:

  • What’s stopping you from accepting help from others?
  • What is making you feel this way when asking for help?

Brainstorm for any sources of support you can reach out to – for instance, your family members, friends, coworkers – and understand what kind of support you require in times of need.

Alternatively, we can get started by accepting small requests such as agreeing to a friend’s gesture to buy a meal for you. Gradually move on to make requests such as asking others to help us out with our projects.

We can also aim to make connections with those in similar situations as ourselves to help one another through our “imposter” feelings. Through these connections, we can share about our own struggles and discuss strategies in better coping with these feelings.


[1] Cuncic, A. (2022). What is Imposter Syndrome? Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/imposter-syndrome-and-social-anxiety-disorder-4156469#:~:text=Imposter%20syndrome%20can%20be%20broken%20down%20into%20five,4%20The%20Soloist.%20…%205%20The%20Superperson.%20 

[2] Psychology Today Staff. Imposter Syndrome. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/sg/basics/imposter-syndrome 

[3] Leonard, J. (2020). How to handle imposter syndrome. MedicalNewsToday. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321730