Impostor Syndrome – What is it? 5 critical characteristics

Impostor Syndrome

What is Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor syndrome is a term coined in the late ’70s by psychologists Dr. Clance and Dr. Imes. The term describes a feeling experienced among high achievers when they cannot recognize their success and fear being exposed as a fake. 

Yet how can one know if feelings of self-doubt or questioning their success is impostor syndrome or not? 

Here are 5 common signs of impostor syndrome. 

1. Perfectionism: Perfectionism as a function of impostor syndrome is when an individual struggles with the compulsion to be the very best by holding themselves to impossible perfection standards.

There is an expectation set for them to accomplish a given task they set out to do without any flaws or mistakes. If they cannot meet this standard, they consider this a failure which further feeds their need for perfection. 

2. Overachiever: Overworking is a common pattern of impostor syndrome. Typically, a person described as an overachiever tends to invest massive amounts of energy and effort into their work long past the point where it would be deemed beyond acceptable by the average person. The individual often notices this pattern of behavior, but still, there is an inability to stop it. 

3. Inability to Accept Praise: Individuals who struggle with impostor syndrome find it difficult to internalize their success and thus deem any praise invalid. Opposite of false modesty, it’s a genuine belief that they are not worthy or deserving of the credit being given. 

4. Paralyzing Fear of Failure: Individuals dealing with impostor syndrome cannot handle the thought of failing, let alone actually failing. Any failure (real or perceived) perpetuates a toxic cycle that controls the person’s thoughts and actions. Those dealing with impostor syndrome often avoid a task rather than possibly failing at it. 

5. Overemphasis on What Hasn’t Been Done: Since the standards, people with impostor syndrome set are so high, it can be challenging for them to meet goals and milestones based on the expectations they set. This causes a tendency to focus more on what they haven’t done than what they have accomplished. This is true even though what they have accomplished generally far outweighs what has yet to be done. 

Is Impostor Syndrome Real?

Impostor syndrome seems like a buzzword of the moment, and while it has not been identified as a formal disorder, it is very real and has very significant implications for those who deal with it. 

It’s so real that evidence suggests that 70% of the U.S. population deals with the syndrome at some point in their lives. 

Impostor syndrome is the pervasive feeling of fraudulence and self-doubt even when there is evidence to the contrary. It tends to present itself among intelligent and accomplished individuals and can present itself, particularly after a notable accomplishment (i.e., receiving a promotion, winning an award, or achieving public acclaim). 

Impostor syndrome can impact men and women from every demographic, though women and minorities tend to experience the syndrome more and more severely. 

The primary and most basic fear of people with impostor syndrome is that they will be discovered as the frauds they believe themselves to be. Despite high achievement levels, they attribute their success to luck rather than their work or effort. Thus, there is an ever-present fear that one day people will see them as fake. 

This fear tends to drive their behavior. For some, it means passing up opportunities because of the fear of failing and being exposed, which outweighs the potential positive outcome. For others, the fear of being exposed leads the individual to work extremely hard so that they aren’t exposed. 

We can also spot impostor syndrome in common behavior such as perfectionism and over-working. Again, avoiding exposure often leads those with impostor syndrome to obsess over doing whatever is necessary to achieve success. 

Often, they spend an unhealthy amount of time and energy on projects to ensure they meet unreasonably high standards. This can lead to high levels of stress, mental and emotional health issues, increased risks for depression, and even burnout as a person perpetually overworks themselves to achieve favorable results. 

How Impostor Syndrome Is Holding You Back?

Impostor syndrome is the faulty belief that one is a fraud and not deserving of their achievements. This is often despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. Research published in the Journal of Behavioral Science suggests that nearly 70% of the U.S. population has experienced impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. 

Impostor syndrome can be debilitating to one’s personal and professional life. It also affects one’s mental and physical health and even relationships in a variety of ways. 

Personal & Professional Life

Impostor syndrome often leaves people feeling as if perfectionism is the only option and asking for help is out of the question. This perfectionism results in two primary responses: 

1) An impostor will procrastinate out of the fear that they cannot meet the often unreasonable high standards they’ve set for themselves.

