Impostor Syndrome: What is It and What Are Its Consequences?

On average, people with better skills and abilities tend to suffer from imposter syndrome. They perceive themselves as frauds and fear that at some point it'll be revealed that they're not as exceptional as they seem to be.
Impostor Syndrome: What is It and What Are Its Consequences?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 02 December, 2021

Imposter syndrome is a common phenomenon. People who suffer from it feel like they don’t deserve the position they’re in or think they’re just not good enough to be recognized. In fact, the nurturing of these kinds of beliefs are behind many stressful situations and anxiety disorders.

However, why should a perfectly worthy person consider themselves to be a fraud? As a matter of fact, this psychological phenomenon has been studied for decades. For example, we know that it tends to appear more frequently in women than in men. Also, that factors such as perfectionism or low self-esteem are usually behind it.

Despite the fact that this reality doesn’t appear in any diagnostic manual nor is it considered a clinical entity by itself, it’s a common occurrence. It was the clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes who first described it in 1978. Since then, there’s been no shortage of experts pointing out that at least seven out of ten people suffer from this condition at some time in their lives.

Let’s take a closer look.

boy suffering from work impostor syndrome

Characteristics of impostor syndrome

It can be quite difficult to comprehend that there are people who are successful in their job yet they perceive themselves as frauds and feel like they don’t deserve their positions or any recognition. However, a study published in the Journal of Behavorial Science, indicates that about 30 percent of high achievers suffer from this syndrome.

Considering the degree to which it affects sufferers and its social impact, it’s clear that this syndrome needs to be made much more visible. Let’s start with a description. Impostor syndrome can be defined as the emotional distress linked to the belief of not deserving a certain position or some kind of professional recognition. This is something that artists, writers, scientists, engineers, or anyone with skills in a certain area can experience.

However, this devaluing self-perception can have extremely adverse consequences. For example, there might be a highly skilled person who gets a job yet believes it was all down to ‘luck’. Furthermore, the constant feeling of being a fraud makes these people accept lower salaries and they don’t feel they deserve any kind of promotion.

How does impostor work syndrome manifest itself?

The main characteristic of people with work impostor syndrome is the clear difficulty in internalizing their own achievements. For example, if they receive an award in a photography contest, they’ll think that that fact that they’ve won must surely mean there were only two or three other entrants. Therefore, they convince themselves that the award doesn’t really mean much.

  • This personality is characterized by doubts. In fact, these people doubt themselves, their worth, their usefulness, and their skills and abilities.
  • They attribute success to external factors.
  • Their expectations are so high that it’s impossible to meet them.
  • They sabotage themselves steadily. For example, they have extremely critical, negative, and fatalistic internal dialogues.
  • They experience deep emotions of shame, insecurity, restlessness, and anxiety, etc.

    Causes that explain this phenomenon

    There are multiple dynamics that explain the phenomenon of impostor syndrome. However, the most common is low self-esteem. Indeed, often, the low appreciation and valuation of themselves lead these people to the conviction that they’re frauds.

    However, some more underlying causes could be:

    • They’re perfectionists. In fact, their expectations are so high that even if they reach 99.9 percent of them they’ll still consider themselves to be failures.
    • They’ve often suffered extremely demanding educational environments. Indeed, growing up in surroundings where the only way to receive affection was by showing their worth can subject people to the eternal feeling that they’re not trying hard enough.
    • The Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development conducted a study claiming that impostor syndrome occurs frequently among social and ethnic minorities. In fact, it’s enough to simply belong to another culture, nationality, or even gender to harbor stereotyped and negative beliefs about one’s own competence.
    • It occurs frequently in women who work in the science or research sector. In these environments, where the number of men is greater, it makes them at some point doubt themselves. Alternatively, they have to work harder to prove their worth.

    Strategies to reduce the effect of imposter syndrome

    We already know that impostor syndrome is extremely frequent. However, there’s a cost when people continually harbor this perception. As a matter of fact, it’s quite common that many don’t progress in their work. Furthermore, they’re also prone to developing mood disorders.

    Therefore, what strategies exist to reduce or manage these types of situations? Here are some:

    • These people need to stop comparing themselves to others. They must begin to appreciate and recognize their own achievements.
    • They must also identify and defuse their irrational fears. For example, they mustn’t validate their fears that others will discover that they’re not really as worthy or competent as they appear. Rationalizing and detecting false thinking errors is the first step for them to take here.
    • They should share their experiences with others. Indeed, it’s always a good idea to say their fears out loud so that others can understand how they feel and help them.
    • They need to consider the successes and recognition they’ve achieved. In this way, they become aware that they’re not as inept as they think.
    • Helping to train others can be useful. Sharing their knowledge, skills, and instructing others is a great way of discovering what they can contribute. With this, their self-esteem is strengthened.

    Finally, although it’s true that imposter syndrome isn’t a clinical or psychological disorder, it’s a phenomenon that greatly limits growth and personal development. For this reason, psychological support should always be sought if necessary. 

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    • Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., … Hagg, H. K. (2020, April 1). Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. Journal of General Internal Medicine. Springer.
    • Cokley, K., McClain, S., Enciso, Alicia, & Martinez, M. (2013). An Examination of the Impact of Minority Status Stress and Impostor Feelings on the Mental Health of Diverse Ethnic Minority College Students. Journal of Multicultural Counseling & Development, 41(2), 82-95.
    • Sakulku, J. (1). The Impostor Phenomenon. The Journal of Behavioral Science6(1), 75-97.
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