Part I: What is Imposter Syndrome?

“They will find me out.” We all have doubts about ourselves and our abilities at times. But some people find these thoughts pervasive and inescapable. So, what is imposter syndrome?

This article is part of a three-part series on imposter syndrome – what it is, how it impacts women business leaders, and how to cope with it effectively. This topic comes up in my work almost daily – it’s surprising to some people that successful, reputed, accomplished women struggle with low self-esteem and a sense of inadequacy, but it’s actually quite common. And it can be managed. Be sure to check out Part II: How Does Imposter Syndrome Show Up? and take the Imposter Syndrome Quiz. – Jenn


You’ve likely heard of this psychological phenomenon – it’s when someone feels like a fraud despite evidence of their success, They fear they’ll be found out as “imposters” – unqualified and masquerading as intelligent, smart, and strong. This feeling of inadequacy can lead to self-doubt, anxiety, and low self-esteem. And, believe it or not, imposter syndrome is common among high achievers, including entrepreneurs, professionals, and academics.

If you’ve ever felt this way, you aren’t alone. Studies show that 70% of all people have suffered from imposter syndrome at some point – you just might not have known what it was or that there was something you could do about it.

Many of the women entrepreneurs and executives that I work with have built successful brands or risen in the ranks within their organizations, only to fear they’ll be “found out.” They question their competence despite praise and recognition, and wonder how they got to where they are. And, the work they put into concealing this false belief causes real stress in their day-to-day lives.

Let’s look at the causes, symptoms, and affects of imposter syndrome on your professional life – and how to deal with it effectively,

Causes of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome can be caused by a variety of factors, including upbringing, personality traits, and environmental factors. Some people who experience imposter syndrome grew up in environments where their achievements were not recognized or were undervalued. They may have been told that they weren’t good enough or that their accomplishments were not impressive. As a result, they may doubt their abilities and feel like frauds when they achieve success.

Personality traits can also contribute to imposter syndrome. For example, perfectionists may feel like frauds when they make a mistake or receive criticism. They set high standards for themselves and feel frustrated when they can’t live up to their own expectations. Similarly, individuals with high levels of anxiety may experience imposter syndrome due to their tendency to worry about their performance.

Environmental factors can also contribute to imposter syndrome. For example, being the only person of a particular gender or race in a particular field or organization can lead to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. Additionally, being surrounded by other high achievers can create a sense of competition and pressure to perform. If any of this sounds familiar, read on.

Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome can show up in your life in a variety of ways, like doubting your abilities contrary to the evidence, feeling like you don’t belong, or setting high expectations for yourself and then feeling like a failure when those expectations are not met.

Some people minimize or discount their accomplishments, feel like their success is really due to luck or timing rather than skill or hard work, and put in efforts or overwork to avoid being “exposed.” Imposter syndrome can have negative effects on your personal and professional life, including:

  • Anxiety and stress
  • Depression and low self-esteem
  • Burnout
  • Perfectionism
  • Fear of failure
  • Difficulty accepting compliments, praise, or recognition
  • A chronic need for reassurance
  • Doubting the reality of your accomplishments
  • Thinking people are just being generous or too nice

Again, the good news is that imposter syndrome is totally normal, and most people experience it at some point in their lives. It become problematic if you can’t shake the feelings, they impact major life decisions, or you find that the stress caused by these feelings is too much to handle. Check out Part II: How Imposter Syndrome Shows Up: Take the Quiz

One final note – if you find yourself shying away from opportunities or commitments within your business, you may consider working with a therapist or working with a professional consultant and peer group for support. Join our interest list to learn when our next cohort begins.