I saw my first private practice client over ten years ago. I had earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from a university I had wanted to attend since I was 12; I had completed my Master’s Degree and then worked as a therapist for 3,000 hours under a supervisor before taking and passing not one but two licensing exams, and I had participated in tons of trainings. And yet, when I sat across from my first client, I felt like a fraud. I wore what I thought was appropriate attire, and I even wore heels (which I never wore and promptly tripped in) and sweated through my top. I wanted so much to do my job and do it well, but inside I was convinced that the client could see right through me and knew that I had no idea what I was doing.
In my work with my own therapist, I have come to understand why it’s so difficult to feel confident in my abilities. As a first-generation Iranian American, English is my second language. This has impacted my experiences since childhood, and I have so many memories of feeling ashamed because of mispronunciations or malapropisms (a word I just learned, which means using one word when you mean another). I remember being stopped by my teachers whenever we were reading out loud. I can also distinctly remember being (lovingly) teased by friends for my pronunciation of the word orchid (I pronounced it or-ch-id) while talking to them about one of our reading assignments.
My cultural identity has also impacted my sense of self. People often ask where I’m from or what “I am.” Once, at a party, a woman took my face in her hands to inspect it after learning about my ethnicity. With other Iranians, I grew up hearing that I am “too white” or not Persian enough. And my identity as a Bisexual woman further contributes to feeling not quite right, like I am not good enough and don’t belong anywhere or am a second-class citizen.
My experiences at home have further influenced my self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy. While my parents love me, they set high bars and rarely would celebrate my accomplishments but called me to task if they perceived me as a failure. While I imagine they were hoping to encourage me, this led to me internalizing the understanding that I could never be good enough and that I had to constantly push myself harder.
So many of us have experiences and identities that make it difficult to trust ourselves and our abilities, lending to struggles with imposter syndrome.
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where an individual doubts their accomplishments and themselves, despite evidence of their achievements and competence. This can significantly impact one’s mental health and result in persistent feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, even when there’s evidence to the contrary. People with imposter syndrome often attribute their successes to external factors such as luck or timing rather than their abilities and hard work. They may worry that others will discover they are not as capable as they appear, and they will be exposed as a fraud. It’s also important to note that imposter syndrome doesn’t discriminate; it can affect individuals in all professions, from entry-level employees to top executives. It is widespread among high-achieving individuals who may set unrealistically high expectations for themselves and feel they must constantly prove their worth.
Why do we feel imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is pervasive because multiple factors in a person’s life can cause them to experience self-doubt. For example, people who have developed perfectionism to try to avoid shame may be more prone to experience imposter syndrome due to the unrealistically high expectations they place on themselves. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy when they can’t meet these expectations.
According to research, adverse early life experiences like having hypercritical parents or teachers can also contribute to the development of imposter syndrome. Growing up with a lack of external validation can be incredibly damaging to a child’s psyche and the formation of their sense of self. Without anyone to encourage or support them, children will struggle to create a positive self-image, which can inform their lives well into adulthood.
Specific personality traits can also impact imposter syndrome. Individuals more prone to anxiety might struggle more with self-criticism and self-doubt, which can invariably lead to feelings of imposter syndrome.
Those with marginalized identities also experience imposter syndrome due to our society and how they are treated. BIPOC individuals, women, those within the LGBTQ+ community, and others whose identities are vulnerable and more likely to be scrutinized are also more likely to experience micro-aggressions, discrimination, and underrepresentation. All of this can make it difficult to trust that you are enough and worthwhile when society tells you that’s not the case and when you’re frequently navigating institutionalized discrimination that can create barriers to entry.
Who experiences imposter syndrome?
While imposter syndrome can affect any and everyone, for some populations, there may be more triggers.
Imposter syndrome and gender: The initial research on imposter syndrome (or, at the time, what was called the imposter phenomenon) was on high-achieving women. Since then, it has become clear that individuals across the gender spectrum experience imposter syndrome. However, some research does seem to support the idea that it is more common in women. Given that women are often subjected to gender-based discrimination, stereotypes, and expectations, it would make sense that they may experience imposter syndrome at higher instances. No matter how much they succeed, they still have to grapple with misogyny which tells them that they’re inherently under-qualified because they are women while also telling them that all of their achievements are due to their gender. This incredibly challenging workplace dynamic causes so many highly accomplished women to come to develop feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, and depression when it comes to their careers. They may also feel pressure to work harder than their male counterparts to prove themselves, leading to burnout and stress-related health problems.
Imposter syndrome and race – People within the BIPOC community frequently experience imposter syndrome because of the lack of representation and inclusivity in their respective fields. And similarly to the messaging that women receive through patriarchal thinking, racist ideology communicates to someone that they are unworthy because of their race while simultaneously saying that their success is entirely due to affirmative action programs or diversity, equality, and inclusivity initiatives. This messaging often reaches children of color as well, and they grow up internalizing the idea that they don’t belong in certain spaces or that their accomplishments are not genuine. As a result, many BIPOC children develop feelings of isolation, self-doubt, and depression that extend into their adult lives.
