Understanding Imposter Syndrome: What It Is and How to Overcome It at Work and in Life

A woman exhibiting Imposter Syndrome with her arms crossed.

Have you ever found yourself sitting in a workplace meeting, and you’re struck by the thought, “Oh my goodness, what am I doing here?” Been told congratulations on a big project and thought, “Soon enough they’ll re-look at it and see that it’s terrible!” Or maybe in your personal relationships, you encounter conflict and think “My partner is going to see right through me eventually and realize I’m not good enough.”

If you often find yourself encountering that feeling of doubt rooted in the belief that people think you are “better” than you actually are, you’re most likely dealing with a classic case of imposter syndrome.

But what exactly is imposter syndrome? Why does a person develop this imposter phenomenon? And what can you do to combat imposter syndrome, so you can realize your full potential?

Let’s take a closer look at what imposter syndrome is, and my tips for how to overcome it.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome, also referred to as impostor phenomenon, refers to a psychological thinking pattern where a person has doubt in their abilities, their skills, and the things they’ve accomplished, leading to them feeling like a fraud.

This is a term that was first coined by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in 1978. They outlined the phenomenon in their paper, “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.” In this study, they found that high achieving women would often not believe in their own competency in the workplace and felt like frauds in the eyes of their colleagues, despite evidence of their success.

The experience of the women in this study offers us a window into how people with imposter syndrome feel on the day-to-day.

In most cases, people with impostor syndrome feel that any success they’ve earned in life is not something they fully deserve. They’ll feel like at any moment the people in their lives, whether it be their colleagues in their workplace, their teachers in higher education, or even people they know in their interpersonal relationships, will eventually catch on to the fact that they are a “fraud” when it comes to their accomplishments or sense of self. This is often paired with feelings of low self-esteem, self-doubt, stress, anxiety, and developing a sense of perfectionism and/or a fear of failure.

What Causes Imposter Syndrome?

There are a variety of different reasons why a person might develop imposter syndrome. This is a condition that can happen to anyone. It isn’t exclusive to any kind of age group, gender, or even profession. Anyone, from people in the highest positions of power to the lowest, can develop these imposter feelings.

The direct cause of the development of this syndrome stems from various different factors. Some of these can include:

  • Experiences where mistakes are sharply criticized
  • A childhood with a lack of positive reinforcement
  • Feelings of constant comparison in life, perhaps to a sibling or colleague
  • Childhood experiences with overprotective or controlling parents
  • Feelings of high pressure to achieve in school or work environments
  • Developing a fear of failure, or a need to be a perfectionist
  • Feelings of exclusion from social groups

These are just some of the many experiences, in both adulthood and childhood, that can lead to the development of that imposter syndrome feeling. (Think you might fit this definition? You can take a test here to see if you might fall on the imposter syndrome scale.)

Imposter Syndrome at Work

a man wearing headphones looking at a laptop.

When we talk about imposter syndrome, one of the most common areas where it will rear its ugly head is in the workplace. The pressure to socialize with coworkers, achieve and progress in your career, and create work to be judged by others create the perfect playground for that imposter experience to come out to play.

How Imposter Syndrome Affects Career

It makes sense that imposter syndrome would have an impact on your career, especially in terms of performance and growth.

Everyone wants to be a successful person in the workplace. However, if you can’t learn to overcome impostor syndrome, any accomplishment or success you achieve will never be good enough. This will, over time, negatively impact your career, leading to the kind of low self-esteem that causes self-sabotage.

For example, imposter syndrome could lead to you not offering up an idea in a meeting because you believe your ideas are never good. Or not stepping up to lead a project, because you don’t believe you’ll succeed. You may think you’re saving yourself from failure when it’s really just fear holding you back from an opportunity to succeed.

Have you ever heard the phrase “closed mouths don’t get fed?” In a similar vein, those who never put themselves out there to push for a new achievement will never find the success they’re looking for. Those with imposter syndrome will hold themselves back, slowing their own progress.

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Recognizing & Overcoming Imposter Syndrome at Work

Many people who suffer from imposter syndrome will find it hard to recognize.

These kinds of thoughts can bury deep into our subconscious, impacting us in ways we may not realize. A negative thought about yourself won’t feel out of the ordinary when having negative thoughts is your kind of normal.

So how can you recognize if imposter syndrome is clouding your thinking? And what can you do to overcome imposter syndrome feelings? Try the following:

  • Avoid comparison. For many with imposter syndrome, they will find themselves comparing themselves to colleagues. Do you ever find yourself wishing you could be like someone else at work? Or thinking your work won’t be as good as someone else’s on the team? Start to question these kinds of comparisons, recognizing them as imposter feelings.
  • Notice reluctance to take credit for achievements. Are you the kind of person who receives positive feedback, and responds by playing off your role, or giving credit to others? Lean into the discomfort that comes with not saying those things, and simply saying thank you when told you did go. Slowly, this can shift your mindset.
  • Recognize a fear of failure. This one is a little harder, but those with imposter syndrome need to begin to recognize when fear has them stopping before they try! If your first response to a new task and project is dread or fear, ask yourself why. Many times, a fear of failure will be at the root of that feeling. You need to learn to push through the fear that you will fail to give yourself the chance to learn and grow.

Imposter Syndrome in Personal Life

Two people sitting on a bench discussing their imposter syndrome.

Of course, imposter syndrome isn’t something that only affects one area of life. With imposter syndrome doing a lot of work to affect things like your confidence and self-esteem, it’s only natural that these feelings will also come up in your personal relationships too.

It can often be even harder to recognize imposter syndrome in your everyday relationships when compared to a work environment. Not feeling good enough is easy to recognize in things like actual work tasks and accomplishments, but harder to spot in our more nuanced personal relationships.

