How To Identify & Deal With Imposter Syndrome

How To Identify & Deal With Imposter Syndrome

A recent survey showed imposter syndrome now affects nearly two thirds of people at work in the UK. Though the term was coined back in the 70s, it’s only recently that employers are recognising the damage it can wreak on mental health. Here, clinical psychologist Dr Lucy Viney explains what imposter syndrome is, and the tools you can use to manage it…


First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance, Dr Viney believes imposter syndrome (IS) continues to impact lives and careers as much as it ever did. “Imposter syndrome isn’t a mental illness per se. It’s more of a psychological pattern that presents itself through persistent feelings of doubt, inadequacy and insecurity,” she explains. “It often occurs among high-achieving and accomplished individuals who struggle to internalise and accept their success. They typically attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and experience a lingering, underlying fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.”


Experts agree imposter syndrome can manifest itself in many different ways, which Dr Viney says tend to be intrinsically linked to an individual’s experiences, insecurities and beliefs. “Research by a psychologist called Dr Valerie Young categorised the condition into subtypes. Each sub-type is defined by a unique type of individual that falls under the umbrella of imposter syndrome. She argues that most people who struggle with this syndrome fall into one or a mix of these subtypes.”   

Sub-types of Imposter Syndrome…

Perfectionism – “This describes people who set extremely high expectations for themselves and, even if they meet 99% of their goals, they feel like a failure. Any small mistake will make them question their own competence.”

The Superwoman/Man – “This describes people who push themselves to work harder than those around them to prove they’re not imposters. They feel the need to succeed in all aspects of life – at work, as parents, as partners – and may feel stressed when they are not accomplishing something.”

The Natural Genius – “When the ‘natural genius’ has to struggle or work hard to accomplish something, he or she thinks this means they aren’t good enough. They are used to skills coming easily; when they have to put in effort, their brain tells them that’s proof they’re an imposter.”

The Soloist – “This subtype feels they have to accomplish tasks on their own. If they need to ask for help, they think that means they are a failure or fraud.”  

The Expert – “This describes people who feel the need to know every piece of information before they start a project and constantly look for new certifications or trainings to improve their skills.  They might be hesitant about applying for a job if they did not meet all the criteria or be hesitant to ask a question so as not to expose themselves for not knowing the answer to something.”

However, adds Dr Viney, across all of these types of IS, there are basic shared principles of persistent feelings of doubt and insecurity, combined with an inability in internalise success.  


According to Dr Viney, the most common feelings and symptoms commonly associated with IS include:

  • Lack of self confidence

  • Feelings of inadequacy despite demonstrating competency

  • Constant comparison to other people

  • Attributing success to external factors or luck 

  • Anxiety

  • Self-doubt and insecurity 

  • Distrust in one's own intuition and capabilities

  • Negative self-talk

  • Anxiety of being exposed as a ‘fraud’

  • Feeling stressed, anxious or depressed 


The lines between these different issues might not be clear cut, but Dr Viney says it’s important not to get them confused. “Perfectionism and being a ‘workaholic’ can often be found in people who experience imposter syndrome,” she admits. “However, these traits and behaviours certainly do not mean you are experiencing the disorder.” Instead, she says, it’s important to recognise that the key defining feature of imposter syndrome is being unable to accept your success is due to your own competence and then internalise this feeling of adequacy. “It can be helpful to consider what drives perfectionism and ‘workaholism’, and whether this is related to an underlying symptom of imposter syndrome, or something else,” adds Dr Viney. Meanwhile, social anxiety disorder refers to a specific anxiety disorder that involves a long-lasting and overwhelming fear of social situations. “The focus of social anxiety is different to that in imposter syndrome, where the person is more preoccupied with feeling unable to accept their achievements or success.”


The latest research indicates more and more people will experience aspects of imposter syndrome at some points in their lives – especially during stressful times of transition such as starting a new job or getting a promotion. “It is helpful to monitor these thoughts and feelings over time and see whether they are either maintained, become more severe or decrease in intensity,” advises Dr Viney. “For those who experience persistent thoughts and feelings relating to many of the above stated symptoms of the syndrome, you may be experiencing imposter syndrome.” 


The good news is that treatment options do exist. “Anyone experiencing this syndrome should seek help and find support in how to manage it,” confirms Dr Viney. “As mentioned above, this syndrome is not a mental illness, but it can have a serious impact on your mental health. By working with a psychologist it’s possible to uncover the underlying belief system that not only keeps the syndrome in place, but perpetually brings about situations that constantly reflect these beliefs back to the person in question.” Just bear in mind that psychological therapy will be different for everyone, depending on your individual difficulties and the recommendation of the clinician. In terms of what to expect, Dr Viney says therapy for imposter syndrome might typically involve the examination of the origins of the syndrome, how it affects you, the ways in which it is maintained, and then encouraging you to find new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. “As Dr Valerie Young says, everyone wants to stop feeling like an imposter. But that’s not how it works. Feelings are the last to change. The only way to stop feeling like an imposter is to stop thinking like an imposter.” 


“One of the first steps is acknowledging the thoughts relating to this difficulty and putting them into perspective,” says Dr Viney. “For example, common thoughts might include, ‘My success is down to luck’, ‘I’m not as capable as they think I am’, or ‘I don’t belong here’. Simply observing that thought – you don’t have to engage with it – can be helpful.” Mindfulness practice can also be very helpful, as can sharing what you’re feeling with trusted friends and mentors. “Imposter syndrome is extremely prevalent in our society and many people will have experienced aspects of it to varying degrees. It can be very normalising to talk to people about their experiences, so that you feel less alone.”  


Dr Lucy Viney is a clinical psychologist and co-founder of The Fitzrovia Psychology Clinic. She is also a clinical feature partner at the Medical Travel Market, a UK-based health tourism and communications agency, connecting private patients with premier hospitals, doctors and wellness retreats worldwide.

Fashion. Beauty. Culture. Life. Home
Delivered to your inbox, daily