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, its effects, and possible solutions to it.

[Featured Image] A worker sits on their laptop and researches imposter syndrome and how to overcome it.

Everyone experiences emotions like self-doubt and fear from time to time. Challenging yourself professionally and personally is normal and healthy 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 in which 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. According to a study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, this phenomenon could impact as much as 82 percent of the population  [1].

While imposter syndrome can affect anyone of any skill level, it often disproportionately impacts women and other underrepresented groups in professional settings. Additionally, although it is 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 it, you can become more aware of your thoughts and feelings and recognise when you may be experiencing them. 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, which can stem from 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 significantly affect someone’s ability to ask questions and speak up academically and professionally because they fear judgement. This fear of judgement 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 differently and for many reasons. Dr. Valerie Young coined the term “competent types,” which are categorisations of internal rules that people with low self-confidence struggle to follow [3]. You can begin overcoming your imposter syndrome by discovering your competent type, your imposter subgroup. 

The perfectionist

Perfectionism and imposter syndrome typically go hand in hand, and it's essential to approach these experiences with understanding and compassion. The following offers signs that you might fall into this category: 

  • Striving for control: You may want everything to be just right, and the fear of losing control can drive your actions and decisions.

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

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

  • Fear of imperfection: If you can't guarantee perfection from the start, you may avoid new challenges or experiences. Embracing the process and allowing room for growth and learning can be empowering.

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 researching and constantly seeks more information to prove their worth. This thirst for knowledge and continuous learning is admirable and can be a powerful strength once harnessed. Check out some of the signs that you might align with this category: 

  • High standards for job requirements: You may hesitate to apply for opportunities unless you meet every 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 your priority. 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–recognise your growth along the way.

  • Discomfort with being labelled an "expert": When others consider you knowledgeable, you may feel uncomfortable or doubt your expertise. Remember that expertise is subjective, and you can build it with continuous learning and experience.

  • Constant pursuit of new training: You are strongly driven to seek new certifications and opportunities to enhance your knowledge and skills. However, finding a balance and recognising 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, which 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. Explore some signs that you might be a soloist:

  • Difficulty working in teams: You may find collaborating effectively in group settings challenging and prefer to work independently. Recognise that teamwork can bring diverse perspectives and strengths, leading to richer outcomes.

  • Hesitation to ask for help: Asking for help may be challenging, 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 recognise that others' input can enhance the quality of your work.

  • Neglecting personal needs: You may prioritise completing assignments or projects over your well-being, disregarding self-care and personal needs. Remember that caring for yourself is crucial for long-term success and happiness.

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

The natural genius

With their belief in inherent intelligence as a prerequisite for competence, the natural genius often grapples with imposter syndrome. This mindset makes them effortlessly compare themselves to experts, expecting to know everything, irrespective of formal training or education. The following are some 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. However, it's essential to recognise that feedback is an opportunity for improvement and a valuable personal and professional development tool.

  • Feeling shame from failure: Experiencing failure may bring about feelings of guilt 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 vital to achieving mastery.

The superhero

Superheroes, driven by a constant need to prove themselves, often feel overwhelmed by their workload. These individuals tend to take on excessive responsibilities, believing they must save the day in every professional or academic endeavour. The following 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 prioritise 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 prioritise self-care and create a sustainable work-life balance.

  • Labelled as a “workaholic”: Due to your consistently high workload and dedication to tasks, colleagues and peers may perceive you as a workaholic. Evaluating whether this label aligns with your values and well-being is important.

  • 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 favour of work obligations. Remember that nourishing your interests and maintaining a balanced life are vital for happiness and well-being.

Remember, you are more than your ability to save the day. It's crucial to prioritise self-care, set realistic boundaries, and allow yourself to pursue a fulfilling life beyond work. You can maximise your effectiveness and sustain long-term success by finding a healthy balance.

Tips for overcoming imposter syndrome

A significant 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 recognise when a cognitive distortion has come into play. If you feel you may be suffering from imposter syndrome, the following list offers a few steps you can take: 

1. Share your feelings.

Many people question their self-worth and achievements from time to time. Opening up to your colleagues and classmates can help you gain 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 understanding 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" undermining 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.

Writing down your strengths and accomplishments can help put things into perspective. Reminding 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, focusing on your positive traits and skills is essential. 

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

A national study surveying 3,000 adults in the United Kingdom reveals that 62 percent have experienced imposter syndrome in the past year, a rate even higher amongst those aged 18 to 34 (86 percent) [3]. Some leading causes include self-doubt, a reluctance to receive criticism or ask for help, and comparing yourself to others.

Overcome imposter syndrome and start developing 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 for embracing challenges, handling setbacks, and developing resilience, all of 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. Understanding how your brain works and employing proven learning strategies 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 June 19, 2024.

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