How Imposter Syndrome Impacts Your Personal Life

For those suffering from imposter syndrome, their negative thoughts about their achievements and sense of self can lead to low self-esteem. This can greatly impact personal relationships, making it hard to form true, deep personal connections.

Impact on Personal Relationships

Imposter syndrome is often an incredibly negative mindset to live with. With time, a lack of belief in yourself can begin to translate into a lack of belief in how others see you, casting a shadow of doubt and lack of trust on those relationships.

For example, let’s say you have a partner who tells you that they love you and are proud of you. Your initial response may be to cast a negative thought over that compliment. Maybe thinking, “They may say they love me, but eventually they’ll realize I’m not actually that great.”

Imposter syndrome clouds our judgment of ourselves for who we are, and can, in turn, make us not believe people when people outside of us tell us we are good. This is because these kinds of compliments challenge your sense of self, as they are the opposite of what our thoughts say we are.

In a way it’s self-sabotage, giving up on receiving positivity before you can even accept it. It’s important to learn to recognize these kinds of thought patterns, and the impact imposter syndrome is having on our relationships.

Impact on Self-Esteem and Self-Worth

It’s a sad thing to not believe in yourself, or to think others around you don’t see you as you are. When you don’t believe you are good or worthy of praise, it will eat away at feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. This is a terrible mindset to be in when navigating personal relationships.

You might encounter people in your life who love and want to be with you but cast doubt on that belief because you think you’re not good enough for them. Low self-esteem can make you develop anxiety around your sense of self, leading to a constant need for validation or reassurance. It can even lead to people settling for relationships that aren’t healthy, as they believe they’re not good enough for anything else.

This is why it is so important to learn to recognize imposter syndrome’s impact on self-esteem. To truthfully connect with others and navigate relationships, you need to operate out of a place of self-love and self-worth.

A heart-shaped paper with a broken piece attached, symbolizing the feelings that come with Imposter Syndrome.

Recognizing & Overcoming Imposter Syndrome In Your Personal Life

So how do we begin to recognize it when imposter syndrome shows up in our lives?

As I said earlier, it can be harder to recognize thoughts related to imposter syndrome. Impostor feelings often show up as an internalized negative belief in ourselves. To begin to combat it, you need to employ practices rooted in changing imposter thoughts by loving and believing in yourself. Try the following:

  • Avoid External Validation. When we begin to double ourselves and how people in our lives truly view us, it is tempting to want to constantly be reassured that people mean what they say or to reassure that you are not as bad as you think you are. To begin to challenge these thoughts, you need to focus on personal growth (something a life coach can help with), and finding validation in yourself.
  • Practice Self-Compassion. To begin to practice self-compassion, you need to begin to acknowledge your own feelings and struggles. Try to view yourself without judgment, no matter how you are feeling, understanding you are always doing the best you can. It involves learning to treat yourself with understanding, accepting your feelings, and replacing negative thoughts about yourself with kindness.
  • Notice and Change Thought Patterns. To start to change how you think about yourself, you need to become aware of how you think about yourself.  You can try things like journaling for self-reflection to help. Once you begin to identify how you are thinking about yourself, begin to consciously rewrite the narrative. Try writing down the bad things you might think about yourself, then think and write evidence that shows why that might not be true. Replacing bad ideas with positive affirmations can help, too!

Frequently Asked Questions about Imposter Syndrome

There are a few common questions that those who struggle with imposter syndrome have. I’m here to help get those answered!

How common is imposter syndrome?

According to the American Psychological Association, imposter syndrome affects up to 82% of people at some point in their lifetime.

How do people get help with imposter syndrome?

How a person will seek support for imposter syndrome will vary from case to case.

For some who are dealing with high levels of anxiety and negative thoughts, getting help can mean seeking support in the form of a mental health professional. In other cases, a person might want to combat thoughts by coming up with new goals, something a life coach can help with. Or, a person may seek to try and change thought patterns on their own with practices like journalling or mindfulness.

What are some common triggers of imposter syndrome?

There are many different reasons why a person might develop imposter syndrome or develop imposter feelings. Typically, they all have to do with a loss of belief in oneself, and developing the fear that you are a fraud, tricking others into seeing you differently than you are.

Some examples of triggering moments? It could be a childhood characterized by comparison and criticism, a later life experience with receiving critical feedback, or even the experience of taking on a new responsibility like a career change.

Can imposter syndrome be a good thing?

For some individuals, imposter feelings can lead to a sense of motivation to work harder and strive to be better. However, even with that sentiment, I can’t say imposter syndrome is ever a good thing.

When left unchecked, this can turn into stress, anxiety, and a negative impact on self-esteem. It’s always important to balance native thoughts with positive ones and not let these feelings take you into a darker headspace.

Say Goodbye to Imposter Thoughts


Imposter syndrome and imposter feelings are more common than people think, with hundreds of thousands of people out there experiencing feelings of fraudulence, and like they are not worthy of their successes.

For those in life who are high achievers and those with experiences with criticism that has led to low self-worth, it makes sense that they might eventually form the belief that they aren’t good enough despite the evidence.

This can show up in both the workplace and in everyday life, holding us back from opportunities and relationships because we don’t think we deserve it. If these are feelings you relate to, it’s time to change the narrative!

The truth of the matter is, all people deserve to feel good about themselves and be proud of their achievements. You deserve to live a life where you can stand proud of your accomplishments, believe you can achieve great things and believe in others when they praise you for it.

If you deal with imposter syndrome, I highly encourage you to seek the help and support you deserve. It may even be the case that a life coach can help. In my work, I aim to help people navigate life’s challenges, changing thought patterns while staying motivated as they achieve their goals.

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