Self-doubt and impostor syndrome

Explore what impostor syndrome is, what triggers it, and how you can take action to address your self-doubt.

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Why this matters

Many of us will experience feelings that we aren’t as competent or intelligent as people think we are. We may feel we don’t deserve the praise we’ve been given, especially when we’re trying something new. Impostor syndrome can be connected to perfectionism when we feel we must know everything to be credited with knowing something.

For some, this feeling of being an impostor can be persistent, despite our skills and accomplishments, and can lead to increased levels of stress and burnout. It can also prevent us from trying new things, and impact our self-esteem, personal and professional relationships, as well as put our mental health at risk.

The antidote to impostor syndrome is self-acceptance. When we can authentically and objectively acknowledge both our strengths and weaknesses, we no longer feel the need to appear perfect.  

Explore and reflect

Impostor syndrome (also referred to in research as impostor phenomenon) is the experience some people have where they feel their accolades, or the esteem others have for them or their work, is undeserved. They may also feel they’re a “fraud” or that they’ll be exposed as not deserving the recognition, praise or position they hold.

Impostor syndrome can occur at work, in academic settings, and in our personal and social lives. About 70% of people will experience signs or symptoms of impostor syndrome at least once in their lives, and it affects men and women equally.

Though self-doubt or impostor syndrome is not a mental illness, it can impact a person’s psychological well-being.

You may be experiencing impostor syndrome if you:

  • Worry you’ll be judged if you make even small mistakes in your work 
  • Give credit to other people or situations when it was actually your work
  • Have trouble accepting criticism, even when it’s constructive 
  • Feel everyone will eventually figure out you’re a “phony”
  • Downplay your own success, intelligence or expertise, even in areas where you know you are highly skilled 


Different ways to experience impostor syndrome

 Dr. Valerie Young of the Impostor Syndrome Institute named 5 types of impostor syndrome:

The perfectionist focuses on how something is done, and even a single minor flaw is considered a failure.

The expert focuses on how much they know, and it’s never enough.

The soloist focuses on who completes the task and believes they should be able to do it all on their own.

The natural genius focuses on how quickly and naturally they master a new skill, and it’s rarely fast enough.

The superhuman focuses on how many roles they can excel at, at one time, and feels they should be able to handle all of them perfectly.

In each of these types, failing to reach their own unreasonable standards evokes shame. 

People with high levels of self-doubt or who experience impostor syndrome often:

  • Are high-achievers
  • Don’t feel as capable as others
  • Struggle with work/life balance
  • Struggle with perfectionism
  • Have performance anxiety or don’t feel adequately prepared
  • Find feedback difficult to hear
  • Aggressively pursue achievements, but don’t accept recognition of success
  • Fear failure, mistakes or not continuing success (and sometimes success itself)

Impostor syndrome or self-doubt can be triggered by:

  • Repetitive negative self-talk
  • Overly harsh criticism
  • Unknown or new environments
  • Promotions or new roles where there is a learning curve
  • Increased responsibility with less direct support
  • Highly competitive environments
  • Workplaces where mistakes aren’t normalize

Impostor syndrome may be connected with, or self-perpetuated by, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem or a challenging upbringing. 

Take action

If you recognize the signs self-doubt or impostor syndrome in yourself, take steps to address the underlying issues to improve your own psychological well-being.  

On a personal level you can:

We can all help reduce impostor syndrome when we:

  • Appreciate efforts over results
  • Talk openly about your own fears or setbacks
  • Normalize mistakes by talking about them as learning opportunities, not failures
  • Take a strengths-based approach to performance feedback
  • Check in with others to ask what you can to do help them be successful


Employers can:  

  • Provide increased training and/or self-directed learning opportunities
  • Make therapy, coaching or resilience training available to all staff
  • Make mentoring opportunities available to employees at all levels

Additional resources

Impostor Syndrome Institute. The official provider of information, insight and tools to organizations and individuals since 1982. The institute was co-founded by Dr. Valerie Young, widely recognized as the foremost expert on impostor syndrome, and Carolyn Herfurth.

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Contributors include.articlesAlex Kollo Coaching and ToolsMary Ann BayntonWorkplace Strategies team 2007-2021

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