By now, the term “imposter syndrome” is familiar to most of us. We’re likely to have at least picked up on its meaning: feeling a lack of confidence in our qualifications to hold the position we’re already in.
Put simply, if you’re experiencing imposter syndrome, you might feel like a “fake.” You might worry—consciously or unconsciously—that any mistake could result in your being caught, identified as a fraud, and unceremoniously escorted out of your office, off the field, or anywhere you’re expected to perform.
If you’ve felt this way, you’re in good company. A recent study suggests that as many as 70 percent of people can relate.
Fortunately, imposter syndrome tends to be a liar—and it’s far more likely that not that you’re perfectly qualified to hold the position you do.
But that can be hard to believe when you’re in the thick of it.
And it’s worth exploring why.
The Five Types of Imposter Syndrome
First, let’s get something out in the open: imposter syndrome doesn’t always look the same for everyone. In fact, you can feel fairly certain you’re not experiencing it, even when you are.
There are generally five categories you can fall into as a high performing person struggling with imposter syndrome1. Here’s what they look like:
We’ve talked about this one—perfectionism is rarely worth your time, but many of us are prone to it, just the same.
When you’re a perfectionist with imposter syndrome, you’re setting impossibly high standards for yourself (and usually for others, too). Because your standards are so high, your goals tend to be unrealistic—meaning they’re often unmet, and you’re often disgruntled.
As the Superhuman type, you generally see yourself as working harder than other people—and you don’t often let up. When you’re not at work, you’re thinking about work, and you might feel pretty uncomfortable when the topic of “time off” comes up.
But here’s the secret about the Superhuman type: they’re doing this because, deep down, they’re afraid they can’t actually hold a candle to their successful peers. They’re working extra-hard just to keep up.
Pride is a big motivator for the Individualist. If you fall into this category, you probably don’t like asking for help—you definitely don’t like admitting you might actually need it.
But not asking for help leads to a lot of undue stress and struggle. So as an Individualist, you could spend a lot of time feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and defeated.
The Natural Genius
It’s normal to like the things we’re good at. But if you’re struggling with imposter syndrome as a Natural Genius, you might think “things you’re good at” should include almost everything.
If you’re a high-performer in this category, you might assume that if something requires a lot of effort, you must naturally be bad at it. You forget the phrase “practice makes perfect” has stood the test of time for a reason, and you might shy away from trying new things.
If you’re feeling inadequate because you can’t check off every qualification on the job application or play every position on the field, you might be struggling with imposter syndrome as the Expert.
Those who fit into this category tend to believe they’ll be found out at any moment–after all, they just stumbled their way into that high-level position… Right?
No matter what category you fit into, experiencing imposter syndrome comes down to a single sentiment: you don’t deserve to be where you already are. (Even though you probably do!)
Imposter Syndrome in High Performing People
Believe it or not, imposter syndrome most often affects successful, high performing people. And its power over high performing people can actually increase as their success grows.
In a high-level leadership position when your super-successful company gets bought? Finally receive that huge promotion? Or are you an elite athlete who earns that coveted sponsorship deal?
All of these scenarios are enough to send high performers experiencing imposter syndrome into a spiral of self-doubt.
This can be explained, at least in part, by something called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
The Opposite of Imposter Syndrome
The Dunning-Kruger Effect2 is often thought of as the opposite of imposter syndrome. This is because what the phenomenon seems to show is that the less you actually know, the more you think you really do.
There’s been a lot of pushback to the original Dunning-Kruger study from 1999—and much of it valid. But subsequent studies have seemed to confirm that people who tend to lack certain skills are more likely to also lack the ability to appropriately self-assess.3
So here’s the bottom line, and it’s good news: if you’re worried about your own performance, you’re probably doing better than you think you are.
Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome
How do you know if you’re really experiencing imposter syndrome?
Here are some of the typical symptoms of imposter syndrome:
- The urge to shrug off your success or attribute it to external factors like “favors” or “good luck”
- Feeling a sense of self-doubt, even when your work or leadership is being lauded as exemplary
- Expecting yourself to be immune to mistakes—even as you fear them at every turn
- Setting expectations and goals for yourself that are nearly impossible to achieve and feeling bitterly disappointed when you fall short
You may find yourself feeling a sense of disconnect when others praise you—as if you don’t deserve it, or like what you accomplished simply isn’t worthy of applause. This comes from an inability to accurately assess your own performance.
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
On its face, imposter syndrome might seem like a good motivator for high performing people. After all, if we’re worried about our performance, we’ll work harder… Right?
In reality, though, imposter syndrome boils down to little more than constant anxiety. And that can do far more harm than good.
It’s important to find ways of managing it—and even overcoming imposter syndrome entirely.
Don’t believe all of your thoughts.
The average person has as many as six thousand thoughts every day, according to a recent study out of Ontario’s Queen’s University.4 That’s a lot—and it stands to reason not all of them can be true.
The first step toward overcoming imposter syndrome is recognizing when it’s kicking in. And that means questioning your own thoughts, especially when they lack self-compassion.
Don’t suffer in silence.
We can spend a lot of time berating ourselves for all of our perceived shortcomings—or we can accept the anxieties we have and seek help for them. Imposter syndrome thrives in the dark, when we’re feeling isolated and fearful. Engaging a mentor, clinical psychologist, or executive coach can help us get a better, truer sense of our real abilities.
Find your peers—and believe them.
Building connections with our peers is one of the best ways to stay grounded and present. And when those peers understand and also struggle with imposter syndrome, you can all help one another look at your success realistically. Intentionally set aside time to air your fears and support one another. You’ll likely find that others’ self-doubts seem unfounded—so maybe yours are, too!
Most importantly, when your peers validate your work and you as a leader… Believe them.
Imposter Syndrome Means High Performers Care Deeply
Experiencing imposter syndrome means you care deeply about how you’re showing up—and that’s ultimately a good thing.
But giving in to imposter syndrome will weigh you down and prevent you from achieving the kinds of results you’re aiming for. Try hard to stay mindful and in the present moment as much as possible.
And remember that, at the end of the day, learning is a good thing! Overcoming imposter syndrome will allow you to grow and evolve as a leader and as a high performer.