What Is Imposter Syndrome (and How to Overcome It)?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Imposter syndrome may leave you feeling like you’re faking it or undeserving of your success. Discover some of the reasons behind imposter syndrome, along with its effects and possible imposter syndrome solutions.

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Everyone experiences emotions like self-doubt and fear from time to time. It’s normal and healthy to challenge yourself both professionally and personally to become the most successful version of yourself. However, when feelings of inadequacy interrupt your daily routine and lead to self-confidence issues, it may be time to address imposter syndrome. 

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern where individuals fear that they don’t deserve what they achieve and are “faking” success in their craft, even with evidence of their competence and accomplishments. This phenomenon could impact as much as 82 percent of the population, according to a study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine [1].

While imposter syndrome can affect anyone of any skill level, it often disproportionately impacts women and other underrepresented groups in professional settings.  

While not considered a clinical mental health diagnosis, imposter syndrome—also referred to as fraud syndrome, imposter experience, or imposter phenomenon—can result in increased levels of anxiety and depression, which can negatively impact an individual's performance. 

While imposter syndrome can feel stifling, you are not alone. By understanding imposter syndrome, you can become more aware of your own thoughts and feelings and recognize when you may be experiencing it. With this self-awareness, you can better manage and address these negative emotions.

Characteristics of imposter syndrome

People who experience imposter syndrome often experience workplace or school-related anxiety. Some other imposter syndrome effects include:

  • Persistent self-doubt

  • Overachieving or perfectionism

  • Discounting achievements

  • Comparing yourself with others

  • Reliance on external validation

  • Fear of making mistakes

Causes of imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome has no exact cause. Research shows that some factors that can cause or exacerbate imposter syndrome include:

  • Family pressure, especially among those growing up with controlling or overprotective parenting styles

  • New environments, such as a new school or job

  • Cultural expectations on the value of careers, education, and success 

  • Existing mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression

Impact of imposter syndrome

Studies have shown imposter syndrome increases the likelihood of burnout and psychological distress [2]. It results from the constant need to overcompensate for unwarranted feelings of failure and incompetence. On the other end of the spectrum, imposter syndrome can also result in feelings that success is impossible, which results in individuals applying less effort and creativity to projects. Struggling with imposter syndrome can also hinder your ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance

Imposter syndrome can greatly affect someone’s ability to ask questions and speak up in academic and professional settings for fear of judgment. This fear of judgment can also affect relationships, as feelings of low self-worth and shame make balancing romantic and platonic relationships difficult. 

5 types of imposter syndrome

Research shows that people experience imposter syndrome in different ways and for a multitude of reasons. Dr. Valerie Young coined the term “competent types,” which are categorizations of internal rules that people with low self-confidence struggle to follow [3]. By discovering your competent type, also known as your imposter subgroup, you can begin overcoming your imposter syndrome. 

The perfectionist

Perfectionism and imposter syndrome typically go hand in hand, and it's important to approach these experiences with understanding and compassion. Here are some signs that you might lean towards perfectionism: 

  • Striving for control: You may have a tendency to want everything to be just right, and the fear of losing control can be a driving force behind your actions and decisions.

  • Difficulty finding satisfaction: It can be challenging for you to feel genuinely satisfied with outcomes, as you may constantly seek flawlessness or ideal results.

  • Trouble embracing mistakes: You may find it difficult to accept and learn from mistakes, as they may be seen as personal failures or shortcomings. Remember that mistakes are an inevitable part of growth and can provide valuable lessons.

  • Fear of imperfection: You may have a tendency to avoid new challenges or experiences if you can't guarantee achieving perfection from the start. Embracing the process and allowing room for growth and learning can be an empowering approach.

Remember, perfection is an unattainable goal, so be kind to yourself. Embracing self-compassion, accepting imperfections as part of the human experience, and focusing on progress rather than an elusive notion of perfection can help foster a healthier mindset.

