People with impostor syndrome doubt their achievements and ability and fear that they may be a fraud.

Impostor syndrome can affect anyone, regardless of job or social status, but high-achieving individuals often experience it.

Psychologists first described the syndrome in 1978. According to a 2020 review, 9%–82% of people experience impostor syndrome. The numbers may vary depending on who participates in a study.

Many people experience symptoms for a limited time, such as in the first few weeks of a new job. For others, the experience can be lifelong.

In this article, we discuss the ways impostor syndrome occurs and some ways to overcome it.

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A person with impostor syndrome has:

  • a sense of being a fraud
  • fear of being discovered
  • difficulty internalizing their success

Having a sense of self-doubt can help a person assess their achievements and ability, but too much self-doubt can adversely impact a person’s self-image.

This can lead to symptoms of distress known as impostor syndrome, which can affect the following aspect of a person’s life.

Work performance

The person may fear that their colleagues and supervisors expect more from them than they can manage. They may feel unable to deliver.

The person may fear that their colleagues and supervisors expect more from them than they can manage. They may feel unable to deliver.

The fear of not succeeding may cause a person to hold themselves back and avoid seeking higher achievements. This, along with the fear of doing things wrong, can affect their overall job performance.

Taking on responsibilities

People with impostor syndrome may focus heavily on limited tasks instead of taking on additional duties that can prove their abilities, according to research published in 2014.

They may avoid taking on additional tasks for fear that they will distract from or compromise the quality of their other tasks.


Success can create a cycle of self-doubt for people with impostor syndrome. Even when the person achieves an important milestone, they may be unable to recognize their accomplishments.

Instead of celebrating their achievements, the person may worry that others will discover the “truth” about their abilities.

Attributing success to outside factors

Individuals with impostor syndrome deny their competency. They may feel that their successes are due to outside factors or chance.

Similarly, when things go wrong due to external reasons, the person may blame themselves.

Job dissatisfaction and burnout

In some cases, a person may not feel sufficiently challenged in their work, but a fear of failure or discovery stops them from seeking promotion or extra responsibility.

As the person works to overcome feelings of inadequacy, they may also have a higher risk of burnout.

Results of the 2014 study suggest that people with impostor syndrome tend to stay in their positions because they do not believe that they can do better. The person may undervalue their skills or fail to recognize how other roles might place more importance on their abilities.

Avoid seeking promotion

Undervaluing skills and abilities can lead those with impostor syndrome to deny their worth. They may avoid seeking promotion or a raise because they do not believe they deserve it.

In the original 1978 study, one academic believed there must have been a mistake in the selection process when they received their appointment, as they did not see how they could be deserving of the role.

Focus on tasks and goal-setting

A fear of failure and the need to be the best can sometimes lead to overachievement.

The person may set themselves extremely challenging goals and experienced disappointment when they are unable to achieve them.

Mental health impact

The fear of not being good enough can lead to mental health complications, in some cases. The person may experience:

However, experts do not consider impostor syndrome a mental health condition.

Dr. Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, has identified five types of “impostors.”

The expert will not feel satisfied when finishing a task until they feel that they know everything about the subject. The time spent searching for information can make it hard to complete tasks and projects.

The perfectionist experiences high levels of anxiety, doubt, and worry, especially when they set themselves extreme goals that they are unable to achieve. A perfectionist will focus on areas where they could have done better rather than celebrate their achievements.

Natural geniuses master many new skills quickly and easily, and they may feel ashamed and weak when faced with a goal that is too hard. Learning that everyone needs to struggle to achieve some goals may help.

The soloist, or “rugged individualist,” prefers to work alone, fearing that asking for help will reveal incompetence. The person may turn down help in an attempt to prove their self-worth.

Superheroes often excel due to extreme effort, as in “workaholism.” This can lead to burnout, which can affect physical and mental well-being and relationships with others.

While anyone can develop impostor syndrome, several factors increase the risk, including:

  • New challenges: A recent opportunity or success, such as a promotion, can trigger a sense of “impostorism.” The person may feel undeserving of the new position or that they will be unable to perform adequately.
  • Family environment: When a person grows up alongside a “gifted” sibling, they may internalize feelings of inadequacy that are not justified. At the same time, a person who finds it easy to perform well during childhood may experience doubts when faced with a task that is hard to achieve.
  • Being from a marginalized population group: Research suggests that people from some ethnic groups may be more at risk. The experience of discrimination may play a role.
  • Having depression and anxiety: These are common among people with impostor syndrome.

While many studies focus on females, research suggests that age and gender do not affect the likelihood of experiencing impostor syndrome.

There is currently no specific treatment for impostor syndrome, but people can seek help from a mental health professional if they have concerns about its impact on their life.

The following steps can also help a person manage and overcome a sense of inadequacy related to impostor syndrome.

Talk about it

Sharing feelings with or getting feedback from a trusted colleague, friend, or family member can help a person develop a more realistic perspective on their abilities and competence.

Some experts recommend group therapy as a treatment option, as many people with impostor syndrome mistakenly believe that only they have these feelings, leading to isolation.

Opening up with a mental health professional may also enable a person to identify the reason for their feelings, giving them the chance to tackle the underlying causes.

Be aware of the symptoms

Knowing what impostor syndrome is and why it happens can help people spot the symptoms when they arise and apply strategies to overcome their doubts.

Accept that perfectionism is impossible

To have a healthy sense of self-esteem and self-worth, a person needs to accept both their strengths and weaknesses. Nobody is perfect, and mistakes are an inevitable part of life.

Learning to accept that things sometimes go wrong can increase resilience and mental well-being.

Challenge negative thoughts

Swapping negative thoughts for positive ones is a key step toward overcoming impostor syndrome.

Tips include:

  • celebrating current achievements
  • recalling past successes
  • keeping a record of positive feedback from others

Cognitive-behavioral therapy aims to improve coping strategies by challenging unhelpful thinking patterns.

Impostor syndrome is not a recognized disorder, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition) (DSM-5) does not list criteria for diagnosing it. However, some experts believe it should have this status.

Mental health professionals can help people who experience impostor syndrome and anxiety or other symptoms that occur with it.

Many people experience symptoms of impostor syndrome at some time. It is important to remember that perceptions do not always reflect reality.

Ways of overcoming it include talking about fears and challenging negative thoughts. Keeping a record of achievements and celebrating successes can be beneficial.

It may help to work with a mental health professional, especially when symptoms persist or severely impact a person’s mental health and quality of life.