The Challenge of Imposter Syndrome 

7th January 2022

Many people live with the fear and expectation of being ‘found out’ and that others will realise they don’t really know what they are doing. Understanding imposter syndrome is useful as it can lead to unhelpful behaviours which are often detrimental to our wellbeing, as well as the belief in our ability to progress at work.

What is imposter syndrome?

The term ‘Imposter Syndrome’ was first coined back in 1978*. It was found that high achieving women continued to believe they were not intelligent but had managed to fool everyone, and that it is only a matter of time before this was realised.

The original work focused on women but many high profile and indisputably successful people have spoken about experiencing imposter syndrome. This includes Tom Hanks, Sheryl Sandberg, Lady Gaga, David Bowie, Michele Obama and Serena Williams.

Symptoms of imposter syndrome

Signs that you may be experiencing imposter syndrome include:

  • Not feeling good enough
  • Self-doubt
  • Playing down your abilities
  • Being uncomfortable with praise
  • Focusing on errors rather than success


Imposter syndrome can be difficult to overcome because of the depth of self-doubt and belief.  The research found women who experienced imposter syndrome adopted particular behaviours:

  • Working hard believing that this will result in good performance and approval, meaning they will avoid discovery. Unfortunately, the benefits of positive feedback from success are short-lived and can encourage perpetuating the cycle.
  • Not expressing their views and ideas but saying what they believe others want to hear. This leads to inauthenticity and not presenting real opinions.
  • Seeking approval and trying to impress those viewed as senior or that they admire.
  • Gender and cultural expectations which saw over-confidence and appearing to ‘know it all’ as undesirable behaviours, resulting in not sharing knowledge and expertise because of a fear of rejection.


Whilst not an illness, it is unsurprising given the symptoms, that imposter syndrome can affect our health and psychological wellbeing. The unhelpful behaviours adopted can lead to increased stress levels, may contribute to anxiety and depression, and potentially lead to burnout.

Strategies to reduce imposter syndrome

Despite the difficulty in overcoming it, there are strategies you can try to help reduce the unhelpful thoughts found in imposter syndrome.

Notice your self-talk and be kinder
It has been found that those experiencing imposter syndrome were low in self-compassion and therefore likely to have an internal narrative that is judgemental and critical towards themselves. The benefits of being kinder to ourselves are many. When we treat ourselves with kindness, we support ourselves to do better rather than judge and criticise our way to improvement.

Recognise you are not alone in your feelings
Another aspect of self-compassion using the definition by Neff (2003) is that of common humanity versus isolation. This involves us recognising that we are not alone in finding things difficult and sometimes it is ok to acknowledge and accept that something is hard.

Draw on your strengths
We all have our own strengths. Often we don’t recognise them and fail to leverage the benefits they give. Consider your strengths. Then think about how you can use them more and to an optimal level to achieve even better outcomes.

Challenge your need for perfectionism
If we adopt a growth mindset, first labelled by Dweck (2006)*, then we will constantly seek to learn and develop our abilities. This approach has been shown to be beneficial for our wellbeing and increase positive emotions. Perfect is impossible to reach but we can still have the approach of growing and learning to do things even better.

Practice accepting and appreciating compliments
A common unhelpful thought pattern is finding ‘reasons’ why positive feedback doesn’t count and then only focus on the things we view as having gone wrong.  Practice simply thanking someone when they acknowledge work you have done. Or be really brave and compliment yourself when you have completed something well! If that voice of self-doubt or fear of being found out is familiar, give the strategies above a go. It would be great to hear how you get on.

          Contact us for details

          To learn more about how to overcome imposter syndrome for yourself or within your organisation please call us on 01202 612 326 or get in touch.


          *Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247.

          Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.


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