The expert

The expert loves to research and constantly seeks more information to prove their worth. This thirst for knowledge and continuous learning is truly admirable and can be a powerful strength once harnessed. Here are the signs that you might align with this category: 

  • High standards for job requirements: You may feel hesitant to apply for opportunities unless you meet every single requirement, as you strive for mastery and want to ensure you have all the necessary expertise.

  • Information hoarding: Accumulating knowledge and seeking more information becomes a priority for you. However, it's important to remember that sharing knowledge and collaborating with others can be equally valuable.

  • Never feeling satisfied: The pursuit of knowledge can be endless, and you may find it challenging to feel content with the amount of knowledge you possess. Learning is a lifelong journey–recognize your growth along the way.

  • Discomfort with being labeled an "expert": When others consider you knowledgeable, you may feel uncomfortable or doubt your own expertise. Remember that expertise is subjective and can be built upon a foundation of continuous learning and experience.

  • Constant pursuit of new training: You have a strong drive to seek new certifications and training opportunities to further enhance your knowledge and skills. However, it's essential to find a balance and recognize that practical application is equally important.

Embrace the expertise you have already developed and acknowledge that it's natural to have areas where you are still expanding your knowledge. Focus on applying your expertise and sharing it with others, as this can contribute to personal and professional growth. Remember, expertise is a journey rather than a fixed destination, and every step forward is a valuable achievement.

The soloist

The soloist is an individual who values independence and self-sufficiency. Here are the signs that you might be a soloist:

  • Difficulty working in teams: You may find it challenging to collaborate effectively in group settings, preferring to work on your own. Recognize that teamwork can bring diverse perspectives and strengths, leading to richer outcomes.

  • Hesitation to ask for help: Asking for help may be challenging for you, regardless of the circumstances. It's important to remember that seeking assistance is not a sign of weakness but an opportunity for growth and learning.

  • Feeling uncomfortable when others contribute: You may experience feelings of shame or inadequacy when others contribute ideas or solutions to a project. Embrace the value of collaboration and recognize that others' input can enhance the quality of your work.

  • Neglecting personal needs: You may prioritize the completion of assignments or projects over your own well-being, disregarding self-care and personal needs. Remember that taking care of yourself is crucial for long-term success and overall happiness.

It's essential to find a balance between independence and collaboration. Recognize that working with others can bring unique strengths, different perspectives, and shared knowledge. Embrace opportunities to collaborate, communicate openly, and understand that asking for help doesn't diminish your abilities but rather fosters growth and connection.

The natural genius

The natural genius, with their belief in inherent intelligence as a prerequisite for competence, often grapples with imposter syndrome. This mindset leads them to compare themselves to experts, expecting themselves to effortlessly know everything, irrespective of formal training or education. Here are the signs that you might be a natural genius:

  • Discomfort with hard work: You may feel uneasy or resistant when a new skill or concept requires significant effort and practice. Remember that mastery often requires dedication, perseverance, and a growth mindset.

  • Frustration with initial difficulty: When you don't immediately grasp a concept or encounter challenges, you may experience frustration or self-doubt. Embrace the learning process, understanding that making mistakes and struggling initially is a natural part of growth.

  • Fear of critique and feedback: Receiving constructive criticism or feedback may be intimidating for you. It's important to recognize that feedback is an opportunity for improvement and a valuable tool for personal and professional development.

  • Feeling shame from failure: Experiencing failure may bring about feelings of shame or inadequacy. Remember that failure is a stepping stone to success and an opportunity to learn and grow. Embrace failure as a valuable teacher.

Approach learning and acquiring intelligence as an ongoing journey rather than a predetermined ability. Embrace the process of continuous growth and improvement, and be kind to yourself along the way. Celebrate your progress, seek support when needed, and remember that effort and dedication are key ingredients in achieving mastery.

