Is Imposter Syndrome Holding You Back?

Imposter Syndrome

Do you believe that many of the people you work with are smarter and more capable than you are and that it is only by sheer luck you have been successful in your accomplishments so far? Deep inside, do you have a nagging fear that someone will discover you are not qualified for the work you do; that in fact, you’re a fraud?

If so, you’re not alone and may be suffering from a stressful phenomenon known as imposter syndrome. Although it is not considered a mental health diagnosis, it is a prevalent condition that, according to research, can affect up to 70% of professionals at some point in their careers.

At first glance, it might be easy to assume that the word imposter would be a reflection of someone who really is unqualified for a position but got the job anyway. To the contrary, and while imposter syndrome can affect anyone, it is a condition that often plagues high achievers, such as graduate students, actors, and medical, academic, and science professionals. Regardless of how well their peers view them, people with imposter syndrome have difficulty recognizing the strength of their own abilities and success.

Regardless of how well their peers respect their work and contributions, people with imposter syndrome have difficulty recognizing their own intelligence, abilities, and success. Click To Tweet


The prevalence of feeling like a fraud in one’s field was originally brought to light in a 1978 published study that was conducted with 150 women over the course of 5 years. The study participants ranged from undergraduate, graduate, and faculty in college settings to professionals working in a wide range of respected positions. Despite their positive impact and accomplishments in their fields, the women shared many common negative self-perceptions, including:

  • A belief they lacked intelligence compared to their peers
  • An inability to internalize their sense of success
  • Feeling that their abilities were overrated by others
  • Attributing personal achievements to luck
  • Looming fear that an important person would discover they are a fraud

This information struck a chord with many people who resonated with the same thoughts the women in the study had. In the 4-plus decades since then, ongoing research has brought to light even more information about this phenomenon that can affect people of all genders and races.


While the risk factors for imposter syndrome will vary from one person to the next, here are some of them:

  1. Being raised in a family with high expectations for success; feeling like your grades were never good enough for your parents; or growing up with a sibling who seemed to excel at everything, such that you felt your own achievements paled in comparison.
  2. Being a member of an ethnic or marginalized group where institutional racism, discrimination, and related psychosocial stressors make you feel like an outsider, thus causing you to doubt your own abilities and diminishing your self-confidence.
  3. You are often thought of as a natural genius because things tend to come easily to you. However, when faced with new challenges that cause you to struggle, you interpret this to mean you’re not smart enough for the work or project, and you feel like a fraud for even attempting it.
  4. You’re a perfectionist. No matter how hard you have worked and how well your accomplishments are received, you tend to notice only where the minor flaws are, rather than recognize all that you have done well. You feel like a phony when things are not completely flawless.

The burden of carrying the secret feeling of being an imposter who is bound to be exposed can interfere with, not only your career goals and self-esteem but also with your mental health. It can lead to problems with anxiety and depression, which in turn can make it even more difficult for you to recognize your competence and the contribution of your work and efforts in your field.


If you struggle with being able to give yourself credit where credit is due, chances are it’s like having a shadow always hanging over you. This in turn makes it difficult for you to feel good about what you are doing, despite the praise, recognition, and respect you get from colleagues and others who value your contributions.

Even if you have been operating this way for a while, it does not mean you have to continue diminishing yourself. However, it will require that you make some changes, the first of which is to recognize your unhealthy thinking patterns. Here is a straightforward strategy for doing this:

  • Start noticing what you say to yourself when you’re working on a project.
  • Pay particular attention to the thoughts that make you feel more stressed, anxious, or defeated, and write them down.
  • One at a time, reality-test those thoughts using this simple, but incredibly effective, 4-Question technique. For each thought ask yourself:
  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it absolutely 100% true?
  3. How does this thought make me feel?
  4. How would I feel if I didn’t have this thought?

Next, turn around the original thought to its opposite and see if the new thought isn’t actually truer. Spend some time reflecting on this new thought.


The more you practice challenging the self-diminishing and fearful thoughts that drive your feelings of being an imposter, the more quickly you’ll be able to accurately assess their validity and keep them from holding you back. In addition, it can be very helpful to reach out to a trusted mentor or professional counselor to help you work through your negative thinking patterns.

Like so many other people, you have worked hard to get where you are—even if you are only at the beginning of your career. Every person in your field—and in the world—has strengths and vulnerabilities. It is a natural part of being human. Rather than focusing on any perceived shortcomings, learning to accept your talents and abilities and see them in the same positive light that those around you do will open the door to emotional freedom and the well-deserved feelings of accomplishment and pride that you have been denying yourself without realizing it.

Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

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