2) The impostor will over-prepare and spend an extraordinary amount of time on the task in an obsessive manner as a means of trying to get it to perfection. 

This behavior can contribute to massive amounts of stress. The person dealing with impostor syndrome tries to meet unrealistic standards of excellence or constantly lives in fear of their inability to perform well. Often, good outcomes in response to either of these responses work to reinforce the behavior further and lead to toxic cycles. 

Burnout is often more common because people get trapped in the cycle of overworking or overproducing to meet high standards and prove themselves worthy. 

Additionally, people struggling with impostor syndrome can also miss out on opportunities as their fear of failure will keep them from taking risks or chances that could lead to a positive outcome. They’d much rather not try and avoid failure than try and fail, even if the likelihood of failure is not that large. 

Mental & Physical Health

Impostor syndrome can create massive amounts of psychological distress, and enhance self-monitoring, increase self-doubt and continual fear of failure. Levels of stress that are continually high over time can lead to anxiety disorders, increased risk for depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and other mental health issues. 

Not only that, the increased levels of cortisol present in the body when high levels of stress are experienced can lead to a host of physical health issues. This includes but is not limited to gastrointestinal issues, migraines/headaches, heart issues, raised blood pressure, and chronic pain conditions. 


Relationships with family members can also suffer as a result of impostor syndrome. When large amounts of time and effort are put into accomplishing tasks, it can put a strain on relationships because family members might 

Impostor syndrome can negatively impact relationships when a family member prioritizes career success over time with families or children. Partners and families can suffer when someone spends too much time trying to prove themselves in a professional capacity to the detriment of their personal lives.

How To Overcome Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome is characterized by an inability to believe that one’s success is deserved, despite the effort and energy put into achieving the outcome. 

The syndrome is linked to low self-confidence, self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraud, and increased levels of stress and anxiety. 

While it can be hard to uproot the mindset that contributes to impostor syndrome, you can take some actions to help you overcome it.

Positive Self-Talk

Self-talk can be described as the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. It is the thoughts and phrases we think or say that reinforce positive or negative things about us. Positive self-talk is that which demonstrates self-compassion and understanding for who we are and what we have experienced.

Thus, we can make our internal narrative a positive one that encourages us, uplifts us, and reinforces our intellect and abilities. For some, this comes naturally, but for most people, we must build this skill intentionally with practice and effort. 

Using positive affirmations to change the internal dialogue from one that is negative and discouraging to one that is uplifting and encouraging can help uproot the thinking that contributes to impostor syndrome.

Growth Mindset

A growth mindset believes that we can grow in our capabilities, intelligence, and talents over time. A growth mindset works against impostor syndrome because even if there is a belief that one is not “enough” in a particular moment, a growth mindset speaks to the idea that one can increase and become “enough” at any given time. 

Thus, one is not stuck to their present level of knowledge or skill but can increase in knowledge and skill with effort. This mindset can lead to enhanced confidence and success levels because individuals with this mindset are geared more towards self-improvement. People with a growth mindset are more resilient when faced with challenges and failures. 

Rather than proof of their incompetency, these failures become viewed as opportunities for growth. 

Stop Comparison

Comparing yourself to others can cause impostor syndrome to grow in its severity. When we look around and see other people’s success, it can wrongfully reinforce the idea that other people have worked hard for and are worthy of their success, while we are not. 

Using other people as a measuring board for our success, accomplishments, or intellect is not healthy. It can increase self-doubt and low self-esteem which allows impostor syndrome to fester. 

Also, highly common is the inability to accept praise or compliments. Whereas some people downplay praise as a means of false modesty, those with impostor syndrome genuinely do not believe they deserve the praise they receive. 

This will lead to offsetting or even completely ignoring the compliment/praise to rectify this internal imbalance. The success achieved is rarely, if ever, attributed to their efforts. Therefore, they cannot receive any praise that suggests they played any role in the outcome. 

It’s also important to set the right goals for success. Please read the post on goal setting

Consider taking our courses on Impostor Syndrome at

Also, you can watch the first lesson free.

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