The superhero

The superhero, driven by a constant need to prove themselves, often finds themselves overwhelmed by their workload. These individuals tend to take on excessive responsibilities, believing it is their duty to save the day in every professional or academic endeavor. Here are the signs that you might be a superhero:

  • Difficulty saying no: You may find it challenging to decline requests or set boundaries, often feeling compelled to take on additional responsibilities even when overwhelmed. Remember that it's okay to prioritize your well-being and set realistic limits.

  • Prone to burnout: Playing the superhero mentality puts you at a higher risk of burnout due to the constant pressure to perform and take on more than you can handle. It's essential to prioritize self-care and create a sustainable work-life balance.

  • Labeled as a “workaholic”: Colleagues and peers may perceive you as a workaholic due to your consistently high workload and dedication to tasks. It's important to evaluate whether this label aligns with your values and well-being.

  • Discomfort with a light workload: When faced with a light workload or downtime, you may feel uneasy or restless, perceiving it as unproductive or a waste of time. Embrace the importance of rest, rejuvenation, and finding fulfillment beyond work.

  • Sacrificing passions and hobbies: The superhero mindset often leads to sacrificing personal passions and hobbies in favor of work obligations. Remember that nourishing your interests and maintaining a balanced life is vital for your overall happiness and well-being.

Remember, you are not solely defined by your ability to save the day. It's crucial to prioritize self-care, set realistic boundaries, and allow yourself to pursue a fulfilling life beyond work. By finding a healthy balance, you can maximize your effectiveness and sustain long-term success.

Tips for overcoming imposter syndrome

The biggest step to overcoming imposter syndrome is learning to accept achievements and understanding your worth and successes. It requires separating feelings from facts and learning to recognize when a cognitive distortion has come into play. If you feel you may be suffering from imposter syndrome, here are some steps to take: 

1. Share your feelings.

Many people find themselves questioning their own self-worth and achievements from time to time. Opening up to your colleagues and classmates can help you get a more realistic perspective on your fears and help you feel less alone with your feelings.  Shame tends to silence people, but opening up is a freeing feeling.

2. Practice being more self-compassionate.

Focus on shifting your external self-worth to internal self-worth, and understand that your competence is not dependent on your accomplishments. Instead of setting unrealistic goals that set you up for disappointment, embrace setting realistic and meaningful goals that allow for growth and progress. Imposter syndrome often stems from an "inner critic" that undermines your abilities and successes. By learning to diminish the influence of this inner critic, you can make significant strides in overcoming imposter syndrome and embracing your true capabilities. 

3. Acknowledge your strengths.

Recognizing your strengths and accomplishments by writing them down helps to put things into perspective. Making reminders for yourself to celebrate your successes—even the small ones—allows you to focus on the facts of your accomplishments. In addition to celebrating your achievements, it is essential to focus on your positive traits and skills. 

4. Accept that perfection isn’t possible.

Overcoming imposter syndrome involves understanding that no one can be perfect. People with imposter syndrome tend to have extremely high expectations for themselves and experience frustration when these expectations remain unmet. Understanding that hard work will lead to good results aids with perfectionism.

5. Change your perspective.

Reframing your thinking on mistakes can often lead to embracing them. You can use your negative emotions to your advantage by acknowledging where you could benefit from learning and growing. Considering the valid reasons why you are successful also aids in changing your perspective. 

6. Ask for help.

Don’t be afraid to ask for encouragement and support from colleagues, classmates, mentors, and loved ones you trust.

Next steps

Overcome imposter syndrome and start to develop a healthier mindset with a course from a top university on Coursera. Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential from McMaster University explores strategies to embrace challenges, handle setbacks, and develop resilience, which can be beneficial in tackling imposter syndrome.

Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects from Deep Teaching Solutions provides valuable insights and techniques for effective learning. By understanding how your brain works and employing proven learning strategies, you can enhance your learning abilities, build confidence, and reduce self-doubt associated with imposter syndrome.

Article sources


Journal of General Internal Medicine. “Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Imposter Syndrome: A Systematic Review, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7174434/.” Accessed March 28, 2023.

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