What Is Imposter Syndrome

Have you ever felt like you don’t belong? Like any second now your friends or work mates will discover that you are a fraud? Do you ever think that your successes are attributed to luck, rather than our own skills or qualifications? Or, do you try to keep more and more balls juggling in the air; always trying to maintain impossibly high standards, and with each success you achieve the greater the feeling that you aren’t enough?

If so, you’ve probably experienced imposter syndrome, right along with an estimated 70% of the population.

It was first described back in the late 70’s by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes who recognised that this imposter phenomenon was particularly prevalent amongst a select group of high achieving women. But, it is known to affect all kinds of people from all walks of life, men, women, medical students and managers.

Even international superstars are not immune to it’s effects. Emma Watson, star of the Harry Potter movies told Rookie magazine, in an interview (2013), “It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going, ‘Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved.”

More and more imposter syndrome is being seen in marginalised groups and shows up regularly in the disabled and chronic illness communities. It makes perfect sense that your feelings of self doubt and fraud are more likely to show up if you have grown up belonging to a group that was historically believed to be less capable.

Sonia Sotomayor was the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, she spent her whole life growing up in the Bronx and never really thought of herself as a candidate for law school. “I have spent my years since Princeton, while at law school and in my various professional jobs, not feeling completely a part of the worlds I inhabit. I am always looking over my shoulder wondering if I measure up.”


The 5 Imposter Archetypes

Expert on the subject, Dr. Valerie Young, has categorised imposter syndrome into five subgroups: the Perfectionist, the Superhero, the Expert, the Soloist, and the Natural Genius. In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Dr. Young builds on decades of research addressing the reasons why so many accomplished women suffer from this crippling self doubt.


Perfectionism and Imposter syndrome go hand in hand. These people set impossibly high standards for themselves not wanting to let things go until they are perfect because of the fear that they won’t be good enough. When they inevitably don’t match up to their self imposed bar, the self doubt and feelings of not being enough are reinforced again. Fear may also paralyse them into not producing any work at all because they do not want to fail, and anything short of just perfect would be just that – a failure. Even with success comes the feeling of ‘I could have done better’.


These people are convinced they are phonies amongst their work colleagues or the group they are in and often work super hard so that they measure up. Over preparing, taking on extra jobs and even working weekends. This is less about their skills and capabilities but has everything to do with their own insecurities. These people need the external validation that comes from the feedback of working hard. They are often over achievers and the fear of failure can sabotage their own success.


Experts base their competence on how much they know, they strongly believe that they will never ‘know’ enough. They expect to know everything that there is to know and even a minor lack of knowledge denotes failure and shame to the expert. Because, if they were truly competent then they wouldn’t have had to work so hard to acquire the knowledge in the first place.

In a similar way to the perfectionist they set their internal bar incredibly high. An expert, even with all the qualifications in their field, genuinely feels inexperienced or lacking knowledge. When they seek to learn more all the time they are actually feeding their procrastinist tendencies.

Natural Genius

The natural genius judges themselves based on how easily and quickly a skill can be mastered. Therefore if they have to work hard to learn something new or simply don’t pick it up the first time they feel shame. Like perfectionists the bar is set impossibly high and the Natural Genius will believe that if they have to work hard at something, then they must not be very good at it.

They find that setbacks completely throw them and they avoid taking risks in case they fail.


Soloists see asking for help as a sign of failure and weakness and believe that to show competence in a task it must be completed unassisted.

A soloist always turns down help to prove themselves as an individual, needing help would evoke feelings of shame. They value this independence over and above their own needs, when they get stuck it leads to procrastination, just to avoid admitting defeat.


Which Imposter Archetype are you?

Which imposter archetype do you relate to? Are you the expert, the superhero? Do you overwork to prove your worth? Do you withhold your talents and opinions or never finish important projects?

Perhaps you strongly relate to just one archetype, or perhaps you see bits of your self in all five?


How to stop Imposter feelings?

To move past your imposter feelings requires you to work on the deep held beliefs that you may have about yourself, which may be hard as you may not even realise that you have them. The work on self-sabotage, negative thoughts, assessing your long held beliefs about you abilities and building your confidence will not be quick fixes and may require regular work.

The power overcoming feeling that you are an imposter lies with you stopping thinking like an imposter. To do that you will have to re-write your internal narrative.


Before you go  

There is much more coming over the coming weeks on imposter syndrome. How it shows up in the chronic illness and disability communities and some Top Tips to help you to overcome your imposter, whichever archetype you resonate with!

You can sign up here to get these posts straight to you inbox.

I would love to hear what you think, let me know in the comments.

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You may feel like no-one understands what its like living with your chronic illness or worrying everyday about your kids. That you are hanging on by a thread or the future may feel a little uncertain. In The Thrive Tribe we get that.

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