As pressure in the corporate world increases large numbers of people feel that they are not good enough. Their greatest fear is that someone of importance will find out that they are intellectual imposters. This article discusses what is imposter syndrome and how to alleviate it.

Imposter syndrome is not a disorder; It is something that people experience at a lesser or greater extent at certain times in their life. It is not a fixed trait but something that exists on a continuum which about 70% of people experience at some time.  Sufferers believe that they are the only ones that feel this way and that everyone else is confident.

People with Imposter Syndrome believe that their compliments and achievements are unearned. Even if they receive recognition, promotion, awards etc.  they believe it is luck, charm, their connections that have nothing to do with their ability.

Their poor self-belief drives sufferers to work much harder than necessary or procrastinate. Frederik Anseel, Professor of organized behaviour at Ghent University, Belgium says that the outcome is interpreted to reinforce their feelings of fraudulence. He calls this the “Imposter Cycle”. Those that work hard attribute their success to high levels of work. Procrastinators leave it to the last minute so that they have an excuse if they do not do well.

People with Imposter Syndrome are in a constant state of fear which prevents them enjoying their achievements. This drains other relationships such as friends and family.

Studies have shown a decrease in career planning and the striving of leadership opportunities among those that suffer.

They are in a constant state of emotional exhaustion, They have less job satisfaction and commitment to their organizations. They also don’t explore better opportunities and have poorer performance says Holly Hutchins Associate Professor of Human Resource Development at the University of Houston.

Where Does It Come From?

There are a number of contributing factors:-


  • Sufferers generally have low self-efficacy – they doubt themselves to such an extent that they actually “get in the way of themselves”
  • Maladaptive Perfectionism – they set the bar for themselves much higher than others. They don’t feel accomplishment even when the high standard is met.
  • Neuroticism – they have high levels of worry, anxiety and uncertainty.


Whilst no studies have been conducted it has been found that people with Imposter Syndrome are intelligent and are also subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is a cognitive bias that leads them to doubt themselves.

Personality and Intelligence are seeds of imposterism but it is the environment which causes the seeds to sprout.
Often sufferers have come from families where their parents have put inordinate pressure on them to be successful. This caused the child to not want to disappoint their parents; they worked very hard to make their parents proud of them and not cause them shame and embarrassment. Imposter Syndrome is associated with a sense of shame.

Certain professions seem to attract people with Imposter Syndrome – Academia is one because evaluations of work here are more subjective. Also professions where there is a social comparison among colleagues such as journalism .

People from certain racial and ethnic minority groups can also sometimes doubt themselves. They are fearful that if they fail they are letting other people in their group down; they feel that they are a poor representative of their group.

It has been noted that feelings of being a fake lessen with age. People are less sensitive as they get older. A quarter of people in their 20’s suffer compared to only 14% of people in their 50’s.

Companies and organizations’ attitudes can assist their members in alleviating the pain of feeling a fraud by providing coaching for their members and changing their attitude to supposed failures. We cannot all be successful all of the time and perceived failures are often the catalyst to higher learning.

Individuals can help themselves by having a more balanced life and assigning more value to non-work aspects of their existence and thus do not view their work life as their core identity.

Additionally they can begin to reframe their thoughts by challenging what they say to themselves – Is it actually true? What if the worst were to happen? What then? What is the likelihood of that happening?

Mindfulness meditation will help a person be more aware of his thoughts.
What we say to ourselves is often hard-wired into our brain by sheer repetition and sometimes it is necessary to fake it – to adopt the posture, clothing and behaviours of a successful person.

Read more about how you can help yourself here

Practicing mindfulness seeking the services of a life coach and NLP Practitioner will help you to change how you think, feel and behave.