imposter syndrome

7-minute read

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When you get a compliment do you say things like: “I just got lucky;” “We did so well on that project because Jane was running it;” “I’m not really a good mom – I’ve got a lot of help”? Then you may have Imposter Syndrome. Today you’ll learn the signs and symptoms of Imposter Syndrome and the five ways it’s hurting all your relationships.

What is it Exactly?

In 1978 psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes wrote a paper about high achieving women who felt like they were phonies at work. These women had an underlying belief that they had somehow fooled bosses and colleagues into believing they were intelligent but inside they felt they hadn’t really earned their status at their jobs and had just gotten lucky. They felt unworthy and anxious that they’d be discovered. Clance and Imes called it “The Imposter Phenomenon.” It has since been renamed “Imposter Syndrome” and applies to anyone who feels like a fake, anywhere in their life.

Before we jump into the signs and symptoms of Imposter Syndrome, you need to know that this is not a real, diagnosable psychological condition (although Clance did create an Imposter Syndrome Test you can take):

What Imposter Syndrome really is, is simply a negative thought pattern. When you think thoughts over and over they become beliefs, and then these beliefs become ingrained as facts in your psyche and you act as if these are facts instead of changeable thoughts.

Feeling like an imposter happens to pretty much everyone when they step out of their comfort zones. In fact, it’s estimated that 70% of people deal with Imposter Syndrome at some point in their lives. At its core, it’s some mix of anxiety and low self-esteem, with a different name.

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Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome:

  • You doubt yourself often and always want to have someone else give their opinion on your decisions.
  • You have a lot of difficulty owning your accomplishments, so you attribute any success you have to external factors: something or someone outside yourself (“I just got lucky;” “We did so well on that project because Jane was running it;” “I’m not really a good mom – I’ve got a lot of help.”).
  • You obsess and agonize over even the smallest mistakes you make.
  • You feel undeserving of your job or your relationship.
  • You think things are too good to be true.
  • You’re fearful of not living up to expectations so you either overachieve or opt out completely.
  • You’ve been told you sabotage things when they’re going well at work or at home.
  • You think that others will eventually find out you’re a fraud.
  • You don’t think you’ve “done or accomplished enough.”
  • You’re overly concerned with what others think of you and you’re constantly looking for their approval.
  • If you’re not validated and approved by others, you don’t feel good about yourself or what you’ve done.
  • You think thoughts like: “He deserves better than me” or “I’m not good enough for her.”

Why Do You Have It?

In their original paper, Clance and Imes identified two different groups of imposters which basically boil down to either being the Golden Child or not being the Golden Child.

If you had a sibling, parent or close relative who was viewed as the smart or talented one, you were left in the proverbial dust. So, you worked really hard to prove that you were worthy too, but you could never quite measure up. Or, even if you surpassed the golden person in some way, they still got the accolades and attention, and you were always in the background. Maybe you even had a special skill that the golden person didn’t, but you were still marginalized or trivialized. For example, you might have had a sibling who was an all-star baseball player, while you were an amazing artist, but your sibling still got all the attention and your art was deemed a frivolous pastime. In the end, even though you’re having success, you believe that the family must be right, and you start to doubt yourself.

On the other hand, maybe you were the golden child. Your family put you on some pedestal where you were “so smart and so talented” but when things were difficult for you or didn’t come easily, you panicked! In your head, you’ve got to be great in x or y to meet your family’s expectations but you don’t ask for help and just work harder and harder so feel like a fraud (if they only knew that I wasn’t really smart and had to pull all-nighters to get those grades)! Or you completely opt out of life (if I can’t be perfect, I’m not going to play at all).

Personally, I don’t think anything’s that neatly compartmentalized. I think Imposter Syndrome, like most things, is a perfect storm comprised of the temperament you were born with, birth order, any underlying mental health conditions like anxiety or depression, how your family talked about success, your environment, and institutionalized racism and discrimination.

It’s time to talk about the 5 Ways Imposter Syndrome is Hurting Your Relationships:

1. You Don’t Trust

Research has shown that people who have Imposter Syndrome have trouble trusting others. If you don’t trust, you’re certainly not going to show vulnerabilities which translates into hiding your flaws or weaknesses and being very sensitive to any feedback from your partners, friends or at work. In fact, any feedback at all might feel like criticism no matter how carefully it’s given.

2. You Doubt Those Around You

When you have low self-esteem and feel like an imposter, you doubt those around you and start to see them more negatively. This is for two reasons. First, you have a more negative lens overall, so everyone is viewed through that. And second, you doubt them because they trust, hired, or love you! It’s the whole, “I wouldn’t want to join a club that would want me as a member” thing (thank you Groucho Marx).

3. You Sabotage

This same research shows that those people with Imposter Syndrome view their work and personal relationships as less stable than they actually are. You then become fearful of being abandoned, rejected or fired. Your anxiety amps up and you might unconsciously find ways to quit your job or leave a relationship so that you leave before they do! Or, you think so much about your partner leaving you or your job firing you that you look for constant approval. No matter what your partner, boss or friend does, it’s never enough and you’re always looking for more assurance. This becomes exhausting to those around you and often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy!

Deep down you believe you’re not good enough for your partner or that they can do better than you so your subconscious drives your thoughts and actions. You overthink everything and start seeing things that aren’t even there (I know he’s cheating on me; I know my boss is just waiting to promote Dave over me)

4. You’re Angry, Blaming and Resentful

Because you’re constantly looking for outside validation to feel good about yourself, and because those outside assurances are never enough, you end up feeling angry, resentful and blaming those around you. Your internal dialogue becomes very focused on others being the issue with why you’re not happy or succeeding and you find yourself preoccupied with what others are doing instead of looking at your own behavior.

5. You Settle

At work, you might settle for a job that isn’t “reaching for the stars” because you don’t want the attention (they might expect too much). If you do take on a higher-level job, you might put up with bosses that are abusive or treat you poorly. In a love relationship, you might settle for someone who’s also abusive, or who’s dependent on you and needs you (they’ll never leave me). Lastly, you might take a job or be with a partner who’s “below” your level. I know that sounds bad but maybe it’s a job that’s really below your skill set or maybe it’s a person who’s not as emotionally intelligent as you or who doesn’t have the ambition or even hygiene level you do.

Grab my Top Tips for Getting Over Your Imposter Syndrome below!


How to Own Your Shit and Stop Blaming Other People

Self-Sabotage: What it Is, Why You Do it, and How to Make it Stop

Self-Sabotage in Romantic Relationships

8 Ways to Build Your Confidence and Self-Esteem

Imposter Syndrome Test


Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, “The Imposter Phenonmen in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutiv Intervention,” Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice 15, no. 3 (1978).

Jaruwan Sakulku, “The Impostor Phenomenon,” Journal of Behavioral Science 6, no. 1 (2011): 75-97.

Joe Langford and Pauline Rose Clance, “The Impostor Phenomenon: Recent Research Findings Regarding Dynamics, Personality and Family Patterns and Their Implications for Treatment,” Psychotherapy 30, no. 3 (Fall 1993): 495-501.



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