Imposter syndrome within the LGBTQIA+ community: Many queer-identifying people may experience imposter syndrome due to societal stigma, discrimination, and marginalization. This can have significant mental health effects, leading to increased stress, anxiety, and depression, particularly if they feel they must hide their identity or present in a more heteronormative fashion to fit in or feel safe in many environments.
Imposter syndrome within the disabled community: Sadly, so much of the world still treats those with disabilities as less than. Ableist attitudes and stereotypes that suggest that they’re not capable or competent can make many people with disabilities experience imposter syndrome. Far too often, differently-abled individuals feel they must go above and beyond to prove their worth, which can significantly impact their self-esteem and mental health.
Imposter syndrome and first-generation college students: First-generation college students may experience imposter syndrome due to the lack of familiarity with higher education and the feeling of being the “first” in their families to pursue it. First-gen students may not have access to the cultural capital needed to help them navigate institutions of higher learning, and they may feel lost and out of place as a result. Starting college is a confusing time for young people, and it is much more difficult if they feel like they don’t belong or aren’t capable of succeeding in college. Due to institutionalized racism in the education system, first-gen students are usually also from BIPOC communities, increasing their chances of experiencing imposter syndrome.
How does imposter syndrome impact mental health?
The impact of imposter syndrome on mental health can be significant, leading to feelings of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. People who experience imposter syndrome often feel a constant need to prove themselves, which contributes to increased stress and, ultimately, burnout. Imposter syndrome can also impact an individual’s ability to form positive relationships. They may be hesitant to open up to others or share their accomplishments for fear of being “found out,” which can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, further exacerbating mental health issues. In severe cases, imposter syndrome can worsen clinical depression, anxiety disorders, or other mental health conditions that require professional treatment.
What happens to the brain when one experiences imposter syndrome?
According to neuroscientist Tara Swart, imposter syndrome can impact the brain, affecting emotional and cognitive functioning.
Experiencing imposter syndrome correlates with lower levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which relates to mood, and low dopamine levels, negatively impacting reward and motivation. And, the lower your confidence, the lower your testosterone levels, meaning you are less likely to take healthy risks.
Imposter syndrome also activates the amygdala, a vital component of the brain’s emotional processing center. When individuals experience imposter syndrome, they may feel anxious, stressed, and overwhelmed. This can trigger the amygdala to release stress hormones like cortisol, leading to physiological effects like increased heart rate and elevated blood pressure.
The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for higher-order cognitive functions like decision-making and problem-solving, can also be impacted by imposter syndrome. Individuals with imposter syndrome may experience cognitive distortions such as black-and-white thinking, catastrophizing, and overgeneralization, which can negatively impact their ability to think critically and make sound decisions. Additionally, imposter syndrome can cause individuals to engage in negative self-assessment and self-blame, further exacerbating its negative impacts on the brain.
How do I combat imposter syndrome?
Now that we have considered the multiple causes of imposter syndrome and better understand its effects, let’s work on combatting it. Imposter syndrome isn’t a phenomenon we have to accept. Instead, we are tasked with recognizing it and then working to confront it to mitigate its impact.
Acknowledge and recognize imposter syndrome: The first step in combating imposter syndrome is to acknowledge that it exists and identify the negative thoughts and feelings associated with it. By understanding that imposter syndrome is a common phenomenon affecting many people, individuals can begin to examine and confront their thoughts instead of simply accepting them.
Be honest with yourself about what you’ve achieved (and what you still want to achieve): It’s important to remind yourself of your accomplishments and your skills. Keep a list of your successes, and refer to it when feeling doubt or self-criticism. You’re also welcome to reflect on what you still want to work on if it allows you to take a more balanced approach to how you envision yourself.
Practice self-compassion: Treat yourself with the kindness and understanding you would offer a friend. Be gentle with yourself and remind yourself that it’s okay to make mistakes and not know everything.
Seek support: Share your experiences with others, and seek support from people you trust. Talk to friends, family members, or a therapist about your feelings. Talking to others that you respect and learning that they’ve had similar experiences can normalize your experience, help you put your self-image into perspective, and you may also receive encouragement and a reality check.
Reframe your thoughts: Challenge negative self-talk and reframe your perspective to focus on your strengths and abilities. For example, instead of saying, “I’m not qualified for this job,” reframe it as “I am committed to my development, and I have the skills and experience to learn quickly and ultimately succeed in this role.”
Take action: Take small steps towards your goals, and celebrate each achievement along the way. Action is a powerful antidote to imposter syndrome, and the more you take action and see results, the more your confidence will grow. Documenting your wins and achievements can also help.
If you need additional support in confronting imposter syndrome, please reach out. We’ve been there and would be glad to help you better trust yourself and your abilities.